Dogs have an extensive repertoire of social cues and signals that they use to communicate with each other during play. One of those social cues is something that we usually associate with allergies or illness: the sneeze.
The sneeze as a social cue is different from a physiologic sneeze. When a dog sneezes due to an irritation in her nose, the sneeze is often forceful and may include nasal discharge or jerking of her head. By comparison, a social sneeze is small and delicate with no nasal discharge and very little head movement.
A dog who sneezes during play with another dog is telling the other dog to tone down the energy level a notch or two. It’s her way of saying, “I’m enjoying this playtime with you but you’re getting a little too rambunctious for me right now. Take a minute to chill out and then we can continue playing.”
Dogs will also use a sneeze as a social cue with their humans. A social sneeze directed at humans is used to get their attention. It is usually followed by barking or even pawing at or pointing their nose at something they want.
Dogs who sneeze a lot – regardless of context – may have an underlying medical issue that is causing them to sneeze. Anything that causes irritation of the nose or throat can cause repeated sneezing or even a reverse sneeze. This can include allergens, foreign material in the nose, an infection, or (rarely) a tumor in the nose or throat.
If you are not sure if your dog’s sneeze is a social cue or is being caused by a medical issue, take a video of your dog sneezing and share it with her veterinarian. They may reassure you that the sneeze is not a concern or may recommend that you make an appointment for an examination.
Social sneezes are part of the communication repertoire that make our canine companions unique. It’s amazing how eloquent our dogs can be without words!