Have you ever been hanging out with your dog and then he comes right up to you and boops you with his snoot? Or have you ever seen a dog forcefully jab someone with the front of his mouth, like a warning before a bite?
While these behaviors look similar, only one counts as a “muzzle punch” – a serious warning behavior from a dog.
We’ll explain more about muzzle punches and how to distinguish them from similar behaviors below!
Key Takeaways: What Is a Muzzle Punch?
- A muzzle punch is a warning signal stressed or frightened dogs may deliver. It simply involves a dog ramming you with his muzzle. It is usually done with a fair bit of force, and it is frequently accompanied by other signs of stress.
- Muzzle punches are different from muzzle jabs or muzzle pokes. The former is a serious signal that a dog is unhappy about something; the latter behaviors are typically signs of curiosity or play.
- If your dog delivers a legitimate muzzle punch, you’ll want to take it seriously to avoid being bitten. On the other hand, muzzle pokes or jabs aren’t as serious, though they can be annoying.
What is a Muzzle Punch?
Dogs are sophisticated social animals with a variety of communication signals at their disposal.
Many of these communication signals are ways for a dog to make his desires or needs known without resorting to direct aggression. Fighting is expensive and dangerous, so dogs have many ways to give warnings without actually biting another dog or person.
A muzzle punch is almost exactly what it sounds like – it’s when a dog “punches” you with his muzzle.
Generally, this is a pretty directed, hard poke that’s delivered with the front of the dog’s mouth. You may feel teeth, but generally, the dog’s mouth is closed.
Muzzle punches are one of the lesser-known signs that a dog wants a situation to change. They also tend to be last-ditch efforts dogs use before they actually bite, so it’s important to pay attention to them!
It’s also important to recognize what a muzzle punch isn’t, because there are some similar behaviors that can occur in less worrying situations.
For example, some dogs poke people or other dogs out of curiosity or while playing – this is not a muzzle punch; it is often an example of something called a muzzle poke or muzzle jab.
It’s important to consider the context of the situation as well as the rest of the dog’s behavior to ensure you don’t misinterpret these similar signals.
What Is the Difference Between a Muzzle Punch and a Muzzle Poke or Jab?
Look for these signs to help you determine whether you just experienced a muzzle punch or something else:
- Warning: Muzzle Punch. When muzzle punching, a dog’s body will be quite stiff, probably with the ears either pinned back or pushed forward. He may also vocalize, emitting growls or barks. In most cases, he will retreat after the muzzle punch. His weight will probably be shifted back and away from whoever he just punched, but it also could be up on his toes if he leans forward to threaten the person or dog he’s upset by. The dog’s tail will probably be tucked or held very high and stiff. If the tail is wagging, it will be a stiff, tick-tock sort of wag over the dog’s back. The dog is likely in a situation that could be uncomfortable, such as a veterinary setting, being touched by a stranger, or interacting with a dog that he’s not friends with. Muzzle punches tend to be forceful and abrupt; the one time I was muzzle punched it happened so fast that I was almost knocked off balance. It took me several seconds to figure out what had happened.
- Curiosity: Exploratory Poke. When dogs interact with something new, they may gently poke it with their nose. When I first brought my kitten Norbert home, Niffler poked Norbert a few times. This is especially common with herding dogs, who are bred to use their bodies to make other species move. Generally the dog’s body weight will be shifted backwards while they reach forward. If his tail is wagging, it’s fast and low with a small amplitude. Exploratory pokes shouldn’t hurt or be surprising. The dog may poke and lift and probably will also sniff the air or the target of the poke.
- Playfulness or Attention-Seeking: Friendly Jab. Some dogs like to do a mock muzzle punch as part of play, just like almost all dogs bite and “fight” as part of playtime. Not all playmates like this, and it can certainly be confusing as a human playmate if you’ve not experienced this before. When a dog has playful intentions, you’ll see loose body language and exaggerated movements. The dog may be bouncy, lifting his paws high with his mouth open in a “grin.” His tail will probably be wagging in a sweeping motion that is neither very high nor very low in relation to his normal tail carriage. You may see other play signals, such as bowing, chasing, abrupt changes of direction, and attempts to jaw-wrestle.
In short, not every situation in which a dog’s muzzle prods someone is a muzzle punch.
But if the dog seems still, stiff, and controlled in his movements and isn’t giving off friendly body language, odds are you just witnessed or experienced a muzzle punch.
We’ll primarily focus on muzzle punches, as they’re obviously more serious than muzzle pokes or jabs.
Muzzle Punches vs Muzzle Jabs: Video Examples
We’ve tried to provide some video examples of muzzle punches and muzzle pokes.
However, true muzzle punches are rarely caught on film. As we explained earlier, they’re often sudden and unexpected. On the other hand, because they are often associated with play, muzzle pokes tend to be captured more commonly.
Nevertheless, the examples below should help you understand the differences.
Should You Let Your Dog Muzzle Punch You?
I would not continue putting my dog in a situation where he felt the need to muzzle punch me in an aggressive way.
However, I don’t mind if my dogs gently poke things with their muzzles as a way to explore their world. There’s nothing wrong with that!
Within reason, I also don’t mind playful muzzle pokes.
You may want to interrupt a playful muzzle poker if he gets so excited that he’s about to give you a bloody nose, or if you just find it annoying. Focus on calming him down and redirecting his energy elsewhere.
How Should I React if a Dog Aggressively Muzzle Punches Me?
In the moments after a muzzle punch, it’s important to stay calm. Your job now is to do what you can to avoid being bitten.
That is much more important than trying to show the dog that he was “wrong” or that a muzzle punch was “unacceptable.”
This means you’ll want to do the following after being aggressively muzzle punched:
- Stop whatever you were doing and slowly move your hands towards your belly button while moving away from the dog.
- If you are crouched, bent down, or sitting, stand up slowly and smoothly; avoid fast or abrupt movements.
- Keep your gaze on the dog, but don’t stare directly into his eyes. If the dog hasn’t moved away on his own yet, it’s especially important to stay oriented towards him.
Once you’re out of easy striking distance, things get less clear-cut:
- If this dog is not your responsibility, just leave the situation.
- If the dog is your responsibility, ensure that he is not at risk to himself or others in his current location. Try to tie his leash to something or close a gate to ensure he and everyone else are safe.
- Remove yourself and the dog from any triggers that are making the situation worse.
- Play some calming games with the dog, if you feel safe doing so, such as the right-left pattern game.
- If the dog is your dog, it’s probably best to go home as soon as you’re able to decompress. We’ll cover longer-term responses below.
In the moments following an aggressive muzzle punch, your number one responsibility is to diffuse the situation. Calm yourself and the dog as well as you can and get yourselves somewhere safer and less stressful.
What Should I Do if My Dog Muzzle Punches Someone Else?
Follow the same initial steps as above and instruct others to do the same (stay oriented toward the dog while standing up and slowly backing out of biting range).
- If your dog muzzle punched another dog, call the dogs apart or step between them and walk them apart with body pressure but avoid yanking on their leashes (this can escalate the situation).
- Once everyone is safe and secured, apologize to the other person and ensure he or she is OK.
- It is still important not to reprimand your dog at this point. Try to remind yourself that your dog just gave a strong warning sign; he actually showed restraint in a situation where he was quite upset. Your dog has not bitten someone yet, and it’s best to take this warning seriously to ensure he doesn’t in the future.
- Your next step is to try and assess what went wrong. What triggered this situation, both in the moment and in the long term? Is your dog potentially experiencing trigger stacking or pain that made his mood more volatile? It’s almost impossible to make a good plan to avoid further incidents if you don’t have a good idea of what caused this muzzle punch. If you really don’t know, reach out to a certified dog behavior consultant for help dissecting the situation.
Now that you’ve identified some potential causes of the situation, it’s time to make an initial game plan to avoid those situations in the future. Don’t dive right into exposing your dog to known triggers! That takes careful planning and preparation.
For now, just avoid the triggers. That means potentially avoiding kids, dog parks, barbecues, or grooming for a while.
If you haven’t already, it’s a good idea to connect with a trainer at this point. Generally you’re looking for a behavior consultant who subscribes to the Humane Hierarchy or LIMA-based principles (LIMA stands for least invasive, minimally aversive) in their training.
Your trainer or behavior consultant will help you continue identifying and managing triggers, but more importantly, he or she will help you come up with a plan for helping your dog feel less uncomfortable in triggering situations while helping you understand how to best advocate for him.
How to Stop Your Dog from Playfully Muzzle Poking You
If you want your dog to stop playfully muzzle poking you, you’re not alone. This playful behavior can be annoying or even dangerous in some cases.
Stop a dog from playfully muzzle poking you by:
- Straightening your spine, turning your shoulders away from the dog, and lowering your voice to a calming, quiet tone. Often dogs muzzle poke us because we’ve riled them up! They think we’re “asking for it!”
- If the dog offers to keep all four feet on the floor (standing or sitting), reward him with treats, ideally tossed on the ground. If you don’t have treats, try gently praising him – but know that this may cause him to start jumping again.
- If the dog doesn’t offer “better” behavior or keeps jumping to muzzle poke you again, remove yourself from the situation if possible. Close a door between you and the dog and give him a few moments to breathe while you go get some treats. If you’re on a walk or otherwise can’t close a door between you and the dog, wrap the leash around a tree to create space between you and the dog. Your best defense here (if you don’t have treats) is a calm, quiet demeanor that does not invite play or excitement. Scolding, yelling, pushing, swatting, or even talking too much can all invite more “play” from the dog.
- Once you are out of the situation, make a plan for next time: Carry treats, have an extra leash, and ensure your dog is getting adequate exercise, enrichment, and training to mitigate excessive excitement.
Muzzle Punching FAQ
Muzzle punches are certainly not something every dog owner has had to deal with, which means lots of owners have questions about them. We’ll answer some of the most important questions about dog muzzle punches below!
Why Do Dogs Muzzle Punch?
The warning muzzle punch is just that – a warning. Dogs, like all social animals, have a variety of ways to diffuse a tense social situation before it boils over into a fight. A muzzle punch is just one of these signals. It’s a way to demand space from something upsetting.
Muzzle punches are generally a last-ditch effort to avoid a bite or fight. Muzzle punches serve a similar function to a growl, snarl, or snap.
Think of a muzzle punch like someone jabbing their finger into someone’s chest during an argument. They haven’t thrown a punch yet, but everyone knows that that isn’t far off if things don’t change.
If you ignore a muzzle punch, there is a very good chance that you will be bitten. The dog is doing his best to tell you in no uncertain terms to cut it out, but has also made it clear that his next choice is likely to be fight, not flight or freeze.
Friendly, attention-seeking, or curiosity-driven puzzle pokes, prods, and boops all have their own reasons behind them. You have to look at the entire picture to understand why your dog is doing what he’s doing.
What Warning Signs Might I See Before a Dog Muzzle Punches?
In my experience, muzzle punches are generally abrupt. The one time I was muzzle punched, the dog did not give warnings beforehand.
He was a shelter dog, a huge, gorgeous German shepherd. His leash was draped over his back while he explored a play yard. When it was time for us to continue our training session, I reached for the leash. I must have startled him, because he whipped around and muzzle punched me in the hip before retreating, staring hard at me.
That said, you may be more likely and witness other warning signs before a dog muzzle punches:
• The dog is in a situation that the dog finds distressing or uncomfortable
• The dog is generally stressed out by something else
• The dog is showing a lack of friendly behavior
• Tail tucked OR tail high and stiff over the back
• Moving away
As stated above, you won’t always get warning signs before a dog muzzle punches. If you do get warning signs, you probably won’t get all of these.
Is a Muzzle Punch a Sign of Aggression?
It certainly can be. If the dog’s behavior is overall stiff and intense, the muzzle punch was probably a warning. Dogs also may poke things with their noses out of curiosity, or even jab at potential playmates with their snoots. These behaviors look broadly similar but are not aggressive.
Do Dogs Muzzle Punch Other Dogs?
Dogs certainly can muzzle punch each other, either playfully or aggressively. My younger dog Niffler often pokes other dogs as a way to get them to play, and may gently nose at female dogs as a way to “flirt.” Generally, though, dogs muzzle punch people because we are so bad at reading their earlier warning signs; other dogs often get the message before a muzzle punch is warranted.
Remember, a true muzzle punch is a warning. While we don’t need to panic over every warning signal, it’s important to take it seriously and keep everyone safe. Your dog is trying to communicate discomfort, and it’s best to listen.
Have you ever been muzzle punched? What caused it and how did you react? We’d love to hear your stories and questions in the comments below!