The muzzle grab is an interesting behavior that I’ve seen in many canids including our domestic dogs. It’s a behavior that scares many dog owners who believe it signals unconditional and uninhibited aggression. It doesn’t. The muzzle grab is yet one of those fascinating behaviors which developed and evolved because it conferred a higher fitness to those who practiced it.
The function of this behavior is to confirm a relationship rather than to settle a dispute. The more self-confident dog will muzzle grab a more insecure one and thus assert its social position. The more insecure individual does not resist the muzzle grab. On the contrary, it is often the more insecure that invites its opponent to muzzle grab it. Even though we sometimes see this behavior at the end of a dispute, wolves and dogs only use it toward individuals they know well (team mates) almost as way of saying, “You’re still a cub (pup).” The dispute itself does not tend to be serious, just a low-key challenge, usually over access to a particular resource. Youngsters, cubs and pups sometimes solicit adults to muzzle grab them. This behavior appears to be reassuring for them, a means of saying, “I’m still your cub (pup).”
When used as a means of settling a dispute, a muzzle grab looks more violent and usually ends with the muzzle-grabbed individual showing what we ethologists call passive submissive behavior, i.e. laying on its back.
The muzzle grab behavior emerges early on. Canine mothers muzzle grab their puppies (sometimes accompanied by a growl) to deter them from suckling during weaning. At first, her behavior frightens them and they may whimper excessively, even if the mother has not harmed them in any way. Cubs and pups also muzzle grab one another during play, typically between six and nine weeks of age. A muzzle grab does not involve biting, just grabbing. This behavior helps develop a relationship of trust between both parties: “We don’t hurt one another.”
Domestic dogs sometimes approach their owners puffing to them gently with their noses. By grabbing them gently around the muzzle, we reaffirm our acceptance of them. We show self-control and that they can trust us. After being muzzle grabbed for a while, the dog will usually show a nose lick, maybe yawn and then walk calmly away. It’s like the dog saying, “I’m still your puppy” and the owner saying, “I know and I’ll take good care of you.” Yawn back and all is good.
Speaking dog language helps promote an understanding between our dogs and us. It may make us look silly at times, but who cares? I don’t, do you?
dall’art. di Roger Abrantes