Why Do Dogs Show Their Teeth?

What it means when your dog bares his teeth – whether he’s growling or not – and what to do.


There are a number of situations during which a dog may show his teeth – and the ones that involve aggression are few. Dogs may bare their teeth as an appeasement gesture (which looks like a sheepish grin), during dog-dog play (perfectly appropriate!), or to communicate discomfort or stress (in which case, you should be careful, because he’s asking for space). While these are all normal dog behaviors, each of these tooth-display scenarios begs a different response from you, depending on the circumstances.

What to do when your dog shows teeth

Determine which of the above is the cause of your dog’s dental display and respond accordingly as follows.

  • Appeasement grin: This can happen when a dog feels pressured or intimidated. The majority of dogs never do this – and a very small percentage do it a lot. If you see other appeasement signals (head turn; lowered body posture; body leaning backward, behind the vertical) it’s likely a smile, not a snarl. Relax your own body posture (stop acting so assertive or pushy!), turn sideways, smile, talk softly, and assure your dog he’s not in trouble.
  • Dog-dog play: If both dogs enjoy tooth play, let it be! If one seems overwhelmed, give the dogs a cheerful timeout break, and then let them go back to playing. If one is consistently overwhelmed, find each dog new play partners.
  • Discomfort or stress: Like the growl, a toothy snarl is a sign of aggression. Like the growl, it’s actually a good thing. It’s an escalation in intensity from the growl, but your dog is still trying very hard to NOT bite you. He’s saying, “You’re making me really uncomfortable; please stop what you’re doing.” So stop whatever is stressing him! If what you’re doing is something that must be done (such as toothbrushing or nail-trimming), take the time to help him learn to be happy about it. (Here’s an example of what to do to improve your dog’s response to nail-trimming. Take the same approach, using counter-conditioning and desensitization, for any procedure your doesn’t currently feel comfortable with.)

Whatever the reason for your dog’s teeth display, never, ever punish him for this. You want him to feel comfortable communicating with you, so you can figure out why he’s showing teeth and take whatever steps are appropriate.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.