Bared Teeth in Dogs: Why Do Dogs Show Their Teeth?

Bared teeth is a term depicting dogs who show their teeth. Discover in what instances dogs do this, and most of all, what it means and what you need to do about it.

Bared Teeth in Dogs: Why Do Dogs Show Their Teeth?
Showing teeth in dogs is a form of ritualized aggression.

YuriyGreen via Getty Images

Is Your Dog Showing His Teeth?

Bared teeth is a term that is used to describe when dogs show their teeth.

Deprived of the ability to talk, dogs rely on their body language to communicate a vast array of emotions, and this language involves their face, their ears and their tails to a great extent.

When it comes to dogs who bare their teeth, they are trying their best to make their point come across.

Problems arise, though, when we aren't listening to their silent communication. This can lead to an escalation, which may potentially cause problems along the road.

Discover what it means when dogs bare their teeth, and most of all, what to do about it.

What Does Bared Teeth Mean in Dogs?

When dogs bare their teeth, this is often a warning. It's as if dogs are saying something along these lines: "See these pearly whites? I may be forced to use them if you don't back off."

In many cases, when dogs show their teeth, they are trying their best to inform the person or other dog that they're uncomfortable in a particular situation.

What's the Meaning of Bared Teeth in Dogs?

In many cases, when dogs show their teeth, they are pleading for help. They are actually trying to tell you, "Please don't put me into the position of having to bite you."

Most dogs don't want to really bite; they would rather use lower levels of force to get their message across. This often involves growling or showing their teeth.

There are good chances that before showing their teeth, dogs may have given more subtle signs of not feeling comfortable such as licking their lips, blinking, yawning, walking away, or turning their head.

When these subtle signals went ignored, dogs were forced to escalate to make their point come across more clearly.

Let's look at different circumstances and contexts that may evoke the behavior of baring teeth in dogs.

Careful when dogs bare their teeth!

Yaraslau Saulevich Getty Images

Why Do Dogs Show Their Teeth?

What do dogs ultimately want when they bare their teeth? What's the ultimate function of the behavior? In most cases, they are asking you to please stop and/or please give them space. Let's take a closer look at both scenarios.

Dogs Baring Teeth to Ask You to Stop

What were you doing when your dog bared his teeth at you? In many cases, whatever it was, involved something that the dog wasn't comfortable with.

Examples of behaviors that may cause dogs to bare teeth to stop an interaction may include the following: (of course, the list goes on as every dog is different).

  • Looming over the dog
  • Trimming the dog's nails
  • Giving the dog a bath
  • Staring the dog in the eyes
  • Putting drops in the dog's eyes or ears
  • Patting the dog on the head
  • Hugging the dog
  • Kissing the dog

Dogs Baring Teeth to Ask for Space

In other cases, dogs may bare their teeth to ask for space. In this case, the teeth-baring behavior is considered a "distance-increasing behavior."

These dogs may struggle with different levels of closeness. If you just recently got your dog from a rescue or shelter, he or she may not feel comfortable being around you or other dogs.

Examples of situations that may cause dogs to bare teeth as a plead for distance include the following:

  • Strangers invading the dog's "space bubble"
  • Other dogs getting too close for comfort
  • Rude approaches from young (socially illiterate dogs) or bold dogs
  • A veterinarian approaching a dog
  • A child getting his face too close to the dog
  • An arm approaching the dog's collar
This dog is clearly saying "the toy is mine, stay away!"

What to Do When Dogs Show Their Teeth?

As we've seen, when dogs bare their teeth they are trying their best to inform other people and dogs that they are feeling uncomfortable and are asking for space or for an interaction to stop, or even both.

It's important to respect the dog's desires by giving them space or stopping whatever we are doing. Afterward, it's time to carefully evaluate whatever triggered the teeth-baring reaction.

Respecting the dog's desire in this case shouldn't be perceived as "letting the dog win" or "allowing the dog to be the boss." It's more about respecting our dog's comfort zones and "listening" to their silent conversations.

Just as we wouldn't like a total stranger getting into our space and placing his arms around our shoulders, we shouldn't expect our dogs to put up with things they aren't comfortable with.

What if a Dog's Request for Space/Stopping an Interaction Is Ignored?

Ignoring this request may lead to the dog feeling increasingly stressed which may lead to further escalation.

From teeth baring, the dog may then, not only show teeth but may also emit a growl as if to say: "Now, I really mean it, I am totally not comfortable with this!"

And if this second level of warning is ignored as well, the dog may then even start snapping to further make his point clear as if saying: "What part of my warning don't you understand? I really mean it!"

Of course, every dog will respond differently depending on their individual experience, temperament and level of stress.

Some dogs may be more prone to skipping intermediate warnings and may go straight to biting. This can be the case, especially with dogs who have been punished in the past for growling, the reason why growling should never be suppressed in dogs.

Counterconditioning helps counteract problematic emotional responses.

How to Stop Your Dog From Baring Teeth

To stop your dog from baring teeth, you need to get to the root of the problem. Respecting a dog's need for space and stopping an undesirable interaction is an important start, but how is this behavior ultimately tackled? Working on this will often require a multi-tiered approach.

1. Exclude Medical Problems

If you recently adopted a dog with an unknown medical history, or your dog is, for the most part, mellow, and now, out of the blue, he has started showing his teeth, it's important to exclude any potential medical problems.

Dogs in pain may act in uncharacteristic ways. For example, a dog with an ear infection may show his teeth contingent upon people trying to pet him, or a dog with spinal issues may bare teeth upon being picked up. A veterinary visit is therefore important to exclude medical problems.

2. Prevent Rehearsal of the Problematic Behavior

The more your dog is put into the position of baring teeth, the more this behavior risks becoming more and more established.

Here's the thing: when dogs bare teeth, there is likely some level of reinforcement at play. Reinforcement is what makes behavior strengthen and repeat.

In this case, if every time your dog bares teeth, the person or dog leaves, the teeth-baring behavior will reinforce because it has worked in making the dog or person go away. The dog may therefore adopt this strategy more and more.

While leaving is the right thing to do (you don't want your dog to be put into the position of biting, and you don't want strangers or other dogs to risk being bitten), it's also important to address the dog's underlying emotions by working on the problem, especially when it's difficult to manage and avoid all stressors in the dog's life.

3. Identify Your Dog's Triggers

Don't purposefully put your dog into situations to test whether they evoke his tooth-baring behavior; instead, recall past events that triggered the behavior and compile a list. Determine whether there are common denominators.

Once you have identified your dog's triggers, avoid direct exposure to those stimuli or situations. Such direct exposures are too intense and will likely cause your dog to feel stressed and go over the threshold.

4. Use Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Desensitization entails exposing dogs to low-level intensity versions of their triggers.

In other words, triggers are strategically presented in a way that the dog doesn't feel the need to bare his teeth or feel stressed.

Counterconditioning entails creating positive associations with the presentation of a trigger. From evoking negative feelings, the trigger should therefore come to evoke positive feelings.

Examples of exercises that can help dogs develop better coping skills with triggers include Leslie McDevitt's Look at That, and Jean Donaldson's Open Bar/Closed Bar.

When desensitization and counterconditioning are combined efficiently, dogs should no longer feel the need to react, which paves the path to a calmer, responsive state.

5. Become a Pro in "Reading Your Dog"

By learning how to effectively read your dog's body language, you'll be doing your dog a great favor. This will prevent your dog from feeling stressed and going over the threshold.

One great book to read is On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas. This book is rather small, but it covers a lot of calming signals that dogs use to defuse tense situations. I often suggest this book to my clients who want to learn how to better "read" their dogs.

6. Avoid Punishing Your Dog

Scolding or using any form of punishment when your dog shows his teeth will only backfire. It's like removing the beep from a smoke alarm or ignoring a check engine sign on a car's dashboard.

Your dog will only learn that his polite "please don't make me bite" communication not only doesn't work but gets him in trouble. The next thing you know, he'll be forced to escalate, which may ultimately lead to a full bite.

Instead, we want our dogs to be able to communicate their feelings and feel comfortable in doing so.

7. Work Alongside a Professional

When dogs bare their teeth, they are giving a warning. There is always an element of risk when working with dogs who are uncomfortable in certain situations. It is therefore recommended to work along with a professional to ensure safety and the correct implementation of behavior modification.

If your dog is showing teeth, please consult a dog behavior professional using gentle behavior modification techniques.

Grinning is often confused for aggression

Grinning: A Different Type of Teeth Baring in Dogs

Did you know? When dogs bare their teeth, their intentions aren't always to send a warning. An exception to the rule is grinning, also known as a "submissive grin."

When dogs grin, they retract their lips horizontally, exposing the teeth. The intention, in this case, is to pacify or appease, explains Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in the book Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers.

A dog's submissive grin is often confused for aggression, but in this case, the dog is actually trying to communicate quite the opposite. The accompanying body language is rather "soft" and includes a lowered head, flattened ears, lip licking, and you may also notice some tail wagging.

It's important to consider that when dogs show manifest appeasement gestures, there often can be an underlying element of fear or stress. Carefully evaluate the situation and remember that stressed dogs may bite when they feel overwhelmed.

Dogs also exhibit what's known as a "pleasure grin," which is accompanied by squinty eyes. This expression may be seen when dogs are engaged in pleasurable events, such as when rolling over something or enjoying a massage.

"The grin is superficially similar to the baring of teeth exhibited during agonistic displays. Although a grin is sometimes confused with a snarl, many facial and bodily indicators confirm a nonaggressive and prosocial intention."

— Steven Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Training and Behavior

References

  • Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers by Bonnie V. Beaver, Saunders, December 22, 2008
  • Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Steven R. Lindsay, 2000

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli CPDT-KA, Dip.CBST


(Excluding for the Headline, this article ("story") has not been edited by MiBiz News and is published from a web feed or sourced from the Internet.)