Pet Talk: Rare Submissive Grin Can Be Mistaken for Aggression

Q:  We have a very friendly Golden Retriever who always shows her teeth when people first arrive at the house to visit. We know she is being friendly, but some people become scared when they see her showing her teeth like this. We think it is cute, but how can we convince people she is being friendly and not mean.

A:  Most of us were taught that you should never approach a dog that is baring its teeth at you because it’s a pretty clear canine body language cue to back off. So it’s easy to understand why your company would be leery of your dog.

What most people don’t know is some dogs bare their teeth in what’s called a submissive grin. This sounds like what your girl is doing.  

Often during an initial greeting these dogs will pull up their front lip to expose their front teeth. It is often misread as aggression because we are so conditioned to back off when we see a canine’s teeth, but in reality it is anything but with these dogs. What your golden is doing is showing your guest she is no threat. Submissive grins are a way for a dog to show humble submission and respect to another individual. The dog is actively soliciting attention in a nonthreatening manner.

I am familiar with dogs who grin. When I was a professional groomer sometimes a new client would bring their dog in for a haircut and forget to mention they were a smiler, as we called them in the business. It was always a little scary when I went to go get them out of their cage and there they were baring their teeth at me. Once I was able to determine this was a non-threatening gesture, they usually turned out to be the nicest dogs.

For those of you who are lucky enough to meet a dog who grins (because they really are cute and not very common), just make sure you are reading the whole dog before you assume they are being friendly.

The dog will hold its head down, the body will be loose and tail wagging. They may lift a paw and squint their eyes and, of course, have a big toothy grin.

It would be a good idea to explain to visitors before they come over and meet your beloved canine that grinning is a part of her greeting behavior and she is not being mean, so they won’t misinterpret her intentions.

A submissive grin has nothing to do with aggression, but some people will still feel intimidated until they get to know your dog, because as I said earlier we’ve learned not to approach a dog that is showing their teeth, and in most cases for a very good reason.

Sally Salopek is the owner and operator of Attend-A-Pet pet sitting services in northern Door County. She has also worked professionally with animals in health care, pet grooming, training, wildlife rehab and rescue. Send your pet-related questions to her at [email protected].


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