— by Roger Abrantes
The canine muzzle nudge is a pacifying behavior. Pacifying behavior (Latin pacificare, frompax = peace and facere, facio = to make) is all behavior with the function of decreasing or suppressing an opponent’s aggressive or dominant behavior.
Newborn cubs and pups nudge their mother’s tits to find a nipple and suckle the maternal milk, which is their only nutrition by then. The nudging, achieving a desired result, becomes imprinted in their memories. Later, they will nudge frequently when attempting to achieve something they want or to turn an unpleasant situation into a pleasant one.
The muzzle nudge is the behavior of a canine nudging another’s sides of the mouth. This behavior, particularly when accompanied by licking tends to elicit regurgitation. This is the way infantile canines taste their first fast food.
Regurgitation behavior is the behavior shown by adult canines when they vomit food recently consumed, usually right in front of cubs or pups. This behavior may occur unsolicited, though as a rule it is triggered by the muzzle nudge of the youngsters. Usually their mother is the first to regurgitate for them, but other members of the pack also join in occasionally.
The muzzle nudge assumes later a ritualized function as a pacifying behavior. Insecure or slightly fearful individuals will muzzle nudge their opponents showing them their friendly intentions. Our dogs will muzzle nudge us in many situations when they feel unsafe, somewhat pressured or just in need of being reassured. Their muzzle nudge may be directed toward any part of our body, most often though toward our face and hands. They may also attempt to lick us.
The muzzle grasp behavior may have its origins in the muzzle nudge and regurgitation. Adults muzzle grasp youngsters, which often invite them to perform this ritual. Canine mothers use a version of this behavior to prevent their youngsters from suckling at the time of weaning. Higher-ranking canines in a pack use another version of this behavior to make a point as to claiming a resource. In all cases, this behavior causes no harm and injury. The muzzle grasp is not an aggressive behavior. It ranges from pacifying to self-confident and dominant behavior depending on variation, intensity and the individuals concerned.
Muzzle nudge, muzzle grasp and regurgitation are connected. They share the common element of originating in the satisfaction of a primary need (food acquisition). They all involve some sort of nudging, and they are centered around the mouth of the adults.
The pictures on this page show the Husky yawning (pacifying behavior) and the little dog pawing it (yet a pacifying behavior) while being very attentive to its mouth. On the second picture, the pup, not only nudges and licks the sides of the mouth of the adult, but it also sticks its head in. This is rare and due to the difference is sizes of the dogs. It is not uncommon, though, for the nudging and licking to become so intense that the youngster sticks its nose in the mouth of the adult.
Although not as common as in nature, some of our domestic dogs also show the regurgitation behavior when given the opportunity. They will regurgitate not only toward their puppies, but also toward unrelated puppies. This behavior has nothing to do with nervousness, agitation or illness as erroneously assumed by many dog owners. It is a vestige of a behavior our dogs inherited from their ancestors when feeding the pups was a highly crucial trait and favored by natural selection.
The muzzle nudge behavior shows friendliness. A dog displaying an unsolicited muzzle nudge too often may be a dog feeling insecure and in need of comfort.
The muzzle grasp is a social behavior. It is one of those behaviors favored by natural selection for its essential functions and effectiveness. It incurs in pacifying rituals often at the invitation of the more vulnerable individual. It is also in the repertoire of an individual to claim a resource (showing its dominant behavior in that situation). Our dogs may welcome us to muzzle grasp them as a bonding activity. The canine muzzle grasp and our gentle grasping the muzzle of our dog has nothing to do with the brutal grabbing of the dog by the muzzle as some dog owners do when venting their frustration.
Muzzle nudge, muzzle grasp and regurgitation behavior may assume many variations depending on the individuals involved, context, environment, etc. Behavior if a continuity and except for tropisms and simple reflexes, it is highly individualized. Natural selection favors behaviors that tend to be advantageous in the struggle for survival and reproduction.
- Canine muzzle grasp behavior—advanced dog language
- Your dog understands your yawn
- Why do dogs like to lick our faces
- Do you know what the canine hip nudge behavior means?
- Canine Maternal Behavior
- Do you know what the dog’s twist behavior means?
- The spectrum of behavior
If animal behavior fascinates you, you will enjoy "Ethology—The Study of Animal Behavior in the Natural Environment," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes.