Why Do Dogs Muzzle Grab?

Answer:  Because IT can only get out the way IT went in.


Hexie and Hessian, my two German shepherds, one day suddenly started muzzle grabbing Cousy, my neighbors’ rambunctious and incessantly playful lab. I’ve never seen them do it to each other or to any other dog. In fact, you rarely see dogs do it at all. Why then did they suddenly begin to muzzle grab Cousy, and both of them at about the same time? Roger Abrantes as modern behaviorists are wont to do, has projected a complex human psychology about social status into the minds of canines in order to account for the behavior.


But there is a far more parsimonious answer once we understand the inverse relationship between emotion and stress, the interplay of these two aspects of consciousness being responsible for complex behaviors, such as why one dog might muzzle grab another.

The relationship between emotion and stress is responsible for how an animal learns to direct its force and respond to being the object of force, in kind.  Dogs are very astute observers at where other beings “project” their force. In observing humans this means they are quick to deflect their attention onto wherever their owner directs their attention. It’s an eye-to-hand coordination, of the group. So where we direct our force becomes where the dog’s attention becomes drawn. Hence the number one chewed item in the modern household is the TV remote controller. This is completely consistent with how wolves would orient around the one member of their group who is manifesting the most intense fixation on something in their surroundings, i.e. where the prey is to be found.

Between dogs, the direction of force is an eye-to-muzzle coordination and this is the key to understanding the sudden appearance of this behavior in Hexie and Hessian. When Cousy plays with my dogs, she first gets in their face and “knocks” them off balance so that they have to pay attention to her. Then she rolls over on her back and begins to bite their legs and now they can’t stand within jaw range until they finally grab her by the muzzle. At which point she springs up and runs away with them in hot pursuit and reaches her safety zone, the mud puddle at the end of our driveway. So she’s constantly stirring them up, and when they return fire, she flops over and pulls an Inoki versus Mohammed Ali and takes them on from below. They grab her muzzle because this is the source of her force, and this is the same reason a dam would begin muzzle grabbing her pups because their nursing is beginning to hurt.

The operative principle of emotion in equal but  inverse relationship to stress is that IT can only get out the way IT went in. This principle can teach us a lot more about the why of animal behavior than the projection of human rationales into the minds of dogs, such as instilling discipline and benevolently enforcing a dominance hierarchy.

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Published May 13, 2014 by Kevin Behan
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11 responses to “Why Do Dogs Muzzle Grab?”

  1. Julie Forlizzo says:

    Kevin, please clear up “It can only get out the way it went in.” You used this with Trav’s owners once. WHAT gets in and out, and how do you apply it to dog behavior?

  2. How many ethologists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    Two. One to screw in the light bulb and one to explain that the light bulb is being replaced by a new bulb who’s more dominant in the light bulb hierarchy.

  3. Kevin Behan says:

    The manner in which a dog absorbs unresolved emotion, stress, is how it goes out. For example, if someone hits a dog, then the dog develops an emotional charge to the hand and feels compelled to bite an outstretched hand. Thus unresolved emotion, stress, is a tuning device, tuning the organism to its environment. So a dog’s behavior in the present is a perfect readout of its past.

  4. Sundog Fitz says:

    LCK…gotta give you a laugh!

  5. Sundog Fitz says:

    One thing I am slowly, ever so slowly, staring to get is that while it has to go out the way it went in, it does not always come out at the same time or place as it went in. It is stored as stress (conservation of energy) and that can be a very good thing as it is how we increase the dogs emotional capacity. This is relevant for me to keep experiencing because as I work with NDT principles if I am not aware of this I will have a tendency to revert to command and control, load/overload and generally end up creating more of the “it” I am trying to ground and channel.

  6. Skip Skipper says:

    Family Cat Saves Boy From Dog! http://youtu.be/2PZOlnyIi7Y
    Anybody up for some Monday morning quarterbacking? Did the dog get any training? What type? Does animal control do any type of exit interview for these cases? Consensus is that the dog will be put down and owners may face charges.

  7. Julie Forlizzo says:

    I don’t believe for a minute the cat was “protecting” the child. Some jurisdictions give a dog another chance. Personally I never blame the dogs. It’s always the owners in my opinion. But, yes, they will pay one way or another. I don’t know if anyone saw the interview with Victoria Stilwell on HLN. Did anyone hear her interpretation of the event? It sounded nonsensical to me.

  8. Skip Skipper says:

    I do think she was protecting the boy ( I’m assuming its a female cat, thought I heard them call her “Tara”) I think the protective mother instinct kicked in. She didn’t continue the attack once the dog retreated and immediately ran back to the boy. My two cents!

  9. Kevin Behan says:

    Not to be the Grinch, but the only way to understand this kind of behavior is to strip it down to its mechanics. Both the cat and the dog were working from the same primordial emotional dynamic, this will prove to be the only logical explanation for the evolution of altruistic acts such the cat exposing itself to danger when there is no genetic self-interest in play. On the other hand were we to say that the cat was acting purely on volition and intent, that the consciousness of the cat emerged whole-cloth from the substrate of a crude animal nature, but now of a higher order unrelated to the primordial substrate (which is the current Neo-Darwinian logic), we will end up as mechanists. The romantic or the scientific view will paradoxically recapitulate the old Descartes view. We will say that the dopamine, serotonin or oxytocin made the cat do it.
    Meanwhile when I first saw the video I presumed the cat had a relationship either with that boy or that dog. I also believed that given the dog’s approach to the boy motionless on the bike, that indeed the dog was “trained” to bite a leg, just like a police dog, but inadvertently by being frustrated behind a fence or on a tie out. I also believe that someone has kicked the dog and in this way excess energy (kids running by if not teasing the dog behind the fence) triggers the manic prey instinct and it comes out the “fault line”(a pain memory specific to being kicked). IT can only go out the way IT went in. The dog projected its p-cog into the boy, the cat has also projected its p-cog into the boy. The dog was trying to get its Self back through manic prey instinct, the cat was trying to preserve its connection to its Self by making prey on dog. That this serves to protect those to whom an individual is bonded with as an extension of their Self, speaks to the sublime magic of nature, one that is only revealed by understanding its emotional mechanics. The cat “protecting” the boy is a behavior that stands in abject defiance of Neo-Darwinian logic wherein genetic replication is considered a plausible explanation for complex social behavior and the nature of an emotional bond.

  10. […] all they want but in the end there is no escaping they’re; case in point Kevin Behan’s reply to Dr. Abrantes’ most recent post on muzzle grabbing, itself based on a 2012 […]

  11. Dog Fence says:

    I like the consideration of the eye-to-muzzle coordination.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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