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How to show your dog affection

As published in Canadian Dogs Annual
How to show your dog affection

It may seem natural to hug and kiss your dog, but these gestures may actually feel threatening to some canines. Learn how to read his response to your adoration, and show your love in a way he understands.

Kissing and hugging are important displays of affection among people, but they are not in a dog’s behavioural repertoire. Some dogs may be fine with this form of affection — but how do you really know?

Practically speaking, the best way to know how an animal feels is to observe her behaviour. When you’re showing her affection, she should remain relaxed. The ears should stay forward and the tail high. If a dog likes being kissed, for example, she shouldn’t move away and try to avoid you. If you stop kissing her and she wants you to continue, we would expect her to move toward you and show a behaviour that that has worked in other contexts to get what she wants, such as pawing at you or leaning against you.

Our own dog rarely “asks” for more kisses. But she frequently asks for more petting by pawing at us, or just placing her paw on our arms if we stop stroking her. If we pair kissing the top of her head with massaging her ears, she will often move in closer, and position her head so we can more easily reach the back of her ears.

On the other hand, if a dog finds affectionate displays annoying or frightening, we’d expect completely different behaviours in response. You’d likely see her tense up, her eyes widen, her tail go down, and her ears go back. Our own dog might also move or duck away from us, as she does when she’s too busy to stay still and be petted.

Hugs can seem threatening

We have to admit that we also hug our dog. We do so gently, not tightly, so she is always free to escape from our arms if she wants to. Most dogs learn to accept or tolerate hugs from familiar individuals, but because they obviously don’t hug one another, it’s unlikely they recognize this as a sign of affection. In fact, just the opposite may be true.

Dogs sometimes bite children who try to hug them — especially children they don’t know well. For a dog, a hug can resemble the social threat of having another dog place his paws on or drape his neck overtop her shoulders. Dogs usually tell us they don’t like being hugged by using the postures we’ve already described – lowering their tails, pulling their ears back, tensing up, or trying to move away.

Being hugged is probably quite confusing for dogs. Why would their best friends all of a sudden attempt such a threatening gesture? When dogs are confused or uncertain in social situations, they display displacement behaviours. These are normal behaviours that are displaced from their usual contexts. The most common canine displacement behaviours are lip licking and yawning. If a dog shows any of these signs when being hugged or kissed, it’s a clear sign to stop.

Affiliative behaviours

It’s natural for both people and dogs to display their affection for one another with behaviours that are typical for their own species. Behaviourists usually use the term “affiliative behaviours” to describe gestures among individuals with a social bond. Dogs will show canine-specific behaviours to demonstrate their affection, but these behaviours are different from the hugging, kissing and cuddling that people show to express love.

  • Many species of social animals – including dogs – lick other individuals they are attached to. This is called “allogrooming”.
  • Another very important affiliative behaviour in dogs is simply being close to each other. Think about how often your dogs sleep curled next to one another – or to you. Following each other from place to place is another sign of social attachment.
  • Play is another affiliative behaviour that is used to create and maintain social bonds.

Find a common ground

So what are the best ways to let our dogs know we love them?

Dogs, like people, enjoy being close to those they love. Sitting next to each other on the couch, or letting your dog sit in your lap or share your bed are meaningful to both species. Spending time together and engaging in activities you both like are also good. Play a game of fetch, go for a walk, or give your dog a gentle brushing. These are things most dogs enjoy — and giving them the things they want is the best way to express our affection.



Dr. Suzanne Hetts is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist and co-owner of Animal Behavior Associates, Inc. in Denver, Colorado. For behaviour assistance and education, visit AnimalBehaviorAssociates.com.


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