The True Meaning Behind Your Dog Rubbing Their Face on You

Written by Angie Menjivar
Published: October 15, 2022
Image Credit Denys Teternyk /Shutterstock.com
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You’re lounging, watching your favorite TV show, and you feel a cold, wet nose nuzzle against your arm. It’s off-putting because it’s cold and wet but it’s your favorite canine companion so you can’t be upset. You’re used to all their antics but what does it mean when your dog rubs their face on you? Is there a message they’re trying to communicate or is it just typical dog behavior? This behavior isn’t too uncommon like some of their other crazy behaviors (you know, booty-scooting on the carpet and such). You may have gotten used to them chasing their own tails, running in circles when released at the beach, and even some of their funky sleeping positions.

Dogs are incredibly expressive — from the way they move their eyes to the range of sounds they make. It’s a never-ending game of guessing and deciphering exactly what messages they are trying to relay. While some of you may have gotten creative and picked up some sound buttons, recorded some keywords, and trained your pup to communicate their exact needs to you, some of you have relied on your telepathic connection with your furry best friend. However you choose to communicate with your pup, it’s important to know what it means when your dog rubs their face on you. Below, we explain how your dog’s scent glands work and all the possible reasons why you keep encountering that cold, wet, and immeasurably cute nose.

First, Let’s Talk About Dogs’ Scent Glands

Your dog has scent glands on their face so a nuzzle might actually be a sign that your dog is taking ownership of you. This is considered marking behavior. When your dog leaves their scent on you, they’re signaling to other pups in the area that ‘hey, this human is mine. This is part of my family, so you stay away.’ It’s a territorial behavior and one that signals that your pup knows you are their family.

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When they’re puppies, dogs have a natural inclination to nuzzle against their mothers. This is a behavior that gives them comfort but is also a way for them to mark their four-legged family as theirs. It’s how they signal that they’re happy and content and when they get adopted by humans, they start to exhibit this behavior with their new family. When you introduce someone new, your dog may sniff around, decide if they like what they sense, and nuzzle against your friend or family member. This is a sign of acceptance and serves as an invitation to become a part of the family.

dog nuzzling mother
When they’re puppies, dogs have a natural inclination to nuzzle against their mothers. This is a behavior that gives them comfort but is also a way for them to mark their four-legged family as theirs.

thka/Shutterstock.com

Reasons Why Dogs Rub Their Faces On You

With an understanding that there are scent glands on your dog’s face and that is how they confirm that you are a part of their safe unit, we can move on to explore some of the other reasons why your dog may be rubbing their face on you.

Affection

Dogs show their affection for you in a number of ways. One of those is by nuzzling their nose and face against you. Just as they used to nuzzle their mothers, dogs turn to you for comfort when you adopt them. That nuzzle could mean that they’re just looking to snuggle. Sometimes, it’s simple. They just want to be close to you. Your dog might also recognize that maybe you’re feeling down that day and want to offer you some comfort. They nuzzle against you to help you feel better because they’re looking out for you. Dogs are territorial and protect their own so if they see that something is off, they want to make sure that you know they’re there to comfort you. It’s a way that they show you they love you.

Cleaning

This next reason is more utilitarian. Dogs want to remain clean and if you just happen to be close by, they won’t hesitate to turn to you and nuzzle against you to wipe their nose. It’s kind of like having a toddler on your lap. Although you may have introduced the concept of napkins, a toddler may still turn to you, grab your sweater or your shirt and use it to wipe their face. It’s cute, it’s funny, and it also means you do a little bit more laundry. That’s the case with dogs sometimes, too. They’re just trying to get clean, and sometimes you’re the most convenient human-shaped napkin for them.

Scratching

Another reason a dog nuzzles against you is that they have an itch. Yes, you serve as their adoptive parents, as their on-the-go napkin, and apparently, also as a scratching post. Hey, if you’re there and they have an itch, a quick nuzzle can accomplish several things. They get your attention, you feel their affection, and they’re able to scratch that uncomfortable itch. It’s really a win all around!

dog scratching face
Dogs may nuzzle their face against you in order to use you as a scratching post if they have an itch they can’t reach.

MitchyPQ/Shutterstock.com

Comfort

Since this is behavior displayed as a puppy with their dog moms, dogs may nuzzle you when they need comfort. Say, for example, you were on vacation for a week and your dog stayed behind. When you return, they are sure to be jumping off the walls, excited to see you. They may also feel some anxiety thinking that you are going to leave them again. To comfort themselves, they stay close to you, rubbing their face on you, marking you all over again, and letting you know that they’re your family. They try to comfort themselves. They don’t like separation and to feel better about having to endure your absence, they may rub their face on you excessively for that first day back from your trip.

Submission and Dominance

Sometimes, your dog uses their nose to demonstrate to another pup that they are submissive. Yet, this same behavior can also display dominance. If you notice a dog nudging another dog with its nose, they’re conveying one of these two messages. If it’s your dog, you know whether they’re taking the submissive or dominant role. The same goes for this behavior toward humans. There’s a difference between rubbing their face on you and a full-on nose nudge. If you notice that your dog is nudging you and not just marking you or showing affection, your pup may be trying to display dominance over you.

Obviously, this is an unwanted behavior because dogs are pack animals that need a leader, and that leader must be you. If you notice dominating behavior, it’s likely paired with other behaviors like barking, jumping on you, or even obstructing your path as you’re walking. When this behavior remains unchecked, it tends to persist and worsen. If you do notice that your dog is displaying a more dominant nose-nudging type of behavior, it’s vital you work with a dog behaviorist to train your dog to display submission around you.

dog displaying submission
Dogs may nuzzle their nose into you to display submission.

cynoclub/Shutterstock.com

Other Ways Dogs Communicate with You

There are other ways that dogs communicate with you other than rubbing their face on you. Although in some cases, direct eye contact can be a sign of aggression, most of the time when your dog is relaxed and staring at you, it’s just a way to show how much they adore you. If their face is soft and their body language is calm, they’re just admiring you and showing you some affection. That means you’re doing good as a dog parent because your pup feels safe and relaxed around you.

Other times, it’s not eye contact but physical contact. Dogs lean on you when you’re seated either with their whole body or they just rest your head on your lap. This is another sign of affection that lets you know they feel good being around you and they just want to stay close. That head on your lap could also turn into a full-on nap. If you’re on the couch, your dog cuddles up against you, and naps in your lap, it’s the ultimate way to say ‘hey, thank you for everything, and I love you.’

When you return home, you may discover that your dog has made your dirty clothes pile their bed. Although it’s not a place where you would lay your head, for your dog, it’s a place of comfort. They’re communicating that they miss you, they feel safe when they can smell you, and when you’re gone, that’s the closest they can get to you. This is especially true if your dog suffers from separation anxiety. They look for something that has your scent so that they can still feel connected to you even when you’re not around.

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While they are mostly fun, they can be demanding of your time, to the point of possessiveness.
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About the Author

Angie is a writer with over 10 years of experience developing content for product and brand reviews, focusing much of her time on animals of all types. A cat owner herself, she enjoys writing articles on beloved pets that both inform and entertain her audience.

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