Many cat owners are familiar with cats touching noses when they meet and greet, but when dogs touch noses the behavior often leaves owners wondering why dogs engage in this type of meeting ritual. Perhaps it’s just because not all dogs meet this way and because we’re more used to seeing dogs greet by sniffing each others’ tails or groin areas rather than engaging in direct snout-to-snout contact. We thought that today it would be interesting discovering more about nose touching behaviors among dogs and their possible meaning.
Nose Touches in Cats
We know that cats are the nose-touching creatures par excellence (ever been woken up by the cold nose of cat greeting you and tickling your face with his whiskers?) but why has this greeting ritual become almost the norm? How did this behavior evolve?
It seems like this behavior starts early in the litter when kittens are small teeny-tiny fur bulls. At this stage, the kitten’s eyes haven’t opened as of yet, but their noses have fully functional touch receptors.
Nose touching is therefore the kittens’ way for making contact with their mom and “touching basis” with her. As the kittens grow, this behavior persists and cats use this friendly greeting ritual throughout their lives whether they’re meeting a new non-threatening cat for the very first time or they’re catching up with a buddy after their lengthy cat naps.
As many of us have witnessed, dogs touch noses with other dogs too, only the behavior might not be as widespread as in cats.
While puppies are also born blind and their sense of touch is one of their earliest developed senses, the nose-touching behavior doesn’t seem to stick around much as in cats, why is that?
Yet, during their time in the litter, mother dogs and pups are often seen nose-touching. Stanley Coren, upon observing the interactions between a mother dog and her pups claims that “the opening contact was almost always a nose-to-nose touch.”
So why does nose-touching not stick around much in dogs, whereas, in cats it’s almost the norm?
A Possible Explanation
Here’s just a thought we have. Perhaps it’s because dogs are often taken out on walks so they are more likely to encounter unfamiliar dogs, while cats are more likely to stick around nearby their colony and feeding areas and therefore are more likely to encounter cats they are more familiar with?
Perhaps in dogs a butt sniff is preferred because a nose touch puts the dog in a too vulnerable position as it causes direct eye contact?
Something else worth pondering is whether dogs choose to nose touch on their own, or if they are forced to interact this way because that’s how dog owners often let dogs meet when on leash.
We may never really know the right answers to these questions and they are certainly worthy of some research.
However, the good news is that there is an actual study we can take a peak at that may reveal some interesting findings as to why dogs may engage in nose touching greetings.
What the Study Says
The study, published in the Journal of Animal Behavior, was conducted by Marianne Heberlein and Dennis Turner at the Institute of Zoology at the University of Zurich.
In the study, treats are hidden around a room. Afterward, special screens are placed in front of some areas where the treats are hidden. One dog is sent to search for treats, while another dog watches. The observing dog doesn’t know what happens exactly when the dog goes behind the screens.
To add a special twist to the study, sometimes the experimenters purposely removed the treats meaning that the dog got to eat the treats at some times, but not in others.
Next, the dogs are allowed to interact with each other. Upon greeting each other, the dogs engage in some nose touches. This is where it gets interesting. If the dog sniffed had found some treats (as revealed by his/her breath), when the observing dog was afterward sent to the room, he was likely to quickly go investigate the areas behind the screen to search for treats. If the sniffed dog had found no treats, when the observing dog was sent to the room, he was less likely to investigate these areas.
What does this study suggest? It suggests that those nose touches aren’t just a mere way of saying hello, there’s more to it. Turns out those nose touches are an important communication tool for the purpose of exchanging information. Rather than a formal “hello,” in this case it’s as if the dog was saying something along the terms of ” Hey, have you encountered any goodies around here?” suggests Stanley Coren. Of course, with a dog’s stunning sense of smell, the answer lies within the breath.
Something similar may be going on when dogs are briefly separated for training sessions and then they are reunited. The separated dog may rush to nose touch the dog who underwent training to get any clues about treats being involved. Intrigued by this study, today we tried a brief experiment, we separated our Rottweilers and did a brief training session with our female Rottie using smelly treats (picture 1).
Once done, our male Rottweiler was released and the first thing he did was to quickly rush to sniff our female near the face and then sniffed her anal area. Then off he went to look if there were any leftover crumbs on the floor! This is sure an interesting experiment dog owners with multiple dogs can give a try!
Food for thought? It has been speculated that dogs who roll in stinky dead things or poop do so to advertise their findings to their social group. It might be a way for dogs to brag about their findings along the terms of “Look what I found!” or perhaps just a way to share information about food sources with other dogs. If that’s the case, maybe that’s why familiar dogs don’t seem to mind having the other dog nose touch and investigate them?
At some point, we may wonder if nose touches are more likely to be geared towards friendly encounters, where there are reduced risks for conflicts.
Stanley Coren in his book “Do Dogs Dream?: Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know” claims that cats nose touch with any cat they meet that appears nonthreatening.
So is nonthreatening the important keyword here, when it comes to nose touches among dogs?
Nose touching with an unfamiliar dog can after all be risky business as it’s preceded by walking up straightly to a dog and making direct eye contact. Turid Rugaas in her book “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals” reminds us that dogs do not like to approach “head on” and would rather prefer to curving.
Stanley Coren further points out that dogs tend to use nose touches when greeting another nonthreatening species such as cats and kittens or when mother dog greets her puppies. He also mentions seeing it when adult dogs are greeting puppies or when meeting a “young human crawling across the floor.”
So are nose touches mostly reserved among dogs familiar with each other or animals that appear non- threatening? Do dogs take any precautionary steps to ensure that the nose touches are not perceived negatively by the receiver such as walking slowly or slightly squinting the eyes? These are sure some fascinating topics that hopefully will be further discovered one day!
- Do Dogs Dream?: Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know, By Stanley Coren, W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (July 16, 2012)
- Why Dogs Touch Noses: Communication and More, by Stanley Coren, retrieved from the web on May 8th, 2016.
- 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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