Nuzzling is an important form of communication and information gathering pups learn as soon as they’re born.
beagle nuzzling little boy; the meaning behind dog nuzzles
Credit: Aleksandar Nakic / Getty Images

When a snuggly pup pokes his nose into the crook of your arm and curls up, it makes us feel so loved! If your dog nuzzles, have you ever wondered about the reasons for this behavior?

Viviane Arzoumanian, CBBC, CPDT-KA, CBATI, PMCT2, is a licensed family dog mediator and founder of PumpkinPups Dog Training. She says nuzzling starts with a mother dog as she uses her nose and tongue to move puppies around, to help them defecate and pee, and to keep them clean. Momma also sniffs her pups a lot and identifies them by their individual smell. Over time, the little ones start to pick up on the behavior.

"Puppies use their noses and paws to get onto a nipple to nurse and to push other puppies out of the way," Arzoumanian adds. "Their sense of smell is an important part of their rooting around with their noses to find what they need. These are instinctual survival behaviors that continue to be part of a dog's repertoire of communication and information gathering behaviors."

Why Does Your Dog Nuzzle You?

One reason why your dog nuzzles is to send a clue as to how he's feeling, what he wants, or what he needs. 

"Lots of dogs use their noses to push at our hands or arms—they may be asking for a range of things, from affection, to dinner, to play, or to go for a walk. Sometimes it takes some trial and error on the part of humans to figure out what the dog wants," Arzoumanian says. "If we pet them and they're not satisfied and keep pushing us with their noses, we have to try some other things like offering to take them on a walk, playing fetch with them, or anything else they may need or want."

She adds that you don't have to try a hundred things when your dog nuzzles you. Because they have legitimate needs, if we take time to pick up on their various communication signals, it leads to a "much more harmonious existence with our beloved canine companions."

Here are a few other ways your pup reaches out:

"Learning to decode what your dog means when he or she nuzzles you or uses other forms of communication can be a trial and error process, but it's really worth it to discover the meaning for your particular dog," Arzoumanian says. "They have a lot to tell us—we need to listen with our eyes and our brains to figure out how we can best meet their needs and keep them happy."

Why Do Dogs Nuzzle Strangers?

While humans are more inclined to assess the world visually, canines use an extraordinary combination of both sight and smell to process information. Their olfactory command center has a complex maze of nasal tissues that are 30 times larger than what humans have. They also have a powerful vomeronasal organ (also known as the Jacobson's organ) positioned just inside the nasal cavity and on the roof of their mouth, which is responsible for their amazing scent detection abilities. 

When dogs nuzzle, Arzoumanian says they use their nostrils in specific ways. "They puff some air out of their noses onto our skin. While they're puffing this air out of the sides of their nostrils, they're also drawing air at the same time through the round part of the nostril," she explains. "This is a very efficient way for them to stir up and cycle scents through their olfactory system."

So when a stranger approaches, your pup might walk toward them and activate his nose to take in as much information as possible. This doesn't necessarily mean he wants to be petted—a fact that often confuses people, Arzoumanian says.  

"It's not an invitation to a love fest! But one way to test that out is to offer some love to the dog and see what they do. Do they lean into it and ask for more, or are they just super intent on the sniffy behavior and/or do they shy away from the petting," she adds. "If they just want to sniff, then we know it's not an invitation to love and we can decide whether it's appropriate for them to sniff new people this way."

Friendly, outgoing dogs might feel more comfortable with pats from strangers based on your guidance, but you know your dog best. Some pet parents offer visitors a treat to give to a pooch as a form of training to help their pet stay calm and not jump up or become fearful. But it's more than OK to simply let pupper snuffle around for a few moments, then walk away without engagement.    

Does Your Dog Nuzzle for Other Reasons?

Giving you a snout nudge might also be your pup's way of telling you something's wrong. For example, every so often, he may find parts of your body convenient for scratching a pesky itch! But nuzzling could also be a plea for you to take a closer look. 

"If the itchiness isn't just occasional but a chronic issue, then investigating the cause would be in order, especially if your dog's nose is runny, dry and cracked, or appears irritated in any way," Arzoumanian says. "There are health conditions that affect the nose including infections, polyps, and nasal cancer. So any unusual and protracted problem with it should get looked at by a vet."

She adds that excessive nuzzling could also be a sign of anxiety, particularly if your furry pal can't seem to settle down. If you suspect something is bothering him, consult your vet or a certified animal behavior expert.