Why Do Dogs Show Their Teeth When Guilty?

Dogs are capable of displaying an array of emotions. They are happy when they see you, sad when you leave, and they get excited at the prospect of riding in the car with their head sticking out the window!

But can dogs display guilt for doing something wrong? Have you seen your dog showing teeth and looking guilty?

Studies have shown that when dogs display behavior that we perceive as guilt, such as showing their teeth, it is only a response to the reaction of their owners. Dogs tend to behave guilty and show their teeth when confronted by their upset or angry owner regardless of feeling guilty or not.

A dog that looks guilty is not necessarily aware of any wrongdoing or trying to get out of any punishment. In many instances, it is simply an appeasement gesture. Let’s understand what this behavior means and whether it is healthy for your dog to feel this way.

Is Your Dog Trying to Say Sorry by Showing its Teeth?

A majority of dog owners believe that their dogs can display guilt, and one of the ways they express it is by showing their teeth. They also think that when their dogs exhibit guilty behavior, it leads them to scold their dogs less.

It is very understandable the owners feel like this. The dog certainly looks guilty, but what’s going on in their brains is more complicated than that.

There is plenty of empirical scientific evidence indicating that dogs can display ‘primary emotions’ such as happiness and fear. However, there is little to no scientific proof suggesting that dogs can express secondary emotions such as guilt, jealousy, and pride.

Scientists think that dogs and other animals lack cognitive sophistication regarding self-awareness and consciousness. Consequently, it is unlikely that your dog can perceive and exhibit a complex emotion like guilt.

So, Why do Dogs Flash That Guilty Grin?

According to a study conducted on dogs published in the peer-reviewed journal Behavioral Processes, dogs are more likely to display signs of guilt, such as baring their teeth after being scolded, regardless of their feeling the emotion.

When you scold your dog for doing something wrong or breaking a rule, the dog understands that you are upset and tries to appease you with its body language.

The dogs show their teeth with their lips drawn back, but they also squint their eyes and lower their heads when scolded. The posture looks more submissive than anything else as if the dog is trying to calm you down.

Can Your Dog Showing Teeth Be a Sign of Aggression?

Some dogs might show their teeth when they are expressing aggression as well. However, it is essential to distinguish between the signs of aggression and submission. For example, if your dog shows teeth because it is afraid or overly stressed, it wants to be left alone.

Here are a few signs that indicate that your dog is showing submission:

  • Averted gaze
  • Relaxed posture
  • Flat ears

On the other hand, if your dog is showing teeth as a sign of aggression, here is what you should look out for:

  • Snarling or growling
  • Rigid posture
  • Pointed ears
  • A high tail that is wagging rapidly

The next time your dog bares its teeth, look at the body language. It might be good to visit a vet to rule out any pain or underlying medical issues if your dog bares its teeth aggressively.

If you are in financial difficulty and are worried about vet bills, this website has helpful resources for charities to help you pay your bills. (If you don’t live in the US, you can use Google to find similar help in your country).

Should You Encourage Guilty Behavior?

A guilty dog sure makes for a great video, doesn’t it? The internet is full of adorable dogs acting all guilty and cute when caught red-handed by their owners! But should you encourage or coax your dog to display such behavior? Maybe not.

Just because you think your dog is displaying a guilty face does not mean that they deserve a scolding. It is always a better strategy to try and understand the root cause of the behavior before jumping to conclusions.

We can easily project complex emotions on our pets in the hope that they understand and experience them the same way as we do.

However, this isn’t how dogs brain’s work. We must not think that they think and feel like us. This is a mistake that can cause confusion and suffering for your dog.

So, the next time you think that your dog has transgressed, rather than a scolding session, try to understand the reason behind the behavior. For example, maybe your dog is just lonely, bored, or nervous.

Before we carry on, this is a video showing some dogs that have been caught getting up to no good. As you can see, it is understandable why people would think that they feel guilty:

 

Other Behaviors that Might be Confused for Guilt

Apart from showing their teeth, several other behaviors that your dog displays might be confused for guilt. While most of them have nothing to do with guilt, they can mean that your pooch needs attention.

Behavior Actual Meaning 
Sad ‘Puppy’ Eyes If your dog displays sad or puppy eyes, it does not mean that it feels guilty. Instead, it is your dog’s way of avoiding stress or fearful events like someone scolding them.
Lip Smacking Lip-smacking is a regulatory mechanism in dogs that helps them calm down. Your dog is simply trying to calm the situation down.
Hunched Over with a Tucked Tail It is a classic appeasement gesture shown by many dogs in response to being scolded. Your dog is trying to prevent the escalation of the situation and avoid possible punishment when displaying this behavior.
Avoiding Eye Contact Another classic behavior that can be misconstrued as a guilty conscience simply means that your dog wants you to take it down a peg. When your dog is nervous about your reaction, it will try to put its head down and avoid giving you direct eye contact.
Showing Belly Some dogs respond to their owners yelling at them by laying on their back and offering their stomachs while their tail wags rapidly. It is another gesture to appease their human and not an admission of guilt.

How to Handle Your Dog’s Transgressions?

You can be almost certain that your dog will do something wrong occasionally or break a rule you spent months establishing.

It is important to know how you react to such transgressions and what you learn from them. To prevent such transgressions, you need to anticipate and accommodate your dogs’ needs.

Dogs can get bored, anxious, and lonely, just like humans. So, rather than punishing or scolding them for their behavior and coaxing a guilty reaction, try to resolve the underlying issue.

Always remember that rewards and praise work better than scolding or punishment. Being lenient and understanding can go a long way in reinforcing good habits.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I scold my dog if it looks guilty?

Scolding your dog every time they appear guilty is not a good strategy. Your dog is more likely to respond to positive reinforcement and encouragement than scolding or punishment.

So, please don’t assume that your dog has made a mistake every time you think they look guilty and show their teeth.

Do dogs understand that they have done something wrong and feel guilty?

As much as we love to anthropomorphize our dogs, there is no scientific evidence suggesting that your dog is capable of experiencing or expressing complex emotions like guilt, pride, or jealousy.

Is it okay to hit your dog to punish them for their transgressions?

According to studies, pain-based aversive methods to discipline your dogs are very risky. Hitting your dog can put undue stress and even lower your dog’s quality of life. Your dog can even become more aggressive if you resort to physical punishment.

Final Thoughts On Guilty Dogs Showing Their Teeth

Dogs are intelligent animals capable of experiencing and expressing emotions. However, they lack the logic and reasoning skills that we possess.

As dog owners, it is our responsibility not to expect human feelings from our dogs. It’s not healthy for your dog to get yelled at every time they make a mistake.

Encourage good behavior by rewarding and being lenient when your dog makes a mistake. Whether your dog feels guilty, it wants your love and care.

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