Our dogs cannot tell us with their voices what they want us to know. It is left up to us to figure it out, so when they bark, growl, or show their teeth at us, what are we to do?

The long and short of the answer is that we look to the rest of the dog’s body for clues as to what they are trying to tell us. Why does your dog show you his teeth? Let’s take a look.

Why does my dog show his teeth to me?

If your dog simply bares his teeth by curling back his lips to show them, it could mean a couple of things. It is a reflexive action or a reaction dogs have when they find themselves in certain situations.

A dog’s bared teeth are most times a warning that they do not like what is happening to them and that they may soon choose to take further aggressive action to stop it.

It’s as if they show their teeth to say, “If need be, I will use these teeth on you.”

This type of bared teeth reaction (negative or aggressive) is usually accompanied by a low, threatening growl or a little snarling. This means you should consider backing off before the situation becomes more serious.

Following are only a few situations in which your dog may show his teeth as a warning.

He may be guarding his resources.

Some dogs are very protective of their resources. Their bedding, toys, food, and water are all quite important to them, and they guard them like a hawk.

If you get close to the food and water of one of these dogs, they may flash you the bared teeth to let you know the resources are theirs and to stay away.

If this is a dog you are not used to, be careful going for his things, especially his food.

He may be evading a threat.

Dogs who fear for their own safety will bare their teeth to send a warning message to go away. Are you approaching him threateningly? 

Don’t approach him by towering over him but by kneeling to his level. Never approach too quickly but slowly and gently.

Be careful, because if he feels you haven’t heeded this warning, he may very well bite you.

He may be dealing with some type of pain.

If you approach your dog, and he bares his teeth, he could be experiencing some type of pain. If he has been injured, he is likely to bite you, if you don’t approach him right.

Always use caution if you believe your dog is nursing an injury, because his actions may be unpredictable, even if he is usually a docile dog.

He may be following his training.

Does your dog show his teeth to strangers? Maybe he was trained to do so. Most shelter dogs have been badly abused or at the very least neglected.

Some dog owners train their dogs to be aggressive toward strangers, so they will be better guard dogs. Your dog may have come from one of these two groups.

He may be avoiding the leash or harness.

I don’t know of many dogs who do like their leashes, but have you ever thought about why it is that they are bothered by them?

For one, sure, it takes away their control. Some dogs see it as a show of power over them, and they resent this play. However, it’s probably more complicated than that.

Canines deal with each other in a particular manner, and sometimes, a leash can prevent them from being able to carry on doggy etiquette properly.

For instance, dogs don’t usually greet each other head-on but from the side. So, in, say, a park, two leashed dogs that are trying to greet each other may not be feeling aggressive at all, at the beginning.

However, because they are leashed, they are forced to greet each other head-on instead of from the side. One or both dogs can easily find it hard to size up the other dog as they normally would.

This can lead to one or both dogs feeling threatened possibly leading them to become aggressive, showing you their teeth.

Having had an experience like this in the past may be the reason your dog gets aggressive now when you get his leash or harness out. If he bares his teeth when it’s time to go for a walk, you may eventually need to see a veterinary behaviorist.

He may be asserting his dominance.

Sometimes, the first day or two of a new dog’s presence in the home can be a bit of a volatile situation, and you may see your dog bare his teeth a few times, but after that, the hierarchy usually works itself out. Bared teeth should be a problem that scarcely pops up after that.

You will notice, though, that if your neighbor brings his dog over with him to give you the mail that was put in his box, or if your supper guest brings her dog with her for the evening, you will probably see your dog bare those teeth all over again in his fight for dominance.

Why does my dog show his teeth when I pet him?

There are times when your dog bares his teeth without having any aggressive intent whatsoever. This is known as a submissive smile or a submissive grin.

Your dog can bare his teeth at you or other dogs as a way of showing his desire to be friends. In this situation, it is a sign of affection, a way to let you know that his intentions are good, as are his feelings toward you.

Why does my dog show his teeth to me when I come home?

Your dog is excited to see you when you get home. It makes him happy. It is not uncommon for a dog to display a submissive grin upon seeing his owners return from their journey away.

It is when dogs are at their happiest that they give a submissive grin. The secret, once again, is to look for full-body language. What are the other cues besides a submissive grin that could mean your dog is just happy to see you?

What to do if your dog shows his teeth at you?

Dogs have their own ways of doing things. Their training, canine instincts, and life experience all factor into how they react to situations. Your response should be tailored to each situation.

Obviously, if there is no aggression, there is probably not an issue, unless it’s stress or anxiety. At times, a submissive grin can signal that your dog is stressed or afraid in the situation he finds himself in. Remove the stressor immediately.

There can be many situations where your dog may display bared teeth aggressively. Here, you will have to deal with these situations on a case-by-case basis.

The smartest thing to do is to make a list of facts about your dog’s behavior and questions you have and see a vet or a veterinary behaviorist for advice. 

Train your dog to behave the way you want him to from the time he is a young puppy.

Do dogs show their teeth as a sign of submission?

It is quite different, the energy that is given off by dogs baring their teeth in aggression than in a playful or submissive manner. The key is to learn to read your dog’s full body language.

Are his ears pricked or pinned back? Is his tail wagging or pointed toward the sky? What are all of his cues saying when added together?

A submissive “smile” happens when a dog’s lips curl back revealing his teeth when he is happy. It is the opposite of aggression. It’s a sign that he respects you and that you make him happy.

Do dogs show their teeth when playing?

Dogs bare their teeth not only as a sign of aggression but also as a sign that they want to play. To let you or another dog know that he wants to play, your dog may open his mouth and curl back his lips.

The real tell, though, will be not just his bared teeth but his other body language, as well. Watch for these signs to go along with his bared teeth to know he is ready to play.

Smiling

Not too many dogs actually do this, but it looks a lot like a smile. It occurs when he is happy and enjoying himself. It may not be a smile, but we, as humans, like to think it is. It’s so adorable.

Play Sneezing

Dogs are hilarious. Yes, play sneezing is one of the ways they employ to communicate that they are happy and want to play.

I had a dog once who I would call a “little flirt” every time she play sneezed, because when she did it, you could almost feel the affection. Every time I would say it, she would do it again.

Playfully Bowing

Another accompanying sign to look for is the playful bow. This occurs when your dog’s paws are flat on the ground in front of him, his head is low to the ground, his back is bowed, and his butt is up in the air.

A dog who is very excited (more common in puppies) may slam his front legs down onto the ground playfully to let you or another dog know he is ready to play.

Pointed Ears

Pointed ears are a sign of intrigue or excitement. This is probably a good sign if you have gotten a glimpse of the teeth.

On the other hand, pinned-back ears could be a bad sign, meaning he is in “fight or flight” mode.

Wagging Tail

While a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog, it is a good sign if it goes with bared teeth and pointed ears. The secret, in case you haven’t caught on yet, is to read his full body language.

Urging You to Take Your Turn

Dogs play a game with each other that is the equivalent of our human “tag.” You may find your dog chasing you around and then looking at you like — “It’s your turn!”

It’s something they can communicate quite well, and it’s frustrating for him if you won’t chase him back. 

Play Biting

Your dog doesn’t only bite out of aggression. He also loves to play bite when he is happy and feeling playful. As far as happy dog things, this one will be in dog heaven.

A dog doesn’t have hands to hug or tickle you, so he play bites you or another dog.

Play Noises

Play noises, like play barking or play growling, can be hard to decipher sometimes. The key, again, is to look for other cues. If he’s happy and having a good time, it’s easy to get used to what his play noises sound like.

Eventually, you will come to know your dog’s play noises from his aggressive noises. The better you know your dog, the better off you both are.

Author

I created and currently manage Pet Dog Owner, the website you can go to when you have questions about your dog's behavior. It is my hope that you find Pet Dog Owner to be a helpful resource. It is also my hope that it will help you to improve your relationship with your dog. You can read more about me and my website here.