Why Do Dogs Touch Noses?

Dogs touch noses because their noses are very sensitive and they can deduce a whole lot of things by just the mere act of sniffing. Interestingly,a study reveals some interesting information pertaining nose-touching among dogs which helps us better understand them.

Dogs touch noses because their almighty noses are capable of deducing information that us humans can only dream of. As macrosomatic beings, dogs have a powerful sense of smell that provides them with loads of information about other dogs and the world that surrounds them. 

While dogs engage in nose touching, it's important to consider that this may not be their preferred way of greeting other dogs, especially dogs who they don't know well enough. Left to their own devices, dogs are naturally prone to initially greet in other ways that don't expose them face-to-face.

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Nose touching between mother dog and her pup

An Early Behavior in Puppies

Most dog owners frequenting the dog park are used to seeing dogs greet by the traditional tail sniffing rather than engaging in the less traditional snout-to-snout contact.

 However, nose touches in dogs seem to also have their place and many dogs are often seen greeting each others this way.  In order to better understand this behavior, it helps to take a closer insight into the root of this behavior. 

When puppies are born, they are known for being pretty helpless beings. As an altricial species, dogs are indeed welcomed into this world with their eyes sealed shut and their ears closed. They mostly rely on their sense of smell and their smell of touch.

Unable to regulate their temperatures, newborn puppies rely on special heat sensors located around the slits at the side of their noses and the opening of their nasal passages. These sensors are known for allowing them to detect energy radiated from warm bodies so that they can easily locate their mothers. 

 It's perhaps for this reason that young puppies are often seen nose-touching with their moms. Puppies depend on their noses to track warmth and to trace their mom's smell to learn about her whereabouts. 

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Howdy, did you find anything tasty to eat?

Gathering Info About Food

 Most dog owners assume that dogs engage in nose touches with other dogs as a way of saying hello, but there may be more going on according to an interesting study.

The study, published in the Journal of Animal Behavior and conducted by Marianne Heberlein and Dennis Turner at the Institute of Zoology at the University of Zurich has  indeed provided some interesting information pertaining the behavior of nose touching in dogs. 

The study revealed that nose touches among dogs aren't just a mere way of greeting one another, there's actually more to it. 

Turns out, dog nose touching is a communication tool mostly used for the main purpose of exchanging relevant information. When one dog nose touches another dog, the dog may be gathering information about the other dogs' feedings.

 It's as if the dogs was inquiring and saying something along the lines of "Howdy, have you found any goodies around here?" Of course, the answer lies within the other dog's breath. While we may smell stinky dog breath, other dogs likely smell the kibble basted with chicken-flavored savory sauce and those doggy biscuits fed hours earlier. 

Nose touching for the purpose of gathering info about another dog's feeding habits makes sense. Dogs may like to investigate and share their eating habits just as they share information about their identities when they urine mark and sniff each others' bums. 

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Lip folds are interesting areas to sniff.

Presence of Facial Pheromones 

Another reason why dogs may engage in nose touching is the fact that dogs release pheromones from their lip areas. 

Pheromones are special chemical messages composed by volatile, odorous substances. These substances are secreted from special areas of the dog's body for the purpose of providing information to other dogs who perceive them.

Dogs release pheromones from several body parts including their ears, anal glands under the tail, urogenital areas, mammary glands in mother dogs, in between the paws and in the lip area.

In order to detect pheromones, dogs are equipped with a special organ known as, the Jacobson's organ located inside the nasal cavity and the upper part of the mouth. 

When dogs meet, they typically tend to start off by first sniffing under their tails, and then move on to sniffing other interesting pheromone-producing areas such as the lips.

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This head-on encounter behind a corner may lead to tension.

Not a Preferred Greeting Method

While dogs sharing the same household or dogs known for being great pals may exchange noses touches every now and then, this doesn't seem to be a dog's preferred primary greeting method, especially when it comes to encounters with unknown dogs. 

And if we think about it, it makes sense. Nose touching straight away with an unknown dog can be risky business. First of all, in order to touch noses, dogs must be walking towards each other and making eye contact. This is perceived as a threatening behavior in dogs.

 On top of that, when touching noses dogs are put into a vulnerable position, so close to those pearly whites. 

It's preferred doggy etiquette therefore to meet in a curved position rather than head-on with each dogs initially sniffing each other under the tail or groin areas.

Yet, head-on greetings are often forced upon dogs when we have our dogs on leashes and they meet with other dogs. With their heads kept high on a tight leash and prevented from sniffing the ground, not surprisingly, often these head-on encounters lead to conflict because these dogs seem more tense and provocative.

Did you know? Interestingly, it looks like dogs engage in nose touching with other non-dog animals such as cats, horses and cows. 

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs use nose touches from a tender age and then keeping using them as a way to gain information about other dogs. With a powerful sense of smell, it makes sense that dogs may be interested in sniffing each other's' breath. However, for initial encounters, for safety sake, dogs may prefer to meet and greet using first more traditional methods.

  • Use caution when encountering other dogs and allowing dogs to meet. Not all dogs get along and there are always risks for altercations. You should have a professional ideally monitor. 
  • Before allowing dogs to greet, allow the dogs on a loose leash so that they can communicate naturally using their instinctive calming signals (sniffing, keeping the head low, walking in a wide curve). 
  • If the dogs seem comfortable and show no unambiguous signs, the dogs can meet on a loose leash (off leash may be even better!) in a curve rather than head-on. Curving is a preferred method as it helps avert any conflict.
  • If head-on encounters are unavoidable on tight streets, it helps to have a helper walk between the dogs to provide a slight visual barrier. Dogs feel relieved by this as they are "splitted up". 
  • Allow your dog to slow down, sniff the ground, curve or walk to the opposite side if there is an approaching dog. These may be efforts to attempt to calm the other dog down or defuse a potentially tense situation.

 References:

  •  Dogdiscoveries.com: Dog Nose Touches Go Beyond Saying Hello
  • Do Dogs Dream?: Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know, By Stanley Coren, W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (July 16, 2012)
  • Dogs, Canis familiaris, find hidden food by observing and interacting with a conspecific Marianne Heberlein*, Dennis C. Turner Animal Behavior, Institute of Zoology, University of Zurich.
  • Turid Rugaas, "On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals" Dogwise Publishing; 2nd edition (December 14, 2005)
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