Growing up, most of us were probably taught that you should not approach a dog if he his snarling at you and showing his teeth; that’s a pretty clear body language cue not to approach. But when is teeth bearing not an indicator to back off? Although it’s commonly confused with a snarl, submissive grinning is is not a signal to back off!
Submissive grinning, sometimes called smiling, is when a dog pulls up their front lips to expose their teeth (check out a video here and a photo here) and it often occurs during an initial greeting (dog to human, dog to dog). If you have never seen a dog do this before, it can be quite confusing and it’s often misread by people because we are so conditioned to back off when we see teeth.
Although the bearing of the teeth during submissive grinning can often closely resemble other teeth bearing situations (like resource guarding), it is important to look at more then just the teeth. When a dog smiles or grins submissively, there is usually motion in the dog, often fast-paced over-exaggerated movements, squinty eyes, and overall excitement.
On the other hand, teeth bearing during resource guarding will often appear when the dog is in proximity to an item (bone, food, etc) and the dog is usually still and hunched over and showing teeth (video here – don’t try this at home).
Not all dogs grin submissively but keep your eyes out for those that do, it can be very fun!
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