Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Among canids, it's not unusual to see one animal grabbing another by the muzzle. Whether done gently between two dogs that know each other or more roughly during a dispute, this behavior is quite normal and has also been noted in wolves and dingoes in the wild. But what does this behavior really mean? Why do dogs do this? When is it most likely to occur? As with many other canine behaviors, it really depends on the context.
Muzzle Grabs in Puppies
You may see this behavior occur in different circumstances starting from an early age. During weaning, mother dogs may begin to resent nursing due to the emergence of their puppies' sharp teeth. You may see mothers use muzzle grabs to discourage their pups from nursing.
Sometimes, an adult dog will engage in muzzle grabbing behavior to inform a rambunctious puppy that his behavior is rude or undesired. At times, pups even seem to solicit muzzle grabbing from adults. Unlike what was previously thought, mother dogs don't pin their pups down; rather, the pups submit voluntarily. For more on this, read about "alpha rolls." Through experience, pups soon learn to use muzzle grabs in play, and this teaches them how to apply the basics of bite inhibition.
Muzzle Grabs in Adult Dogs and Wolves
When adult dogs are playing, you may see them taking turns muzzle grabbing each other. Of course, this takes place after the dogs have expressed their playful intent through meta-communication.
Among wolves, gentle, inhibited muzzle grabs may be part of a ritual greeting. This behavior is also occasionally observed during low-key challenges, like disputes over who gets access to a particular resource. More rarely, wolves engage in agonistic muzzle grabs which, according to Wolf Ethogram (Wolf Park, Indiana), consist of "grabbing the muzzle and applying enough force to make the grabbed wolf whimper."
Muzzle biting in wolves is often accompanied by other threat behaviors which may also elicit whimpering. Roger Abrantes, BA in Philosophy and PhD in Evolutionary Biology, notes that muzzle grabs are used mostly "to confirm a relationship rather than to settle a dispute."
Should Owners Hold Their Dogs' Mouths Shut?
It is tempting for dog owners to mimic behaviors they see in their pets, especially when attempting to moderate unwanted behaviors. You'll often hear people say, "if your dog barks, tell him to hush by grabbing his muzzle and firmly holding on," or "if your puppy nips, grab his muzzle and apply pressure." Those who advocate for these methods do so in an attempt to "speak the same language" as their dogs. This may make sense to many, but the results are often deleterious.
First off, we are not dogs! We certainly don't go to parties and sniff other people's butts or urinate on our host's carpet in order to send "pee-mail." We are humans, and as such, we shake hands and use Facebook or Twitter to socialize. We don't shake hands with dogs or send them e-mails to communicate. Dogs are well aware that we are not the same type of animal as them.
Secondly, when we apply muzzle grabs to dogs, we teach them that hands are bad and that biting is the best way to keep them away. This is why I often get cases of nipping dogs that don't want hands anywhere near their faces and puppies that never learn to stop biting.
When I ask owners what they did to try to stop their dog's biting, they often tell me "a trainer (or the vet) told me to grab him by the muzzle or the scruff every time he bites." Doing this actually tends to exacerbate biting behavior because it teaches dogs two things:
- Hands are unpleasant.
- I can bite hands to keep them away from my face.
This modus operandi can take a significant amount of time and effort to undo. After these behaviors are learned, it can be difficult to create positive associations with hands so that owners can do normal things like pet their dog, wipe its eyes, or put its collar on without getting nipped in the process. If you have a pup that tends to nip, learn some force-free methods to reduce biting behavior, and consult with a force-free dog trainer/behavior consultant.
Muzzle Grabs at the Wolf Park
Physiology of Muzzle Grabs
As humans, we often forget that dogs use their mouths in a similar fashion to the way we use our hands. If we are walking a toddler in a supermarket and they throw a temper tantrum because they want to go see the toy section again, we usually use our hands to guide the toddler away, explaining that we cannot go there again, but that if we hurry, we can bake some cookies later at home. Dogs lack our manual dexterity and language, so they use their mouths instead. Muzzle grabs can help them redirect other dogs' undesirable behaviors.
As horrific as a muzzle grab may seem, veterinarian, consultant, and author, Myrna Milani, notes how the shape of the dog's muzzle seems to have evolved to "enable a dog to grab and hold another dog by applying four small points of pressure, thereby protecting the other from the crushing force of the premolars and molars."
Dogs' muzzle areas are mostly composed of skin and bone. If a dog grabs another's muzzle and feels bone, he should instinctively stop applying pressure, especially if the other dog responds appropriately and freezes rather than resisting. Fortunately, most dogs get the message and display an appropriate response.
What Do the Experts Say?
There seems to be some dispute over how to classify muzzle grabbing behavior, with some experts suggesting it's social, some portraying it as agonistic, and others classifying it as pacifying. In my opinion, it doesn't fall into any specific behavioral category because its use depends on its context.
As we've learned, canines use muzzle grabs with each other frequently, and most know how to respond to them. Problems arise when humans try to use dog-specific behaviors when dealing with their own pets.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 15, 2020:
Well, C, we need to consider that all dogs are different. While your dog may have accepted hands on his face (albeit annoying, bless his tolerance), some others could bite and never want hands near their face again. Because of these risks, I would never suggest this method. It's like putting a hand on a person's mouth while talking, without listening what is going on. There are better ways.
C on August 08, 2020:
I used light muzzle grabbing when my dog was a puppy, my parents did with theirs, my sister did with hers...my puppy nipped for about a week and then stopped and is not afraid of anyone’s hands at all. If done right it can solve puppy nipping. Too much emotion goes into puppy training these days and we wonder why so many dogs bite and don’t listen.
RMartin on January 01, 2018:
I use muzzle grips with my dogs and they see that as affectionate....they actually look for it!!!
Rebecca Martin on October 26, 2017:
My dog actually looks for me to grab her muzzle she actually engages me to grab her muzzle Softly some said it is a sign of affection also or it can be
Camille Harris from SF Bay Area on March 19, 2014:
My puppy does this ALL the time to my new (old) dog. She does it especially when we try to pet the new guy. Glad to know what it signifies!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 17, 2014:
When my dogs are tired of playing sometimes they'll be side-by-side lying down and will play "who gets to muzzle grab the other." They have discussions as they do this with their mouths open and almost sound like "Chewbacca".
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on March 16, 2014:
Very useful lesson about muzzel grabbing. I used to wonder about that.