Dear Bark: I saw a video online recently that showed presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg greeting a dog by grabbing and "shaking" the dog's open mouth. I found it completely bizarre! But some people are saying greeting a dog by shaking the muzzle is a good, natural thing, while others are responding that shaking a dog's snout is awkward and very bad practice. Those in favor refer to “muzzle-grabbing” between dogs and mouthing as examples of how this interaction between a human and a dog is normal. What do you think of the way that Michael Bloomberg greeted a dog in Vermont by shaking its muzzle?
I saw this video, too, and I am on the side that thinks this is not a kind way to interact with a dog and is not appropriate. When this video was first brought to my attention, I was surprised by how many people defended it as a demonstration of a perfectly normal way to greet a dog. I disagree with that perspective and would advise against greeting a dog by grabbing the muzzle and shaking it.
It's true that many dogs do playfully use their mouths to interact with one another, and you do sometimes see dogs mouthing at each other and engaged in a sort of muzzle sparring. The thing is, though, dogs don’t act this way when they are greeting, especially if they are strangers to one another. Using their mouths to interact is unusual unless they know each other well, and even then it typically occurs during play, not greetings. Play behavior has all kinds of examples of dogs doing things to and with one another that would be considered inappropriate and could even be risky in any other context. When playing, it’s true that they growl, mouth at each other, pounce on one another and bat at each other with their paws. All of these behaviors can be perfectly appropriate in play, but not one of them is a normal part of a greeting, especially if the greeting is with a dog they don’t know.
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An analogy would be that it’s common for parents playing with their children to say, “I’m going to get you!” and it is understood that it is all in good fun and it is appropriate. It is certainly not, however, appropriate for adults to say, “I’m going to get you!” to children that they are meeting and greeting for the first time. Just as saying that to a child you don’t know would be unlikely to be well received, shaking the muzzle of an unknown dog with your hand is not only bizarre, but socially unacceptable and possibly dangerous.
Many dogs will likely find it objectionable, and a few of those are likely to react. Even the dog in this video, who seems to be quite stable and agreeable, did show some signs of stress. The dog tongue flicked, appeared to yawn (hard to tell with its mouth full of hand), and had a furrowed brow after. So, even though the dog didn’t do anything bad, my best guess is that it was unpleasant. I can’t say whether the dog found it physically uncomfortable or perhaps just awkward, but it was clearly not a positive experience for the dog. I’m glad that the dog did not react aggressively to Bloomberg, but I’m confident that there are plenty of dogs who would. That would be terrible for the dog and Mayor Bloomberg. Why risk it?
By the way, Bloomberg has done this before. Perhaps he thinks that greeting the dogs will enhance his image and be seen in a positive light. His actions just make me think he’s not too dog savvy because in addition to the muzzle shake with his fingers curling into the dog’s mouth, he reaches over the dog’s head instead of petting the dog under the chin or on the chest. I’m sympathetic to politicians who have to do endless meet and greets. They are constantly trying to make a good impression, and they make mistakes. Politicians would be far better off offering dogs a treat (with permission of the guardian!) or simply saying hello to them. They should not put their hands in their mouths and then shake them by the muzzle.