Is Muzzle Grabbing the Right Way to Greet a Dog?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

muzzle grab

Story at-a-glance -

  • Former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg performed a “muzzle grab” greeting on a dog recently, and the video of the event went viral, sparking countless news headlines
  • It’s impossible to know why Bloomberg did what he did — it’s much easier to explain what a muzzle grab is in the canine world and why it’s not a behavior humans should practice with dogs
  • There’s a right way to greet a dog you don’t know; needless to say, the muzzle grab/snout snake doesn’t make the list

Not long ago, a video of then-presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg greeting a dog by shaking the animal’s muzzle went viral. The headlines mocking his behavior were as entertaining as the video was odd:

  • “Michael Bloomberg awkwardly shakes dog’s snout at Vermont campaign stop” … New York Post1
  • “Mike Bloomberg offers a masterclass in how not to greet a dog” … The Guardian2
  • “Mike Bloomberg Had A Weird Encounter With A Dog On The Campaign Trail” … Huffpost3
  • “Bloomberg Ad Shows Him ‘Endorsed’ By Dogs After That Cringeworthy Snout Shake” … also Huffpost4
  • “Michael Bloomberg shakes man's hand and then dog's mouth while campaigning in Vermont” … Business Insider5
  • “Mike Bloomberg video goes viral after shaking a dog’s nose” … Deseret News6

According to his ad that claims he’s “endorsed” by dogs, Bloomberg has two of his own, so it’s not like he’s never been around one. I’ll leave it to you to decide what he was hoping to accomplish with the muzzle grab/snout shake. But if you’re wondering if this is a well-kept secret technique for greeting dogs … it’s not!

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Muzzle Grabbing

According to Adrienne Farricelli, a certified dog trainer and author of "Brain Training for Dogs," muzzle grabbing among canids is not unusual.

“You may see this behavior occur in different circumstances starting from an early age,” writes Farricelli in an article for PetHelpful. “During weaning, mother dogs may begin to resent nursing due to the emergence of their puppies' sharp teeth. You may see mothers use muzzle grabs to discourage their pups from nursing.

Sometimes, an adult dog will engage in muzzle grabbing behavior to inform a rambunctious puppy that his behavior is rude or undesired. At times, pups even seem to solicit muzzle grabbing from adults.

Unlike what was previously thought, mother dogs don't pin their pups down; rather, the pups submit voluntarily. For more on this, read about ‘alpha rolls.’ Through experience, pups soon learn to use muzzle grabs in play, and this teaches them how to apply the basics of bite inhibition.”7

Adult dogs may take turns muzzle grabbing during play, says Farricelli, and among wolves, “gentle, inhibited muzzle grabs may be part of a ritual greeting.”

“This behavior is also occasionally observed during low-key challenges, like disputes over who gets access to a particular resource,” she explains. “More rarely, wolves engage in agonistic muzzle grabs which, according to Wolf Ethogram (Wolf Park, Indiana), consist of ‘grabbing the muzzle and applying enough force to make the grabbed wolf whimper’.

Muzzle biting in wolves is often accompanied by other threat behaviors which may also elicit whimpering. Roger Abrantes, BA in Philosophy and PhD in Evolutionary Biology, notes that muzzle grabs are used mostly ‘to confirm a relationship rather than to settle a dispute’."

Why Grabbing Your Dog’s Muzzle is a Really Bad Idea

Needless to say, it’s inadvisable for humans to adopt canine behaviors to better communicate with their dogs. Our dogs are wise to us — they know we’re not dogs! Most behaviors that are natural when they occur between dogs are decidedly unnatural when they are human-to-dog.

Put another way, depending on his background and the context in which it happens, if another dog muzzle-grabs your dog, he’ll know instinctively how to respond (for better or worse).

If you grab his muzzle, however, you’ll teach him “that hands are bad, and that biting is the best way to keep them away” according to Farricelli. “This is why I often get cases of nipping dogs that don't want hands anywhere near their faces and puppies that never learn to stop biting,” she adds.

If your dog becomes fearful of human hands, it can be a real challenge when you or someone else needs to clean her eyes or face, brush her teeth, put on her collar, and so on. If you’ve already created a problem, consider finding a professional in positive reinforcement behavior training.

It's important to avoid trainers who use punishment, fear-based or pack-theory techniques, as these approaches aren't scientifically supported and are very controversial, in terms of long-term, positive outcomes.

8 Tips for Greeting Dogs You Don’t (or Barely) Know

1. Greet the human first — As hard as it may be, it’s important to shift your attention away from the cute dog you’d like to meet and greet the owner first. Ask her if it’s okay to interact with the dog. The pup is likely to be more relaxed if you make her human comfortable, first.

2. Let the dog come to you — Walking quickly and directly toward a dog and his owner can be dicey if you’re a stranger. It’s best to slow your pace, keep a polite distance, and let the dog come to you.

3. Offer a loosely closed fist, palm down — Once the dog seems comfortable in your presence, bring your fist toward his nose for him to smell. Your fist is smaller than your open hand with fingers extended, so it’s less threatening. And remember, some dogs are afraid of human hands (see muzzle grabbing, above!).

4. Limit petting to the dog’s shoulders, neck or chest — Once the dog has sniffed your closed fist and seems relaxed, you can use the back of your open hand to gently pet his shoulders, neck or chest — but not his head or hindquarters.

5. Avoid eye contact and head-on greetings — Eye contact and head-on greetings are natural for humans, but not so much for dogs. Many dogs feel threatened or challenged by one or both of these behaviors. If possible, position yourself beside the dog instead of in front of him. You can also turn your body sideways.

6. Don't bend over the dog — Humans are taller than dogs, which can be intimidating for them. While it may feel natural to you to bend over when greeting a dog you don’t know, she may feel threatened. Instead, squat down to get more on her level, and keep a respectful distance.

7. Allow the dog to set the terms of the meet-and-greet — If a dog moves away after he’s greeted you, don’t pursue him or reach for him. If a dog you’ve just met and are petting suddenly jerks his head toward your hand and bumps it with his nose, stop whatever you’re doing and create some space between you. Ditto with a dog who assumes a wide-legged stance, lock eyes with you, and backs up.

8. Don't attempt to greet a dog you’re afraid of — Dogs pick up on human emotions. If you’re fearful, there’s a good chance the dog will sense it and she might become defensive or even aggressive in response.