It’s not easy trying to figure out what’s going on in a dog’s head. I’m a dog and I have trouble understanding, so I could only imagine what it would be like for people trying to understand me.
From whimpering and barking to wagging our tails and even showing our teeth, we have lots of ways of communicating without speaking.
The latter can be concerning to some people, though. When we show our teeth, it can be quite intimidating and often confusing. Are we trying to tell you something, or are we showing some aggression?
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What Does it Mean When Dogs Show Their Teeth?
Dogs have very few ways of communicating. Whether it’s with other dogs or with people, expressing their emotions can be difficult. Showing their teeth is a form of communication, and they could be doing it for several reasons.
- A Warning Sign – Your dog may not be inherently aggressive, but they might still need to show a sign that they are uncomfortable. Showing their teeth is the easiest way for them to do just that. It could be an indication they want out of a situation before it gets out of hand. Also, be aware of any teeth chatter. If you notice any teeth chattering coming from your dog, they could be trying to ware off a threatening canine.
- Smiling – While it may be a little unnerving compared to when our humans do it, dogs will smile. These smiles, or submissive grins as they are sometimes referred to, are usually coupled with a relaxed body language like tail wagging or their ears lying flat on their head.
Dogs can use smiling as a way to both show their pleasure with something or to calm a situation that they feel may be getting out of control. You might notice this behavior, for example, if you are talking to your dog in a positive tone, or they know they are about to do something they love, like going for a walk. Dogs might also use a submissive grin when they feel a situation may start turning bad in hopes of diffusing it.
- Stress – The same submissive grin that dogs can sometimes use to show their pleasure can also be associated with stress. Many veterinarians consider this much more common than smiling to show their pleasure.
It isn’t easy to distinguish a smile from stress-induced teeth baring, as they often come with the same types of body language. What might differentiate the two is a more submissive posture like ducking or lowering their head, as well as your dog licking their lips.
If your dog has a history of stress, then there is a good chance that this is why they are baring their teeth. If you happen to notice an averted gaze or lip licking combined with a visible tooth or teeth, try and remove what may be the trigger and see if your dog stops. If they do, not only have you found that they are stressed, but you have discovered the stressor and can then avoid it in the future.
- Displeasure – Just like they can use their teeth to show their pleasure, dogs will also show teeth as a sign of displeasure. It’s not necessarily a sign of aggression, but instead, a sign that they are not particularly happy with the situation.
Just like when showing happiness and smiling, some things can trigger your dog to show their teeth out of displeasure. This can be a specific situation, or it can be as simple as them not liking what you have to say. For example, many dogs don’t like having a bath, and quickly associate the word with something negative. So, if you ask your dog if they want to have a bath and they show their teeth, they could be telling you that they aren’t exactly open to the idea.
- Pain – Unfortunately, your dog has no effective way to tell you that they are in pain. Showing their teeth might be the only way for them to do that. This can occur when they are moving around or when you pet them. If they show their teeth when you touch a specific spot on their body, it could be painful for them. While this pain may be minor, it’s important to look for other signs like limping or whining in combination with teeth-baring.
- Aggression – As scary as it may be, aggression is the most common reason your dog will show their teeth. Just because your dog hasn’t been aggressive in the past doesn’t mean that they can’t be aggressive. There can be all kinds of reasons why your dog can become aggressive, like food, territory, or even overstimulation. The important thing to know is that by baring their teeth, they are showing you that the situation has escalated beyond their comfort zone. If ignored, the next step could be a dog growl, your pet snapping, and even biting.
What to do if Your Dog is Showing Their Teeth
A dog baring its teeth might not be a bad thing, but it is important to understand the body language that your dog is using while doing so. If they are showing their teeth along with a defensive posture, or if you are unsure of the reason they may be showing their teeth, then it’s probably a good idea to safely and calmly remove both yourself and your dog from the situation at hand. Acting quickly is important to avoid any unsavory situations.
Showing their teeth might simply be a cute personality trait that your dog has developed. If that is the case, and you are comfortable with this trait, then there is no reason to do anything about it. Just let your dog be themselves. However, if you’re worried that your pup might be displaying some aggression, or you are unsure why your dog’s teeth are visible, it might be a good idea to seek professional help. That could mean having your vet examine them to determine if there are any underlying issues, or seeking out a professional trainer or behaviorist. Just like a vet is trained to spot medical concerns, a behaviorist is trained to notice very subtle things that may indicate issues with your dog’s behavior. Often, these clues are so subtle that the average dog owner wouldn’t catch them.
Regardless of why your dog may be showing their teeth, you must continue to monitor their behavior and stay on top of it to make sure you are not misreading any signs and to control any bad situations that might arise.