Of course you love your pup. With those soulful eyes, that waggy tail, and the sweetest spirit imaginable, how could you not? The question is: does your dog know that? It’s incredibly important. “Showing your dog affection is an important part of establishing your bond,” says veterinarian, Dr Katy Nelson. Regardless of age, all dogs need affection and emotional interaction – but they’re unique in terms of their exact needs. “Some dogs crave pets, hugs, scratches, and lots of communication and cooing,” Dr Nelson explains. “ Others are more laid back and independent and will take what you give, but they don’t necessarily love all the attention you may want to give.”
But canine cuddles aren’t necessarily about a dog’s need for love – as we understand that concept, anyway. “Although this may be what humans perceive, the underlying instinct for petting and snuggling is more of a reassurance that the pack leader (or owner) is still accepting them as part of the pack,” says Dr Nelson, adding that the key is figuring out exactly what makes your dog happy. “Knowing your pet’s personality goes a long way when determining how much affection your pet may crave.”
Before we delve into the signs that you might not be showering your pup with enough affection, it’s essential to understand the difference between affection and attention. Dr Nelson defines affection as a gentle feeling of fondness or being loved/liked. You can show a dog affection by petting, kissing, stroking, hugging, or snuggling them. Attention, on the other hand, has more to do with regarding someone as interesting or important. Ways to pay attention to your dog include playing, walking, feeding, training, or talking to them. For a truly successful relationship, you need both.
It’s important to note that when you’re attempting to do either of these things, you should steer clear of certain behaviours. One biggie is aggressive play, especially with puppies. This can lead to biting behaviour and enforce negative habits, which become even more problematic as they get older. You should also make sure not to show your affection through food; this can predispose dogs to begging behaviours and medical problems related to obesity. Hugging your fog may also be a no-no, depending on your dog and how you’re doing it.
According to Dr Nelson, a study published by the journal Royal Society Open Science showed that some dog breeds act more independently than others, more closely resembling their wolf ancestors with their lack of dependence on humans. For example, Labradors were more likely than German Shepherds to look to their humans when solving puzzles. Czechoslovakian Wolf Dogs were even less likely to look to their humans, indicating a closer relationship to their wolf ancestors than both the Shepherds and the Labradors.
“Some dogs have an insatiable need for constant belly rubs and cuddles, while others are content after a few pats,” says Dr Nelson. “Just like people, different dogs have different levels of need for affection, and they will let you know if they’re feeling neglected.” Of course, it’s not always easy to figure out what they’re trying to tell us.
When a dog chews on your shoes, it might seem like just an annoying habit – but something is prompting this behaviour. “Puppies may chew because of teething and should be supplemented with appropriate chew toys,” advises Dr Nelson. “Chewing may also be attributable to boredom or anxiety. In that case, your dog may need some extra playtime or TLC.” If anxiety is the root issue, however, playtime alone will not necessarily help. Dr Nelson suggests speaking with your veterinarian to help combat this issue.
Dogs bark for a variety of reasons. “They could be alerting you to perceived danger, greeting a person or another dog, chasing after a bird in prey mode, experiencing anxiety, or simply begging for your attention,” says Dr Nelson. If your dog’s barking is directed at other animals or people outside the home, it’s likely due to territorial instinct. But if the barking is directed at you or another family member, there’s a good chance your pup is trying to tell you something.
Here’s some good news, “Giving dogs attention because they are barking doesn’t necessarily mean you are encouraging them to bark,” says Dr Nelson. “If your dog is bored and needs additional playtime, giving them that affection could dramatically decrease the amount of attention-seeking barking.”
Pawing at you is your dog’s way of asking for attention or initiating play. Think of it like a friendly tap on the shoulder from a particularly enthusiastic friend. “While this most often means that your dog wants your attention and affection, it could [also] be a sign that your dog is anxious or looking to you for comfort,” says Dr Nelson.
How can you tell the difference? A lot of it boils down to past interactions between the two of you. Dogs generally learn through trial and error, so if your pup has learned that you pay attention to him when he paws, he will continue to do it since it gave him what he wanted. You’ll also want to pay close attention to your pup’s body language. Dogs communicate with their whole bodies, and that should be taken into account when determining their moods. A timid or anxious dog would more than likely have a tucked tail, ears back, and a stiff body; he may also be panting, drooling, averting eye contact, pacing, and moving away from whatever stimulus is affecting him. A relaxed and comfortable dog will have relaxed, forward-facing ears; a calm and relaxed tail; and a calm body posture.
Either way, giving your dog affection at this time can help. You’ll either be fulfilling his need for snuggles or lulling him into a very real sense of security.
Whining is one of many ways that canines communicate vocally. “Dogs most commonly whine when they’re seeking attention, when they’re excited, when they’re anxious, or when they’re trying to please you,” says Dr Nelson. While more vocal breeds (terriers or toy breeds, for example) may be more prone to whining, any dog can learn to do it for attention if that behaviour leads to you looking at, speaking to, or otherwise interacting with your pet.
But you shouldn’t necessarily give into your dog’s demands for attention at this time. “Any acknowledgment of the whining may end up reinforcing that behaviour,” says Dr Nelson. “Instead, wait for a gap in the whining to praise your dog for being quiet, and give attention and treats then. It can be tricky to be more consistent than your dog is persistent, but over time, your dog may learn that quietly sitting for attention earns more rewards than whining.”
Biting can be a very concerning behaviour. Aggressive dogs will growl, bark, or snarl, as well as potentially show their teeth and have a very tense stance. Play-biting is a different thing altogether, and it can be adorable and a clear sign your dog wants some affection – pronto. “If your pet is play-biting (or pulling at you for attention), then he’ll do it because he’s having fun with you, and it’s a sign of affection,” explains Dr Nelson. “He will look happy, bite gently, and may even be lying down.
When dogs are using their nose or head to bump you, they’re simply asking for attention in a forward way. “They may be asking for pets, scratches, a walk, food, or to be played with,” Dr Nelson notes. Basically, here’s the translation, “Hello! Remember me? The best dog in the whole, wide world? Pay attention to me now!”
When a dog rolls on his back, it may be a sign that he’s giving you easy access to his belly for belly rubs. This may also be a sign of submission. “To determine the cause of this behaviour, it is best to look at the dog’s personality and the situation that made them start the behaviour,” advises Dr Nelson. For example, he might be done play-wrestling with another dog or want to avoid an altercation, or it could be an invitation for you to dole out some belly rubs and affection.
Howling is one of many forms of canine vocal communication. “Dogs howl to announce their presence, to attract attention, and to make contact with others,” says Dr Nelson. Some dogs also howl in response to high-pitched noises, such as singing, sirens, or musical instruments. If you show your dog affection and he stops howling, he may have just wanted some extra TLC.
You and your dog do need some time apart. After all, as the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Plus, boundaries can help your dog understand what’s expected of him and behave better. “Too much affection can also mean that you can give your dog positive cues at the wrong time to back up bad behaviours, which can lead to behavioural problems like separation anxiety, vocalising for attention, and/or damaging items in the home to get attention,” Dr Nelson explains.
But as long as you’re fostering a healthy relationship, bring on the love! After all, a loved dog is a happy dog. “Dogs are the most selfless creatures on the planet, so give them an inch [and] they’ll give you back a mile,” says Dr Nelson. “Be assured that the affection you give will be returned in spades.” That benefits you in some tangible ways , too. “Interacting with pets has been shown to decrease anxiety in humans, lower your heart rate, and increase the release of endorphins (joy hormones) in the brain,” she adds. “So not only is it fun to play with your dog – it’s healthy, too.”
This article originally appeared on Reader’s Digest.