You have probably seen a dog bare its teeth at one point or another. You might have thought it meant “stay away” and you were probably right. But what does it really mean when a dog bares its teeth? Do some dogs smile? If your own dog shows his teeth, is it aggression or is he smiling?
When a dog bares his teeth he is using body language to communicate. Its important to have some understanding of dog body language so you can understand what your dog is trying to tell you.
In dogs, the term “bared teeth” simply means a dog is showing teeth. A dog bares his teeth by curling his lips back to reveal his teeth. It is a reflexive action that occurs in reaction to certain situations. Bared teeth in a dog is often a warning.
In most cases, when a dog bares his teeth he is sending you a clear message to back off. Think of bared teeth as a warning: “I am going to use these teeth if you dont stop it.” This behavior may be a precursor to more serious aggression. This type of dog body language is often accompanied by vocalizations, such as growling and snarling. You may also notice body language that indicates a dog is becoming aggressive, such as erect ears, a rigid body posture, and a tail that is held high and moving back and forth rapidly. If your dogs warning is ignored, the behavior could progress to snapping or biting.
Dogs display aggression for a number of reasons, such as fear, feeling overwhelmed, pain or anticipated pain, overstimulation, resource guarding, and territoriality. No matter the reason a dog becomes aggressive, bared teeth are usually a sign he is being pushed past his comfort zone. If you see a dog with this type of body language, its best to leave this dog alone. Avoid eye contact and carefully step away from the dog.
Occasionally, a dog bares his teeth without any aggressive tendencies behind it. This is referred to as a submissive grin or a smile. It is usually accompanied by non-threatening body language such as lip licking, an averted gaze, a relaxed body posture, and ears sitting flatter against the head. The submissive grin is a type of appeasement gesture intended to calm down a situation. For some pets, the submissive grin can indicate stress and anxiety so it is important to always pay close attention no matter how long your pet has been doing it.
Many veterinarians associate averted gaze and lip licking behaviors with stress and anxiety. If you notice averted gaze or lip licking in your dog during a presumed ‘submissive grin’, attempt to remove the stimulus that causes it as we always want to avoid encouraging stress or anxiety in our pets.
In general, submissive grins are not very common but for few pets can be normal. However, if your dog is grinning because he is stressed or afraid, he could eventually feel threatened enough to get defensively aggressive.
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While anthropomorphism is mostly harmless, it can be dangerous if a dog’s warning signals are not interpreted correctly. For example, a submissive grin could be a dog’s way of saying, “I don’t like this, I’m stressed, please stop.” If their warning is not heeded, some dogs may escalate to fear biting.
An open mouth and upturned lips can definitely be a sign of happiness and relaxation, but it can also indicate stress, fear or submission. In order to interpret canine smiles, we must take into account the language of the entire body.
There are 4 basic canine facial expressions humans have come to interpret as “smiles”. While dogs share many of our complex emotions, they do not necessarily display them in the same ways.
In addition, many dog smiles are accompanied by wagging tails. When it comes to canine body language, the tail is a very expressive appendage, and wagging does not always indicate happiness. Depending on the height of the tail and the speed of the wagging, this gesture could signify uncertainty, fear or even an aggressive challenge.
The body language accompanying a happy dog smile is loose with a gently wagging tail and possibly a “happy dance” if the grin is brought on by a play session or the arrival of a favorite human.
Submissive and Aggressive “Smiles”
The most common kind of “smile” a dog can give you is a submissive grin. Dogs do this as a way to ease tension between themselves and another person or animal. The behavior is common in puppies when they are approached by an adult dog. The behavior can also be seen when dogs are uncomfortable or feel threatened by another dog or human. Who could forget Denver the Guilty Dog, for example – a perfect example of that “I am in big trouble and feel really uncomfortable” grin.
Another similar facial expression is an aggressive snarl. Dogs pull their lips back exposing their teeth when they feel threatened and are about to bite. You can usually tell by the dogs general attitude and posture if their “smile” is actually a warning.
Why does my dog grin when he’s in trouble?
Why does my dog smile when he’s scared?
Why do dogs smile when angry?