Border Collie Smiles


At a pet fair the other day I heard yet again how we should never smile at dogs because baring teeth is an aggressive gesture in doggie language. I had always accepted that bit of advice and just thought "hmmm, guess I'm allowed to smile at my own dogs because they know me." But now I've been wondering. I look at my Border Collie and 98 percent of the time he is showing me his teeth -- and it's a smile, not a snarl. I can easily tell the difference because there is more to even a dog's facial expression than teeth/no teeth, and because of the body language. Can't dogs tell the same about human smiles? Is it automatic that dogs who see a human smile will think "I'm being attacked?"


First of all, dogs show teeth in a couple of different manners. The aggressive baring of teeth is very different than a more playful, passive-aggressive "smile". If you watch your dogs long enough, you should be able to pick up on the different forms. An aggresive showing of teeth results in the lip being curled upward just behind the nose and is higher and shorter along the snout. A "smile", as many Border Collie owners have described it, is similar but ever so distinct. The lips are drawn backwards along the snout, towards the jaw and are not raised up over the gums. Drawing the lips backwards results in showing teeth as well but the resulting facial expression is entirely different. If you'd like to experiment (you need 2 dogs for this), bring your more dominant dog close to the other dog and manually pull the corners of the mouth backwards, until you get a smile and teeth are visible. Observe the reaction of the submember. Then pull the lips upwards just behing the nose (about midway along the jaw). You should see a very different reaction in the other dog. (Hey, how I amuse myself sometimes is none of your darn business :-)

Humans, on the other hand, are disasterously terrible at physically mimicking these two expressions. We just don't have the right facial muscles to accurately display these signals. What we end up with is a muddled mix between the two (it also doesn't help that we have round faces and mouths instead of oblong ones) and our dogs have no idea what motivation we're trying to express. To a foreign dog (one that you don't know, not one from France), any display of teeth is just too close to an aggressive display of teeth that it is unwise to show your teeth because you have no idea how that dog will translate the signal of aggression. Your own dog, that has lived with you over the years, has learned to live with your silly human foibles, in particular your complete inability to make any sort of respectable and understandable facial expression . They have learned that when you display this feeble attempt of aggression that you really aren't being aggressive. Even if it doesn't seem right, they learn after enough time what it really means. Kind of like when your significant other responds to your query of "What's wrong?" with "Ohhh... nothing." - you know that this really means something entirely different.

So smile at your dog and not stranger dogs. It's not polite and might be taken the wrong way.

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Page last updated June 4, 1997. All material Copyright 2004 Border Collie Rescue, Inc. and Dr. Nicholas B. Carter
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