Dogs are often treated as part of the family. Since family members show each other affection with hugs, kisses, cuddles, and nuzzles, you probably take it for granted that your dog is showing you love when he nuzzles your face or neck with his muzzle, places his head on your shoulder, or when he presses his forehead against your face. While this might be the case, is it the only explanation for this behavior or are there other reasons why your dog pushes his face against yours? Are all these reasons good or bad? Dog experts and animal psychologists demystify this behavior in the post below.
The Root of the Behavior
Dawn Kovell, an animal trainer and behaviorist form Marin Humane Society says interpreting dog nuzzling is all about context. For instance, when your dog meets a stranger, he will sniff at him and if he likes what he smells, he will nuzzle and rub his head against the person as an invitation of friendship. But when your dog nuzzles you, he could be doing it to establish ownership. Dogs have scent glands in their faces so when your dog nudges you with his head, he is marking you with his scent to signal other dogs to keep off.
Rooted in most dog lovers’ belief that their dogs can empathize with their emotions could be yet another explanation. According to an article featured in UK Daily mail, new proof uncovered by Jennifer Mayer and Dr Deborah Custance from the Department of Psychology at Goldsmith’s supports this belief. To test the hypothesis that dogs have empathy, the scientists exposed eighteen dogs to people and observed how the dogs reacted when those people were talking, pretending to cry or humming. They noted that the dogs could distinguish between humming and crying sounds and that most of them approached and touched the human participants while they were crying. The dogs also had a submissive demeanor, almost as though they were concerned and wanted to comfort the crying people. Moreover, the dogs were indiscriminate in their concern for all participants and did not distinguish between their owners or strangers. This, says Dr. Mayer, goes to show that the nuzzling action was not driven by a selfish want for pleasure because if they wanted attention or connection, they would have approached their owners and not strangers. It is therefore safe to say that your dog can nuzzle you because you exhibit negative emotions, but this empathy can also extend to others.
Roger Abrantes, an evolutionary biologist weighs in on this issue by saying that certain behaviors that dogs exhibit in puppyhood are vital to a dog’s survival hence they don’t disappear in later years. For instance, puppies lick their mothers’ mouths to trigger regurgitation which is how they get their daily sustenance. Much like licking, nuzzling is a pacifying behavior that in dog to dog interaction ensures their survival and wellbeing. Puppies nuzzle their mothers for comfort and when they grow up, they nuzzle their human owners.
Encouraging the Behavior
While this behavior is to be encouraged, how you respond to your dog nuzzling you is very important. Look at it this way, if someone you love nuzzles you, you will respond in kind with an affectionate gesture because nuzzling in humans beings is mostly about love. But given the points discussed above, nuzzling in dogs is not the same. One response that is discouraged by dog experts is hugging or cuddling. Dr. Stanley Coren, a professor at the University of British Columbia conducted a study to show that contrary to what humans think, dogs exhibit a negative response to being cuddled. He analyzed 250 photographs taken while 10 dogs were being hugged and found that 81.6% of the time, the dogs looked anxious, stressed, and uncomfortable. This is because dogs are created for swift running in case of a threat, hence having both arms around your dog denies him the ability to run. Given this, your dog may then default to his second line of defense, which is to bite. Claire Matthews, a canine behaviorist agrees with this point of view. She says that the stress a dog experiences when being hugged arises out of feeling intimidated. A better way to express love for your dog when he nuzzles is with a pat or treat.
Other Solutions and Considerations
There are times when nose nudging is done to show submission. However, the opposite can also be true. When an ‘underdog’ nose-nudges another dog, he does this to show submission. On the other hand, when a dominant dog nose-nudges another dog, this is a show of dominance. This dynamic also applies in dog-human interaction whereby if your dog is a dominant type, he could be nudging you in the face to show his dominance over you. According to an article shared on Cesar’s Way, nudging that is motivated by dominance happens frequently and is often accompanied by other behavior such as barking, obstructing your path and mounting. Usually, this will continue until your dog gets what he wants. This type of nudging should not be encouraged but should be corrected through behavioral training.
While your dog may love interacting with you, most of the time, he and not you, will lay down the rules of interaction. This can be confusing to you and cause you to default to human interpretations to explain away his behavior. Know that there is never one way of looking at dog behavior. When your dog nudges your face, he could simply be saying, “Hey! Keep off, this guy is taken.” He could also be concerned that you are sad or maybe, he wants to show you who’s boss. Whatever the case, when in doubt, seek help from a certified animal trainer.
By a Golden Retriever lover Maryanne Gaitho
Published: 03/13/2018, edited: 01/30/2020