Understanding Muzzle Grabs in Dogs
Understanding Muzzle Grabs
Among canids, it's not unusual to see a dog grabbing another dog by the muzzle. Whether done gently among two dogs that know each other or more roughly during a dispute, this behavior is quite normal among canines and has been noted in wolves, dingoes and dogs. But what does this behavior really mean? Why do dogs do that? And when is it more likely to occur? As with many other canine behaviors, it really depends on context.
You may see this behavior occur in different circumstances starting from an early age. During weaning, when mother dogs start resenting nursing due to the emergence of the pup's sharp teeth, you may see the occasional muzzle grab to discourage the pups from nursing. You may sometimes see an adult dog engage in a muzzle grab to inform a rambunctious puppy that he's engaging in rude behavior. At times, pups seem to even solicit muzzle grabbing from adults. Unlike what was previously thought, mother dogs don't pin down their pups down; rather, the pups submit voluntarily. For more on this read about "alpha rolls." Pups soon learn to use muzzle grabs in play and this teaches them how to apply the basics of bite inhibition.
When adult dogs are playing, you may see them trying to take turns muzzle grabbing each other. Of course, this takes place after the dogs have communicated through meta-communication their playful intents. Among wolves, gentle, inhibited muzzle grabs may be part of a ritual greeting. You may then encounter the occasional muzzle grab in a low-key challenge, such as over who gets access to a particular resource. And then you have the agonistic muzzle grab which according to Wolf Ethogram (Wolf Park, Indiana) it consists of “grabbing the muzzle and applying enough force to make the grabbed wolf whimper. Muzzle biting is often accompanied by other threat behaviors which may also elicit whimpering.” Roger Abrantes, BA in Philosophy and PhD in Evolutionary Biology notes though that muzzle grabs are used mostly "to confirm a relationship rather than to settle a dispute."
As humans, we often forget that dogs use their mouths in a similar way as we use our hands. If we are walking a toddler in a supermarket and the toddler has a temper tantrum wanting to go see the toy section again, we'll likely 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 at home. Dogs are deprived from our manual dexterity and ability to talk and will instead use their mouths.
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 been purposely crafted 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." The dog's muzzle area is mostly composed of skin and bone, and if the dog is muzzle grabbing 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 apply the most appropriate response.
There seems to be dispute over how to classify a muzzle grab, with some suggesting it's social behavior, some more portraying it as agonistic behavior and others classifying it as pacifying behavior. In m opinion, it doesn't fall into any specific category because its use depends on context.
A seen, canines use muzzle grabs among each other and most know how to respond to them. Problems start when humans try to acquire behaviors used among dogs and want to apply them to their dogs. We will see the deleterious effects of this practice in the next paragraphs.
Using Muzzle Grabs to Correct Dogs
It often tempting for dog owners to mimic behaviors they see among dogs and then apply them to their companions. You'll often hear people say: "if your dog barks, tell his to hush by grabbing his muzzle and firmly holding on" or "if your puppy nips, grab his muzzle and apply pressure". These pieces of advice derive from advocates of using the same methods used among dogs (or even worse, among wolves) in an attempt to "speak the same language." 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 a host's carpet to leave some "pee mail" We are humans, and as such we shake hands and use Facebook or Twitter to socialize. Of course, we don't shake hands with dogs or send them e-mails to communicate, but dogs certainly know we are not dogs dressed up as humans.
Secondly, when we apply muzzle grabs to dogs, we only teach them that "hands are bad" and that biting is the best way to keep them away. This is why I get cases of nipping dogs that don't want to have hands anywhere near their faces and puppies that never learn to stop biting. When I ask the owners what they did to try to stop the biting they then tell me "a trainer (or the vet) told me to grab him by the muzzle or the scruff every time he bites." Correction after correction the biting behavior exacerbates because it has taught the dog two things: 1) "hands are unpleasant" and 2)"better bite to keep them away from my face."
This modus operandi takes some time to undo and much effort is needed in creating positive associations with hands so the owners can do normal things again like pet the dog, wipe his eyes or put on a collar without getting nipped in the process. If you have a pup that tends to nip, learn some force-free methods to reduce nipping behaviors and consult with a force-free trainer/behavior consultant.
Muzzle Grabs at Wolf Park Among Wolves Competing for Attention
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 Janet Farricelli