While most people are aware of how affectionate dogs generally are, not all dogs react the same way to their owners. It’s often difficult to know what certain dog behaviors mean, and how they might reflect a dog’s various emotions. So how do dogs show affection?
Dogs show affection through certain behaviors including tail wagging, physical touch, sniffing, and exposing their belly.
We’ll look at the major signs that your dog is being affectionate, as well as pointing out some very subtle behaviors that you may not have noticed. We’ll also consider some dog psychology and history to get a grasp of what’s going on in your dog’s head.
Dogs and Communication
The obvious point that dogs can’t talk means that they need to show their appreciation in different ways. Dogs are mainly going to be showing their love through body language and actions.
That means you have to look at several parts of your dog to get their true feelings, including their nose, tail and basically every body part in between.
The tail is one of the biggest and best indicators of your dog’s mood. If you consider other animals, like cows and horses, they can’t help but swish and move their tail at almost all times.
For a dog, the instinct is similar and they will willingly show their feelings through their tail. This means you can tell if your dog is feeling happiness, fear or is in an attacking mode.
A stiff tail over a dog’s back is a warning sign, but a full, vigorous body wag in circular motions is more likely to tell you that your dog is happy and excited. The looser your dog’s tail, the higher level of relaxation.
In the wild, eye contact, especially prolonged contact, is a sign of aggression and declaration of a willingness to fight. Dogs will avoid prolonged stares, and even if you try to stare at a dog, they will most likely turn their head away.
For this reason it’s not great to engage in eye contact with an unfamiliar dog.
Eye contact from a dog to their human likely raises bonding and love hormone levels which get released from your dog’s brain. Don’t overdo it, as in the canine world, challenges or threats are often done via direct eye contact.
The baring of teeth is likely demonstrating aggression if accompanied with growling. Sometimes it can be used in a defensive way but either way you’re likely not dealing with a dog with an affectionate mood at that moment.
If they are baring teeth while being silent, this is a sign of submission and will likely accompany some behavior that they know is bad, or they detect that you’re not happy.
Licking, especially any licking of you, is a surefire sign that your dog feels close to you. Licking is used for cleaning, therefore often used among dog families to make sure everyone is doing well.
Soft vocalizations from your dog are often a sign of relaxation and contentment, meaning your dog is comfortable with you. Sighs and groans, particularly while sleeping or lying down, show that your dog is ready to be affectionate.
Keep in mind that the constant sniffing by a dog is activating a huge part of their brain, and a dog builds up a picture of the world much more through their nose.
However, this can be embarrassing as the dog goes straight for your crotch, but this is a great source of smell information and is a common greeting among dogs. It is a friendly behavior and shows your dog is willing to be associated with you, at a minimum.
The ability of dogs to detect subtle smells is mind blowing; they can even smell the mood of their owner.
In addition, these studies revealed that a fear smell in the room caused the dogs’ heart rates to be higher than when the dog was in happy or neutral conditions. Increased heart rate is a sign of nervousness but also excitement.
Proximity is one of the big goals of a dog, so that they can gain access to physical sensations and smells. Unfortunately, this means a dog will jump up to lick your face or touch your head as in most cases they are much smaller than you.
You represent security for a dog that has high levels of affection, so if you notice them tailing you constantly this is also a great sign.
Dogs find comfort in large groups, and so when you notice them staying close or leaning on you, it could be signs of anxiety or stress. If they constantly follow you from room to room, it shows they are in this pack mentality.
It could reflect hunger, stress, loyalty or many other behaviors. Of course aggressive behavior like biting, snapping are a sure sign that this following is not out of affection.
Resting Near You
If you notice them lay down and close their eyes while resting against you, this shows that they are relaxing in your presence. Otherwise, they may be sitting next to you at attention to protect you.
Any sleeping of a dog while in your presence shows a high level of trust and relaxation. This is a holdover from when they were wolves, who slept in a big pack for protection and safety.
Dog Exposing Their Belly
A dog’s most vulnerable area is their belly, so if you notice your dog exposing the belly this is a sure sign they are feeling safe or looking to show submission. Similar behaviors include rolling around on the ground, as this is just exaggerated showing of the belly.
Evolutionary pressure has seen some remarkable changes in dogs from their closest living relative, wolves. For example, dogs show higher degrees of control and expression of their facial muscles, allowing communication with humans to be easier.
If you’ve ever had the company of two or more dogs, one notable aspect to their behavior is the constant play fighting. It may seem overly aggressive, but it is very important for a dog’s social behavior. If you notice them wanting this type of rough play with you, it’s not abnormal. It’s best not to engage, however, as there are risks involved of course.
Offering You Their Possessions
If your dog brings you their toys, this can be a huge sign of loyalty and willingness to be affectionate. Of course, they may just want to play with the toy, but the alternative could be that it is a type of offering.
Many animals will offer their most prized possession to a superior in their hierarchy. Some say this is a way for the dog to show that they trust and want your leadership, and in return hope that you look after them and do the best for them. Then again, they may just be presenting their favorite ball for you to throw for them!
A slight twist on this, is that the dog will bring certain items that are not working as expected, for example a dead animal. They will present these objects, Often accompanied by whining, to you and get you to try and solve or fix the issue.
Dogs can have very strong instincts driving their behavior, and if you notice your dog constantly trying to herd everybody together, this is a great sign of affection. Herding helps keep everyone protected by preventing individuals, especially children, from wandering off.
Unfortunately, a dog’s protective instinct can get annoying especially when you are engaging in behaviors that are not a cause of concern. For example, many dogs will get extremely agitated if you just lie down or try to sleep.
To a dog, your unresponsiveness is a sign of sickness or death, and your dog will want to do anything to try and save you. However, it does show that your dog cares for you and your health.
Behaviors That May Lower Affection
While it may be extremely tempting to hug your dog — and for many of us, hugging is an ultimate sign of affection — many dogs will be hardwired to dislike this behavior.
For some dogs, a hug represents them being trapped, kicking in the fight or flight instinct. Some dogs can learn to overcome this, but it’s best to limit hugs, especially if they don’t respond enthusiastically. If your dog wants them, they’ll definitely let you know by approaching into your arms.
Different breeds and individual dogs will just have different levels of need for physical affection. Don’t try to force hugs and look for other signs your dog wants to show affection.
As dogs have a pack mentality, they are always looking for hierarchies. While we don’t condone attempts to assert yourself as a “pack leader” or dominant alpha, you can certainly gain the respect of your dog by treating them fairly, consistently, and as member of your family. This can help your dog feel safe and secure.
As you can see, the concept of dogs showing affection is very complex. But just as we do with our fellow humans, we gradually learn to read the behavior of our companion dogs and understand the emotions they are trying to express.