Baring teeth: defense or submission?

Observe a dog’s body language to understand the message behind baring his teeth.


Q. My 2-year-old Miniature Schnauzer, Sampson, bares his teeth a lot. It seems to be related to fear associated with my fiancé. Lately however Sampson is doing it more, and is also displaying it toward me. It seems to have started when my fiancé and I met, but it does not seem to be a jealousy issue. What should I do?

A. You suggest Sampson may be showing his teeth because he's afraid of your fiancé, but you don't say why. Did something happen between them that scared Sampson? An in-person consult with an experienced dog trainer or behaviorist could help you determine the cause of Sampson's behavior and establish a plan to fix it.

Bared teeth can be a defensive threat, or it can be a gesture of submission. The rest of the dog's body language clarifies the message.

Don't scold or punish Sampson for the display, instead act calmly, give him some space, and let him calm down, then direct him into a different activity he doesn't find threatening.

Sampson and your fiancé somehow got off on the wrong foot, but you can right that by enrolling, as a family, in a gentle, reward-based training class. Keep your training positive and up beat, using happy praise and yummy treats as rewards. Give Sampson a chance to work with each of you at class and during daily homework sessions. He will soon realize there's no reason to be afraid and that his place in your family is safe and secure.


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Jonathan   Norfolk, England, International

3/29/2013 3:11:28 PM

A collie dog kept anywhere other than a large farm, will invariably not like the environment he is kept in, and is likely to react to that by baring its teeth and even biting. The reason is that a collie likes large areas to run about in, and a smallholding, in other words, a small garden, will never satisfy a collie dog for long.

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susan   Allentown, PA

8/8/2010 5:28:30 AM

My 4 year old collie cross has recently started teeth baring at my 11 month old daughter and following her around the house. The teeth baring is sometimes accompanied by low
I'm concerned that this behaviour may escalate. Do you have any ideas?

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Debbie   Newark, DE

9/4/2009 4:13:08 PM

Prior to going on vacation for 2 weeks, my golden adored me and new me as the authority figure of the household, not wanting to greet any of my kids until I properly greeted her. After leaving her with my 18 son for 2 weeks, I came back to a golden who was aloof and is now baring her teeth and piddling a bit when I come in the door. I understand that this is not aggression, but how can I stop her from this behavior?

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