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Why Dogs Touch Noses: Communication and More

A nose touch may say "Hello" or ask about snacks.

Not too long ago I was watching a familiar canine ritual. A female dog approached a litter of pups (not her own). As the four little puppies bounded over to her, she lowered her head and touched the nose of each with her nose. For some, she nuzzled their faces a bit and sniffed other parts of their bodies, however, the opening contact was almost always a nose-to-nose touch.

For those of us that have studied animal communication, this snout contact appears to be part of a greeting ritual. It is actually more common in cats than in dogs, where the nose touch may sometimes be accompanied by rubbing against the body of the other animal or continued sniffing of the other's head or body. Cats will use this greeting nose touch with virtually any cat that they meet which appears to be non-threatening.

Dogs appear to be more selective in their nose-to-nose touching. Not every greeting is accompanied by snout contact. However, it is quite common for adult dogs to engage in nose-touching with puppies. It is also quite common to use nose touching when greeting another nonthreatening species. Thus dogs can be seen nose touching with cats and kittens, horses, and so forth. A young human child crawling across the floor is often greeted with a nose touch by an approaching dog.

Some casual research that I have done suggests that nose touching can be an important part of the socialization of puppies. In a number of cases where a dog breed was known to sometimes be nippy as adults (such as Corgis), I have suggested that while the dog was still a puppy the people in the family, and any friends or acquaintances that could be enlisted to help, engage in nose touching with the pup. This seems to speed socialization and reduce the likelihood of nipping incidents later in life. In all breeds, this early nose touching with humans appears to make the approach of people, or their looking directly into the dog's eyes, less of a threat as they mature.

While most canine researchers recognize the ritual greeting aspect of nose touching in dogs, recent research published in the journal Animal Behavior, suggests that there may be another, more pragmatic reason for nose touching. Marianne Heberlein and Dennis Turner at the Institute of Zoology at the University of Zurich set up a situation where a dog could explore a room while another dog observed his behavior. Let's call the dog that is watching the observer and the dog that is exploring the actor. The way that their experiment worked was as follows. First, the actor has to know that there is a treat hidden in the room. So he is allowed to watch while a couple of dog treats are placed in one of four positions around the room. Next screens are placed in front of each of the positions. At this time the observer dog is brought into the room. He watches while the actor is let loose. Obviously, the dog will run behind the screen where he saw the treat hidden.

Up to now, things are straightforward. The observer dog doesn't know why the actor dog ran behind the screen since he can't see the treats. However, sometimes, when the screens are put into place the experimenters will secretly remove the treats. That means that sometimes the actor dog finds the treats and gets to eat them, while at other times he runs behind the screen only to find that there are no treats.

Finally, the two dogs are allowed to interact with each other. As might be expected there will often be nose touches as part of the greeting ritual between the dogs. Now here is the surprise finding-if the dogs touch noses and the actor dog has just come back from successfully finding and eating a treat, then it is much more likely that the observer dog will now quickly run to investigate the area behind the screen where he saw the actor go. If the actor dog has not found and consumed some treats it is less likely that the observer dog will go to that place to investigate, or if he does it will take him a lot longer to get around to exploring behind that screen.

The researchers, therefore, conclude that the nose touching between dogs not only is a way of saying "Hello" but also helps to answer the question "Have you encountered any snacks or other food around here?" The answer is to be found in the breath of the other dog, and where the food may be found comes from where the observer dog has seen the actor go before.

This confirms what everybody who knows dogs suspects. Dogs are naturally sociable and friendly, but much more so when there is the possibility that some food might be involved.

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