Friday, January 30, 2015

Dog smiles

Saffron greeted me with the usual wag and that inimitable smile when she came through the door for a visit this week.

A wagging tail from the dog you love is entirely logical. But how can a dog with no lips smile?

Come on, girls, smile for the camera
Saffron is my son’s 15-year-old whippet. She is without a doubt Garrett’s dog, but she and I have had a love affair since she was a tiny white ball in my lap. When Garrett graduated from college and left for the greater world, he insisted that we get another dog “so Dad won’t be lonely.”

Enter Greta, our almost-8-year-old other whippet. She, too, was once a tiny (brown) ball in my lap. Now she uses her doe-like Garbo eyes and completely un-Saffron smile to get me to share my chair with a much-less tiny her.

I’m a journalist, so my world revolves around communication. I’m pretty good at communicating with humans, but talent I admire most is communicating with other species. Dogs have their own grammar, their own vocabulary and their own favorite expressions.

Once in a while, I do pretty good job talking dog. Usually, however, Saffron or Greta just stand there wagging and grinning – and I’m sure saying “Come on, biped friend, you can say it.”

In the other direction, however, there is no communication problem. I know instantly when either dog wants a Milk-bone, thinks I need a cuddle or wants to go out to pee. (Definition of “speed”: Whippet going out to pee and back at minus degrees.)

Which brings me back to that smile. I can see it, I can appreciate it, but I can’t explain it. I’ve tried over and over to take a smiling-dog photo, but my whippets put on their classic-beauty face whenever I pull out a camera.

Our Garbo-esque Greta
I’m not even sure that a dog smile is a physical quality. It is more of an apparition. Like the ghost of a long-departed friend. You want to believe in it so much that quite willing to see what isn’t there.

Saffron and Greta smile at me with blunt-force subtlety. It’s just a sparkle in the eye, a cock of the head and a tongue peeking through a half-opened mouth. But oh, do I know they are happy with me. And I reciprocate with my bowed human lips and those telltale lines under my eyes. Then I break into a petting frenzy, make silly sounds (“whose a good girl?) and trot off for another Milk-bone.

Dogs may have used their keen senses to hunt for primitive man or their fangs to protect him from hungry predators. But we long ago invented telescopic sights and strong fences that do the job without consuming a sackful of kibble.

No, it is neither nose nor fang that earns dogs a special place. It’s the smile. We can’t really define it, but we certainly know why our hounds have it.

Dogs make us happy. 
- Clyde

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