Dogs have many ways of communicating with one another, whether to establish dominance, express anxiousness or uncertainty, or to send a message of appeasement. Unlike humans, much of this communication is sent via nonverbal body language. A tight tail wag, a pinning back of the ears, a show of the belly; all of these motions send clear signals (everything from “love me!” to “back off”). Today, we’ll be unpacking what it means when a dog shows its teeth to other dogs or to humans (spoiler – it’s not always aggression). Read on to learn more…

One of the many trends of photos we’re seeing online is videos or photos of dogs “smiling” for the camera, like this Golden Doodle that can grin on command. The cheesy, wrinkled nose smile is endearing to say the least. But what exactly is the dog thinking or feeling at the moment? 

According to Vet Street, dogs show their teeth for a few different reasons, depending on the circumstance. The most commonly understood reason is aggression. A teeth-bearing growl is hard to misunderstand, along with the stiff body posture and the pinned down ears. Dogs will commonly do this when they aren’t in the mood to share a bone, or someone or something is infringing on their space. But dogs also show their teeth to one another or to humans for submissive reasons, and to show signs of appeasement or deference. In this case, the body language may also reflect a submissive stance; they want everyone to get along. In the case of dogs that “smile” when they see their owners, there could be a simple explanation: what was initially expressed as a sign of natural appeasement (dogs will often display submissive behavior when greeting their owners) could have become positively reinforced by praise. Either way, a surefire way of decoding teeth-bearing is to take a look at their body language as a whole. Is it tense, defensive? Relaxed? Neutral? Our four-legged pals don’t generally try to trick us, but if in doubt, it never hurts to bring up any puzzling or confusing behavior with your veterinarian. 

Have you seen a dog “smile”? Share in the comment section below!