What Does It Mean When Your Dog Shows Their Teeth?

By kropek2021. • Updated July 1, 2021

Turns out one of the most instagrammable smiles out there may be a sign of something bothering your dog.

It’s ok. Sometimes dogs show that award-winning smile to let you know they want some space. Maybe they’re just being submissive, and that’s their way of saying “you’re the boss,” or it might be that there’s a new dog in town, and they’re smiling to ascertain dominance.

So long as they don’t show aggressive behavior, it’s usually an issue you can easily fix by paying close attention to their body language. “Wait a minute. Showing teeth sounds pretty aggressive already.Well, not necessarily. Believe it or not, it could also be related to illnesses or injuries. That’s why you gotta keep your eyes open for all of those signs when they just seem to be smiling.

As a dog trainer and pet parent to Cocoa, the silliest and most loving chocolate lab ever,  this is one of the questions that I get the most, and I can tell you conditioning may also be one of the reasons which is why you have to be careful not to normalize a possible warning.

Now that we’ve established the most common scenarios, I’d like to give you some tips to help you understand your dog’s behavior and determine whether they’re being aggressive, submissive, or just uncomfortable.

Look at the body language

When a dog shows its teeth, some immediately think they’re angry, while most people think it’s just a little gesture to brighten up our days.

They’re both possibilities, and the best way to know for sure is by looking at their body posture.
These are some things to keep an eye on while a dog is showing its teeth:

  • Tense body
  • Raised ears
  • Tail wagging fast
  • Growling

Those are all warnings of aggression. A dog that bears its teeth but is friendly and relaxed with ears flat down may just be anxious or being submissive. That brings me to the next point.

Reasons Dogs Show Their Teeth

The Submissive Grin

We need to clear the air about the submissive grin. Usually, when we see our dogs smiling, we just assume it’s because they’re happy to see us, and while that may be true, it has another meaning.

That’s one of their ways to show submission; hence, the term: submissive grin. Many dogs do this when the person they’re most attached to enters the room.

Anxiety

Like people, dogs also become visually stressed out. Next time you take your dog to the vet, pay attention to the body language.

If your dog bares his teeth without growling or getting defensive, he’s probably not crazy about the trip.

If your dog is anything like my beloved Cocoa, he might be feeling guilty for chewing your shoes or the remote, and they are baring their teeth in fear of consequences.

Always look around for those little clues around the house, but most importantly, be mindful of his general behavior.

Setting boundaries with a smile

This happens a lot when a new pup joins the family.

Your older dog may not be amused to put up with the new dog trying to play all day, so then your older dog starts baring his teeth to set a boundary for the new pup.

It rarely ever scales to aggression, but you should still watch their interaction closely just in case.

Aggressive Behavior

Let’s say your dog has already welcomed you home with a smile.

You checked everywhere, and there seems to be no mayhem to feel guilty about, but she’s still showing her teeth.
The odds are she’s irritated, and that’s just her saying, “I want some space.

If this behavior is accompanied by growling and another sign of distress, it is clear your dog is upset, and you should cautiously back away and remove other pets in the room.

Do not hesitate to contact a dog trainer if the situation persists. They can help you figure out what is disturbing your dog or help you take her to the vet for a more thorough assessment.

Training and conditioning

Our first instinct is to shower them with praise and give them a treat.

That’s fine so long as it’s the submissive grin we are rewarding, but if we are not careful, we might end up changing the meaning of one of their most subtle signs of concern.

Don’t forget, dogs are quick learners. If they associate something they did with a treat, they will start doing it more often, and it might be harder for you to tell a cute trick from an actual warning.
If you have a dog that looks sad all the time, a smile would probably call for a treat, but first, make sure nothing is disturbing your dog. Check that they’re not injured or sick. If everything is in order, you may go ahead and reward your dog’s smile.

On that note, be aware that some dogs are also masters of manipulation. Let’s assume for a moment that you double-checked everything and nothing seems to be bothering your dog. Often, it’s a little trick they use to test our grit on a specific rule. Cocoa, for example, knows she’s not supposed to hop on the bed, and this one time, she did. She shows me her teeth, and I proceed to get her to step off the bed and refresh her training.

If I would’ve indulged her, that would have reinforced the idea that it’s ok to hop on the bed. Giving in when a dog shows those pearls will only make her think she can get away with anything with a little smile.

Conclusion

Dogs will show their teeth for many reasons. The important thing to remember is to identify whether or not they’re being aggressive.

If they’re not, they could be giving you a warm welcome home or telling you something is bothering them. It could be that they’re feeling guilty for misbehaving while you were gone, or maybe they’re used to getting treats every time they smile. Perhaps they’re claiming some space.

In the end, what matters is that you always provide the attention and care that your dog deserves.