Muzzle Grab Behavior in Canids

Muzzle grab in adult wolves (photo by Monty Sloan).

A “Muzzle grab” is a common behavior shown by social canines, e.g. wolves (Canis lupus lupus), dingoes (Canis lupus dingo), and dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)The function of this behavior is to confirm a relationship rather than to settle a dispute. The more self-confident individual will muzzle grab a more insecure opponent 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 individual that shows submissive behavior by literally inviting 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 (pack members) 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, normally 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).”

Dog muzzle grab.

Dogs also show the muzzle grab behavior (photo by Marco de Kloet).

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. Cubs and pups also muzzle grab one another during play, typically between six and nine weeks of age. They probably learn through play that the muzzle grab is a good way of stopping an opponent from doing something. Cubs and pups also learn the importance of bite inhibition when showing muzzle grab. If they bite their opponent too hard, they will elicit a fight and will get hurt. A muzzle grab, therefore does not involve biting, just grabbing. This behavior helps develop a relationship of trust between both parties: “We don’t hurt one another.”

When used as a means of settling a dispute, a muzzle grab looks more violent and normally ends with the muzzle-grabbed individual showing passive submissive behavior. However, the participants very seldom get hurt, an occurrence that would counteract the function of the behavior itself.

Wolf cub muzzle grab

Cubs and pups muzzle grab one another during play (photo by Monty Sloan).

A muzzle grab requires self control. Higher ranking wolves and dogs muzzle grab their pack members (team mates) and by doing so confirm their rank and display self control. Lower ranking wolves and dogs invite muzzle grabbing behavior in order to confirm their acceptance of their social position and to reassure themselves that they are still accepted.

The muzzle grab behavior probably originated as both a form of maternal (and later paternal) behavior and as a play behavior amongst cubs. As it proved beneficial to all concerned, it became a factor for natural selection and spread from generation to generation, evolving in the same way as any other trait that increases the fitness of an individual.

In domestic dogs, when the puppies are five to seven weeks old, their mother muzzle grabs them regularly. At first, their mother’s behavior frightens them and they may whimper excessively, even if the mother has not harmed them in any way. Later on, when grabbed by the muzzle, the puppy immediately shows passive submission (lies down with its belly up). Previously, it was assumed that the mother needed to pin the puppy to the ground, but this is not the case as most puppies submit voluntarily. Over time, this behavior pattern assumes variations. Wolf cubs and puppies often invite the alpha male (leader of the pack) as well as other adults to grab them by the muzzle. They solicit a demonstration of their elders’ superiority and self control, whilst at the same time they show their acceptance and submission. This is the most reassuring behavior an adult dog can show a puppy.

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, our self-control and our control of the environment in general. After being muzzle grabbed for a while, the dog will normally 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.”

The muzzle grab behavior can be difficult to classify. Some researchers classify it as social behavior, others as agonistic behavior and a third group places it in the distinct category of pacifying behavior. Since the function of this behavior is primarily to confirm a relationship between two individuals, this author classifies it as social behavior.

As always, have a great day!

R—

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28 comments on “Muzzle Grab Behavior in Canids

  1. What a truly amazing behavior! Beautifully written with corresponding images. It does not get any better….does it? A fine critical job in the description of the function of muzzle grabbing. Gracias Roger!

    P.S. Keep them coming!

  2. Amazing…Not a very common behavior, but may be of interest as a way to strengthen our relationship with the dog. It is a clear sign of security that can accept if used at the right time. You consider it possible?

    • I live with 7 German Shepherds in my home. I see this behavior all the time, daily and usually more often. I will also use it to my advantage in my own communication with them. I see this as a very valuable training and socialization tool.

  3. Awesome info about the canids behavior. I have seen this many times and now have a explanation! Thank you and as always I look forward greatly to your posts

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  6. Love this, great explanation. I also like that you acknowledged there are slightly different interpretations. I’m glad to hear the behavior does not need to be looked at as “correction” but rather when this behavior is used, it serves the function or reassurance and trust. There is however, one concern, what does it mean when dogs do this to their humans and actually inflict pain and/or bite them? I get bite inhibition as being part of it, but i’m looking at how does the dog view the human especially in a context when the human does not have the dogs trust and respect.

    For example, a dog/dog fight ensues. The dogs owner, either one and/or both dogs, reaches in to grab one of the dogs. Lets say, they try to grab the dog who might actually be correcting the other dogs behavior. The owner has not established a leadership role, the dog correcting the other rude dogs behavior, bites the owner. This happens all the time. What does this say about the owners control over their dog/s. I do not consider the dog biting the owner attempting to intervene as being redirected aggression or as implied in many cases the dog bit the person but didn’t mean it.

  7. I love this article, what great information! I have had Rotties for over 25 yrs, they have all been well trained, and when they put their teeth on me I tell them “No Bite”, but I do notice that when they walk loose with me on the ranch they try to hold my hand with their mouth, I was wondering if this is a related behavior to this article. My German Shepherd did this too and now the Pitbull we rescued in June of 2011 is doing the same thing.

  8. Reblogged this on and commented:
    This is a wonderfulexplanation for a behavior that I’m certain most multi-dog families have observed. My only question is, how can we use this in our training sessions? …or, can we use this at all? Hope to see follow-ups on this artocle in the future!

  9. Thank you very much for sharing the article, digestible for any reading level and with lots of information. Greetings!

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  12. Interesting. I’m glad you mentioned that there are different kinds of muzzle grabs. Maybe one of the early lessons pups need from us is a muzzle hold. Certainly in teaching a dog to hold something we do this, not to mention getting it to hold still for ear and eye meds and popping pills. Teaching them to hold still will help everyone who handles a dog.

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  15. This is how I correct behaviour in my dogs when they are pups. I grab muzzle with a light shake while saying NO!!. It has works brilliantly for 30yrs on all breeds. I do not believe in hitting under any circumstance, and have never needed to.As the dog matures, I reduce muzzle grabbing unless a new unwanted behaviour arises. By the time my dogs are 8mths old, a firm NO!! stops them dead in their tracks. It is a brilliant training tool for puppies, and I have had many years of success using the “muzzle grab”.

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  21. A truly magical article; wonderfully written, as all your blog posts are. Thank you so much for sharing your insights freely with everyone. I am grateful for this and for the tone and skill of your writing. Please accept my very best regards.

  22. Hey Roger..thanks for the explanation. What say you about licking inside the mouth of another dog?..an older bitch caringly licking, sometimes far back, into the mouth of a yearling young dog. The recipient to the licking is quite tolerant and with acceptance to the licking.

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