How Do Dogs Communicate Affection?
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley January 28, 2020
Dogs have been evolving with us from the transition of a nomadic existence to a sedentary one (Botigué et al., 2017). Our long history with dogs allows them to understand human behavior better than any other species. Furthermore, they may have even picked up some human communication cues along the way. However, even though dogs have a special bond with humans, they evolved from pack animals and still show many dog communication cues. How can we, as humans, better understand our dogs? How do we know if our dog enjoys spending time with us, our family and friends, or even other dogs you have play dates with? Do dogs show affection, and if so, how? These are all questions that will be explored in this article.
How Do Dogs Show Affection?
To understand how dogs show affection it is first important to understand how dogs communicate. To fully understand your dog and whether they enjoy your company or the company of those around you, it’s important to know the positive and negative communication cues. The primary mode of communication for dogs is body language. Other modes of communication include vocalizations, touching, and body odors.
Dogs use their whole body to communicate with humans and other animals including their posture, fur, tail, ears, eyes, and mouth. Some of these body language cues to pay attention to include (Siniscalchi et al., 2018):
Dogs who are feeling defensive will have tense, upright body posture while a frightened dog may shrink down and cower. A dog that is calm and welcoming will have a neutral body posture where the dog’s muscles are relaxed and loose. A dog who is feeling playful might display a play bow, where they go down on their front legs with their rear end up in the air.
Dogs that are aroused or frightened experience piloerection, which causes the fur on their body to stand upright. Dogs that are calm and welcoming will have flat fur. There are some dogs that will experience piloerection when they are playful as well.
Not all tail wagging is a sign of a happy, friendly dog. A dog who holds its tail high with a tense, rigid wag may feel defensive. A dog who is holding its tail in between its legs and quickly wagging the tip of the tail may feel frightened. A happy, welcoming dog will hold their tail somewhere in the middle and the tail wag will be relaxed and loose. Recent evidence indicates that the direction the tail wags sends clues about whether the dog is feeling aggressive or friendly. If a dog is wagging their tail to the right, they are inviting social contact. If a dog is wagging their tail to the left, it may indicate negative emotions.
If a dog’s ears are erect and rigid or if the ears are tightly pulled back onto their head, this may indicate that the dog is feeling aggressive or frightened. If the dog’s ears are relaxed and loose in their normal position, the dog is likely calm. Some dogs may also loosely pull their ears back when they are happy or playful, such as when they greet you when you get home from work.
A dog who is feeling aggressive will stare with hard eyes. The dog’s eyes may also widen, showing the whites of their eyes. This is called “whale eye” and is a clear sign that a dog may bite if the threat is not removed. A dog who is scared may avert their eyes away and blink frequently as a sign of appeasement. A dog who is relaxed will have soft eyes and may be looking at its surroundings calmly.
Dog owners are familiar with the snarl dogs can give when they are sending a warning that they are ready to bite. The dogs’ lips will become tense and curl up, displaying their impressive teeth. A scared dog may show a very similar display with their mouth known as a submissive smile. Dogs that are scared or anxious may show a lot of lip licking. Relaxed dogs will have loose lips and may have their mouth open and tongue out.
Vocalizations are another important mode of communication in dogs. Vocalizations include (Siniscalchi et al., 2018):
Barking is used during greetings, warnings, play, or when seeking attention. Not all domestic dogs can bark while some breeds are notorious for barking frequently.
Growls are typically used as a warning to more severe aggressive displays. Growls are also used during play with humans or other dogs.
Whining may indicate stress or discomfort and may be used to get attention from a caregiver.
Howling is far more common in wild dogs such as wolves and coyotes and is used in social facilitation. Some domestic dog breeds are prone to howling and some may even enjoy howling along with their owners.
Body odors are a mode of communication that is very important to dogs, but it is not something humans can participate in with them. Dogs have amazing olfactory capabilities far beyond what humans are capable of. Dogs use body odor to gain information about those around them. Dogs are able to detect and remember individual body scents and may quickly detect any changes that could indicate a mood or health shift. As a dog owner, you are likely very aware of how dogs use body language to communicate with each other. Body odor is why you have to stop every 10 seconds on your walk so your dog can sniff every tree and then mark them all with their own scent (Siniscalchi et al., 2018).
Finally, we will discuss tactile communication. Tactile communication, or touching, may include standing or lying with another individual, rough and tumble play behavior, and grooming behaviors such as licking or nibbling. Tactile communication between dogs and humans is often a very important part of the human-dog bond (Siniscalchi et al., 2018).
Do Dogs Show Affection The Same Way To Humans And Other Animals?
Ultimately, dogs will be dogs, which means they will communicate with those around them in similar ways to display when they are feeling aggressive or uncomfortable, and most importantly when they are feeling friendly and affectionate. However, since dogs have a very special bond with humans, there are some forms of affection that they engage in with us and not other species.
How Do Dogs Show Affection To Other Dogs?
Dogs may show affection to other dogs by displaying relaxed, friendly body language, such as having soft facial features and having a loose tail that is wagging to the right. Dogs who like each other may vocalize back and forth with little whines and barks that are meant to be inviting and playful. Dogs that enjoy each other’s company may often spend a lot of time in the same vicinity and even nap together. Some dogs greatly enjoy playing with other dogs and will have preferences for certain individuals, maybe even having a best friend who is their favorite playmate. Dogs who are related, such as mother and puppy or littermates, may lick and groom each other as a sign of affection.
How Do Dogs Show Affection To Humans?
Our relationship with dogs is very unique. Even though dogs are a different species than us, the relationship between owner and dog is akin to the relationship between a parent and child (Siniscalchi et al., 2018). The co-evolution of dogs and humans has allowed dogs to understand human communication cues in a way that no other species can, including nonhuman primates. One such communication cue is the use of pointing to show an animal where an object is. Dogs as young as 6 weeks understand human pointing gestures and will readily find the object the human is pointing to or gazing at (Riedel et al., 2008).
Another communication cue picked up by dogs is gazing. In much of the animal kingdom, including wolves and other wild canids, gazing or staring into the eyes of a conspecific is considered a threatening behavior or a form of aggression. In humans, gazing is a regular part of our social communication and can even be important in forming social attachments. When humans mutually gaze into each other’s eyes, whether between a mother and child or between romantic partners, the hormone oxytocin is released. Oxytocin is also known as the love hormone because it plays a vital role in social bonding (Nagasawa et al., 2015). One study by Nagasawa and colleagues (2015) showed that humans and dogs do participate in mutual gazing, which results in increased levels of oxytocin in both humans and dogs. The same was not true for hand-raised wolves and their caretakers, further proving the special bond between humans and dogs (Nagasawa et al., 2015).
Dogs will try to communicate with us using their special body language cues as well, but it is up to us to know what they mean and respond appropriately. Other ways in which dogs may show us affection include attention seeking behaviors such as barking or whining at us for food, leaning into our legs while we stand in the kitchen, sleeping with us on the couch, gazing or pawing at us to ask for pets, bringing us toys to play with, jumping up on us, licking our faces, and greeting us at the door after work with a wagging tail, just to name a few ways.
How Do Dogs Show Affection To Other Animals?
Dogs will largely stick to what they know in communications with other animals. Showing affection to members of a different species will include a lot of the same behaviors mentioned previously. Dogs are highly intelligent animals though, so some dogs may learn the body language cues of the animals they were raised around and try to use those cues to communicate affection.
How Do I Know If My Dog Loves Me?
If your dog enjoys spending time with you and typically seeks out your attention and affection, you can be sure your dog loves you! Dogs and their owners build strong bonds based on trust and respect. Dogs that are bonded with their owners are often way more patient and understanding about activities that they are not comfortable with. For example, maybe your dog is nervous and anxious to go to the groomer, but they will sit nicely for you to get their nails trimmed.
What Are Some Ways Dog Parents Can Respond Back To Show Their Love?
The best thing you can do to show your dog you love them is to learn how to understand dog body language and to learn your individual dog’s preferences for affection. For example, giving your dog hugs and kisses. Hugging and kissing are very human forms of affection and most dogs do not enjoy these displays of affection. Some dogs learn to tolerate hugs and kisses from their owner and will not put up a fight while some dogs really hate it. This same idea goes with scratching your dog’s belly, rear end, or ears. Some dogs love to be pet and will let you pet them all over. Other dogs are sensitive in certain areas of their body and it’s important to respect their space. Cueing into their body language will help you determine what your dog enjoys, which will help you create a safe and loving environment for them to thrive in.
Besides learning what your dog likes, it’s equally as important to learn what your dog does not like and help them avoid situations that make them uncomfortable. Dogs who are uncomfortable in a situation will show a variety of appeasement behaviors to help dissipate the threat. Appeasement behaviors include turning the head away, actively moving away, averting their gaze, lip licking, yawning, lifting a paw, or rolling over onto their back. If your dog is displaying one or multiple of these behaviors, your dog is trying to tell you they are uncomfortable with the situation. It is best to move your dog away from the person or item causing distress before your dog feels they need to defend themselves further by growling or biting. If your dog growls in a given situation, do not punish them for growling. A growl is a warning signal from your dog telling you they need to get out of the situation. Punishing your dog for growling will get rid of the warning signal and may lead to them biting instead next time. If your dog growls, calmly and immediately remove them from the situation, identify the stressor, and work with a trainer or behaviorist to address the issue (Siniscalchi et al., 2018).
To understand how dogs show affection, it is important to understand their many communication cues. All of these cues discussed in this article are important to understand if you own or work with dogs. Understanding stress and warning signals can help pet parents avoid putting their dog in a situation that is uncomfortable for them and can help us all avoid dog bites. It is also important to note that each dog is an individual. Dogs can learn communication cues differently based on how they were raised. Dogs of different breeds can also have different communication cues. For example, some dogs have docked ears or tails, meaning they cannot use those body parts for effective communication while other dogs do not bark (Siniscalchi et al., 2018). The most important thing you can do to build a strong relationship with your dog is to understand how they show affection and learn how they enjoy receiving affection from you. The relationship between dogs and humans is unique and the more we can do to strengthen that bond, the better off we will all be.
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