Canine Muzzle Grasp Behavior—Advanced Dog Language


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

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


The muzzle grasp 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 grasp 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 grasp a more insecure one and thus assert its social position. The more insecure individual does not resist the muzzle grasp. On the contrary, it is often the more insecure that invites its opponent to muzzle-grasp 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 (teammates) almost as a 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-grasp them. This behavior appears to be reassuring for them, a means of saying, “I’m still your cub (pup).”

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

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

When used as a means of settling a dispute, a muzzle grasp looks more violent and usually ends with the muzzle-grasped individual showing what we ethologists call passive submissive behavior, i.e. laying on its back.

The muzzle grasp behavior emerges early on. Canine mothers muzzle grasp 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. Later on, when grasped by the muzzle, the puppy immediately 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 lie down voluntarily. Cubs and pups also muzzle grasp one another during play, typically between six and nine weeks of age. A muzzle grasp does not involve biting, just grasping. This behavior helps develop a relationship of trust between both parties: “We don’t hurt one another.”

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

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

Domestic dogs sometimes approach their owners puffing to them gently with their noses. By grasping them gently around the muzzle, we reaffirm our acceptance of them. We show self-control and that they can trust us. After being muzzle grasped 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?


"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

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.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.

Does Your Dog Show Allelomimetic Behavior?


Howling Dogs.

Howling is allelomimetic behavior.

I’m sure your dog shows allelomimetic behavior, but don’t worry, it’s not dangerous, except when it is, and yes, it is contagious. Confused? Keep reading.

Allelomimetic behavior is doing the same as others do. Some behaviors have a strong probability of influencing others to show the same behavior. Animals keeping in constant contact with one another will inevitably develop allelomimetic behavior.

Dogs show various instances of allelomimetic behavior—walking, running, sitting, lying down, getting up, sleeping, barking and howling have a strong probability of stimulating others to do the same.

Social predators increase their rate of hunting success when they function in unison. One individual setting after the prey is likely to trigger the same response in the whole group.

Allelomimetic behavior.

More often than we think, it is our own behavior that triggers our dog’s allelomimetic behavior (photo by SunVilla).

The wolf’s howl is allelomimetic, one more behavior our domestic dogs share with their wild cousins. Howling together functions as social bonding. When one wolf begins howling, the whole pack usually joins in chorus, especially if a high-ranking wolf has initiated it. I bet that if you go down on your knees, turn your head up, and begin howling, (provided you are a half-decent howler) your dog will join you in chorus; then, it will attempt to demonstrate its team spirit by licking your face.

Sleeping and eating are good examples of allelomimetic behavior. Dogs and cats tend to sleep and eat at the same time. Barking is also contagious. One barking dog will easily set the whole neighborhood’s dogs barking.

Synchronizing behavior may be a life saver. In prey animals like deer, zebra or wildebeest, one individual has the ability to trigger the whole herd to flee. This trait is so important for self-preservation that farm animals like sheep, cows and horses still retain it. Grazing also tends to occur at the same time.

Allelomimetic behavior.

Running after a running child is more often an example of canine allelomimetic behavior than hunting or herding as many dog owners erroneously presume.

Allelomimetic behavior is not restricted to animals of the same species. Animals of different species who live together show allelomimetic behavior regularly. Dogs are good body language readers and tend to respond to certain behaviors of their owners without needing further instruction. An alerted owner triggers his dog’s alertness more often than the opposite.

Puppies begin to show allelomimetic behavior at about five weeks of age. It is an intrinsic part of your dog’s behavior to adjust to the behavior of its companions. Your behavior influences your dog behavior in many more instances than you realize.

Since we have selected and bred our dogs to be highly sociable and socially promiscuous, they tend to show extended allelomimetic behavior, not only copying the behavior of their closest companions, but of others as well. Next time you walk in the park and your dog runs after running children, you can casually comment, “Typical instance of allelomimetic behavior.” Not that it will solve any problem, if there is one, but you’ll be right and I bet you will impress more than a few of your fellow park walkers.


"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

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.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.

Why Do Dogs Like to Lick Our Faces?

Friendly Wolf Behavior

Roger Abrantes and wolf at the Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. Licking is one of the many behaviors dogs and wolves have in common. It signals friendship (picture by Monty Sloan).

Dogs like to lick our faces, a behavior that is disturbing for many dog owners and particularly non-dog owners. Yet, this behavior is a demonstration of friendliness, an attempt at pacifying us and themselves, a hand (though not literally) reaching for peace. It’s a compliment a dog gives you, “I like you, you can be my friend.”

The behavior originates probably in the neonatal and juvenile periods. Pups lick everything as a way of gathering information about their world. Licking our faces may give our dogs much more information about who we are and how we feel than we probably can imagine.

Pups also like to lick one another, a behavior which seems to make both donor and recipient relax because it is a pleasant and undemanding activity. Grooming and self-grooming also include licking and are again undemanding and bonding practices.

Canine mothers lick their pups, a way not only to keep them clean but also to stimulate the physiological processes of urinating, defecating and maybe even digestion.

When the pups become a bit older and begin eating solid food, it is common for them to lick the lips of the adults, a behavior which should elicit their regurgitation of recently intaken food, a good source of nutrition for the youngsters. Even though not as common as when our dogs were closer to their wild ancestors, this regurgitation behavior is still widespread among our canis lupus familiaris if we give them the opportunity to live a relatively normal dog life.

Pacifying behavior is, in general, behavior that originally performs essential functions related to survival and well-being, and that in latter stages assumes these same functions, though in different areas and with different outcomes: licking produced food regurgitation, licking produces friendly behavior.

Next time a dog licks your face, you do not need to be too terrified or disgusted. Just close your eyes, yawn, and turn your head away. This shows in dog language that you accept its offer of friendship.

By the way, don’t be too afraid either of the bacteria you may be given when your dog licks you—they are not much worse than those we get from kissing one another—and we’re not going to stop kissing, are we?


"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

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.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.


Do You Like Canine Scent Detection?

Our new Canine Scent Detection Course consists of two parts or two lessons: lesson 1 theory, which you can take online, and lesson 2 practice, which you can take by attending one of my workshops. Chances are you’ll find a convenient location, for we are planning three in the USA, three in Europe, two/three in Australia/New Zealand and one in Mexico. Please, visit our Facebook page regularly for more news.

For more info and a video clips from our canine scent detection workshops, please, go to the course page. The workshops run typically over three days with most teams passing the double blind test on Sunday afternoon. Watch the videos and you’ll be surprised with what we achieve in only three days.


Nosework in 1984

Illustration by Alice Rasmussen for my book from 1984 where I write that næsearbejde (= nose work) is not only for the professionals but for all companion dogs as well independently of the breed.


Scent detection has fascinated me since my early days as a student of biology and I was training detection animals already at the beginning of the 1980s. I have trained dogs, rats and guinea pigs to detect narcotics, explosives, blood, vinyl, fungus, landmines, tuberculosis, tobacco—and they excelled in all fields.

Almost all my detection work has been for the police, armed forces or other professional agencies. Yet, I wrote about scent detection in the beginning of the 1980s in my first book, “Psychology rather than Power,” which was published in Danish. Back in 1984, I called it “nose work” (directly translated from the Danish = næsearbejde). I recommended all dog owners to stimulate their dogs by giving them detection work starting with their daily rations. We even did some research on that and the results were extremely positive: the dogs stimulated by means of detection work showed improvement in many aspects of their otherwise problematic behavior. My recommendation remains the same. Physical exercise is, of course, necessary, but do not forget to stimulate your dog’s “nose” as well, maybe its primary source of information about its world.


Roger Abrantes in 1984 with a Siberian Husky.

Yours truly in 1984 with a Siberian Husky, an “untrainable” dog, as everybody used to say. This was when my book “Psychology rather than Power” created a stir. We were then right at the beginning of the animal training revolution.


I write this blog 30 days after I started. 30 days, 30 blogs, 75, 764 readers and 187,756 page views. Yes, I’ll continue blogging as long as you keep clicking that magic button “like”— my reinforcer.

I won’t hold you any longer. I know you want to go and click the course link to watch the movies. Enjoy!

PS—Please, don’t click all at the same time. Our server has been boiling since last week.


Roger Abrantes

Canine Scent Detection

Dog Sniffing Bag

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Scent Detection Cover
Scent Detection Page.

Do You Know What the Canine Hip Nudge Behavior Means?

The hip nudge functions as a pacifying behavior. It signals friendliness.

The hip nudge functions as a pacifying behavior. It signals friendliness (illustration by Alice Rasmussen from “Dog Language” by Roger Abrantes).

Dog owners often think their dogs are pushy or impolite when they turn their backs to them, sometimes even pushing them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

A hip nudge is a behavior a dog shows when it nudges another with its hip or rear end. Dogs often use this sort of behavior towards people, typically during greeting ceremonies when we show the dog passive friendliness by crouching down to it. The dog will then walk towards us, turn round and either nudge us gently with its hip or rear end, or stand passively with its back turned to us.

This dog shows a half hip nudge.

This dog shows a half hip nudge, still a sign of friendliness. Both human and dog are relaxed and show their peaceful intentions and that they trust one another (photo by Lisa Jernigan Bain).

The hip nudge functions as a pacifying behavior. It signals friendliness. By turning its back to us, the dog shows that it doesn’t intend to attack—it turns its teeth away. At the same time, it shows that it trusts us.

Dogs use the same behavior though modified, during mating rituals where the male nudges the female.

I described this behavior first in the original edition of my book “Dog Language” in 1987 after having spent several years observing, photographing and filming the behavior of dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), wolves (Canis lupus lupus) and foxes (Vulpes vulpes).

Between dog and wolf, there are only small differences, which we can almost characterize as dialects. The fox is a different story, although displaying many behaviors common to the other two, probably because it is not as social as its cousins.


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Canine Maternal Behavior

Canine maternal behavior is more than just feeding the pups. It is also to teach them dog language (Illustration by Alice Rasmussen from "Dog Language" by Roger Abrantes).

Canine maternal behavior is more than just feeding the pups. It is also to teach them dog language (Illustration by Alice Rasmussen from “Dog Language” by Roger Abrantes).

Watching dog mothers take care of their pups continues to fascinate me, and the large populations of village dogs in Africa and Thailand, where I spent and spend a great deal of my time, provides me with plenty of opportunities to do it. Village dogs are domestic dogs, not wild dogs. Often classified as stray dogs by the inept, ignorant eye of the western tourist, these dogs perform an important task in their communities of humans and their domestic animals.

Maternal behavior is behavior shown by a mother toward her offspring. In most species, it is the mother that primarily takes care of the youngsters, and the dog is no exception. Natural selection has favored the evolution of this particular behavior of the females.

In wild canids, although it is mostly the female that takes care of the puppies, the father (also called the alpha male) and other adults do become interested in the feeding and raising of the puppies when they begin emerging from the den. In the studies my team did in the 80s, our dogs showed the same pattern in a domestic set-up.

Maternal behavior is, thus, almost identical in wild a canids and domestic dogs. Immediately after birth, the mother dries the puppies, keeps them warm, feeds them and licks them clean. The maternal behavior right after birth is controlled by hormonal processes and problems may occur if the female gives birth too early. On the other hand, pseudo-pregnancy causes females to undergo hormonal changes which may elicit maternal behavior in various degrees. Maternal behavior seems to be self-reinforcing. Studies show that the levels of dopamine increase in the nucleus accumbens (a region of the brain) when a female displays maternal behavior.

When the puppies become older, the mother begins to educate them. She gives them the first lessons in dog language about the time weaning begins. Growling, snarling and the various pacifying behaviors are inborn, but the puppies need to learn their function.

The canine mother has three main tasks: (1) to feed the puppies, first with her own milk, then by regurgitation, (2) to keep them clean and warm, especially when they are very young, and (3) to educate the puppies.

A good canine mother is patient and diligent. When the puppies grow, dog owners often misunderstand the mother’s apparently more violent educational methods. She may growl at them and even attack them, but she never harms them. Muzzle grabbing (see illustrations) is fairly common. Without the mother’s intervention, the puppies would never become capable social animals and would not be able to function properly in a pack (a group of wild dogs living together is in English called a pack). When the puppies are about 8-10 weeks old, the mother seems to lose some of her earlier interest in them. In normal circumstances, the rest of the pack, then, takes over the continuing education of the puppies, their social integration in the group (which probably mostly consists of relatives) and their protection.

Dog owners sometimes report problems, e.g. that the mother has no interest in her puppies, or is too violent towards them. These problems are mainly due to our selective breeding (we select for beauty and utility while nature selects for overall fitness, hereby included adequate maternal behavior) and to our lack of understanding of the mother’s needs during and after birth, which often result in the female showing stress, insecurity or aggressive behavior.

Maternal effect is the mother’s influence on her puppies. It can have such an impact on certain behavior patterns that it can be difficult to distinguish between maternal effect and the effect of genetics. For example, observations have shown that a female reacting too nervously or fearfully toward certain sounds may affect her puppies into developing  sound phobias beyond what we would expect given the puppies’ specific genotype. The strong influence of the maternal effect on the behavior of her puppies is the main reason why it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to assess the hereditary coefficient for particular traits.

Bottom-line: Do not breed females that you suspect will not show reliable maternal behavior. Do not disturb a female with her pups more than absolutely necessary. A good canine mother knows better than you what’s best for her pups.


Canine Behavior Course

Canine Behavior by Roger Abrantes explains dog behavior from A to Z. The best-seller "Dog Language" (not included in the course fee) is beautifully illustrated by Alice Rasmussen. Study online at your own pace and earn your "Canine Behavior" certificate.
Enrolling for this course (for only EUR 98 — USD 0.00) puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework.

Do You Know What the Dog’s Twist Behavior Means?

Canine twist behavior

Canine twist behavior — the puppy twists as a pacifying response to the adult’s growling (illustration by Alice Rasmussen from “Dog Language” by Roger Abrantes)

The canine twist behavior is an interesting behavior that few dog owners recognize, let alone know what it means.

It is a characteristic behavior shown by any canine, (wolf, dog, African wild dog and dingo at least) when it twists one hind leg out to the side. Most frequently, the dog shows it from a sitting position, but it can also do it from a standing position. In cases where the dog appears very insecure, the twist can be succeeded by a half roll culminating with the dog lying on its back and showing its belly. The twist is accompanied by laid-back ears, semi-closed eyes, champing (at times with the tongue protruding out of the mouth) and paw lifting (or vacuum pawing) in various degrees depending on the situation and the level of insecurity. It’s a fairly common behavior mostly seen in puppies and youngsters, but insecure adults can also display it.

The function of the twist is to pacify an opponent. As always, behavior happens by chance (or reflex), and if it (the phenotype) proves to have a beneficial function, it will tend to spread in the population being transmitted from one generation to the next (via its genotype).

The origin of the twist is most certainly related to the typical canine maternal behavior of the female overturning her puppy by pressing her nose against its groin, forcing one of the puppy’s hind legs to the side. The puppy will then fall on its back and the mother will lick its belly and genital area facilitating the puppy’s urination and defecation. To start with, this appears to be a rather unpleasant experience for the puppy but becomes pleasurable once it is overturned and its mother’s licking achieves its function.

Later on, the puppy will perform the same twist movement in the absence of any physical contact with the mother or any other adult. It will do it when it feels threatened or insecure and with the function to pacify both itself and its opponent, rather than inviting to belly licking.

The transition from urination/defecation to pacifying is a classic of the development of behavior. It happens almost exclusively by means of a classic conditioning process. In the beginning, being overturned is unpleasant but lying on its back, belly up, becomes pleasant (due to the puppy relieving itself). After a number of repetitions, the puppy will associate lying on its back with ending discomfort and will readily display this behavior whenever necessary.

The strength of the twist behavior (a general characteristic of pacifying behavior) is its double effect of pacifying both parties. The puppy relaxes by doing something which has produced good results earlier. The threatening adult relaxes by being met with a behavior that it recognizes as infantile behavior.

I first described this behavior in the original edition of my book “Dog Language” in 1987. The behavior had no name at the time. I coined it the twist behavior thinking of the famous dance of the sixties, very popular in my teen years. “Twist and shout” by The Beatles* immortalized it. The Twist, the dance, featured a characteristic step, where the dancer’s legs made a twisting movement reminiscent of the puppy’s pacifying behavior.

Let’s twist again, my friends!


* “Twist and Shout” was written by Phil Medley and Bert Russell and first released in 1961 featuring the Top Notes. However, it achieved its fame first when The Beatles performed it in 1963 with John Lennon in the lead vocals.


Canine Behavior Course

Canine Behavior by Roger Abrantes explains dog behavior from A to Z. The best-seller "Dog Language" (not included in the course fee) is beautifully illustrated by Alice Rasmussen. Study online at your own pace and earn your "Canine Behavior" certificate.
Enrolling for this course (for only EUR 98 — USD 0.00) puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework.