The Muzzle Grasp
Updated: Jul 22, 2022
The muzzle grasp is an interesting behavior you may have seen at dog parks or on documentaries about wolves. While this behavior may scare or frighten many dog owners who believe it signals unconditional and uninhibited aggression. It doesn’t. The muzzle grasp is yet one of those fascinating behaviors, or rather, a method of communication, which developed and evolved in the wild as a way to let one animal know the behavior they are doing is not approved.
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).”
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.”
Puppy Nipping. Even though your new Goldendoodle puppy does not mean to hurt, their teeth are sharp and the love to play. This is where the muzzle gasp comes in handy for stopping things like biting or nipping. When your new puppy begins to explore his or hers own boundaries they will often explore with their teeth. While they do not intend to do any harm, their teeth are razor sharp at this young age and can really hurt, especially young kids. So follow these steps when helping your new puppy learn what is allowed in your home (den).
The puppy will nip, bite, or chew on something they are not allowed
Immediately during the action wrap your hand around the snout
Squeeze gently but firmly enough to elicit a whimper
Once your puppy whimpers, immediately let go
Present your hand or object back to the puppy
Your puppy should lick your hand or turn away
If your puppy bites or nips again, repeat
It should not take more than a couple of these grasps to get them to understand
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?