Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and love is in the air!
What better time to reflect on the unconditional love we get from our canine companions. Dogs are eternally overflowing with love for their people. Even though they can’t say the words - we know they love us and they tell us every day in their own ways. So how can we say it back to them in their own language? Let me count the ways.
1. BABY TALK
If someone tells you it’s silly when you baby talk to your dog, you tell them it’s science! Research shows that dogs react positively to the sound of human voices, particularly if they’re high-pitched.
2. GO ON AN ADVENTURE
Our pups thrive on routine, but a surprise trip out of the house every once in a while is fun for you and for them - as long as it doesn’t involve a trip to the V-E-T, of course! Your adventure could be anything from a car ride around town, a visit to the dog park, or a hiking trip through the woods. You know your dog best - what would they enjoy?
3. BE A BETTER LISTENER
By listening to their body language, that is. Dogs communicate best with a language other than the sounds that come from their mouths! Learn to read what their different facial expressions, tail positions, and body postures mean and you’ll be a better listener.
Dog ears come in all shapes and sizes, allowing some dogs to better communicate with them than others. Calm, contented dogs tend to relax their ears in a position that is natural to them. When alert, or if feeling aggressive or dominant, a dog will raise their erect/tense ears higher on their head and point them at the direction of their interest. If a dog has their ears pulled flat against their head, the dog is likely fearful, worried or submissive.
Like people, a dog’s eyes can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. A content dog will look at you with a relaxed expression or ‘soft eyes,’ while direct staring indicates a dog might feel threatened or want to assert dominance. If a dog averts their gaze, they want to show submission, as they may be worried about interacting with you. Large, dilated pupils, or when a dog looks at you from the corner of their eyes, usually prelude aggressive or fear-based behavior.
A dog’s mouth mimics the emotions human mouths show. A relaxed dog will have a soft, relaxed mouth, which may look like a grin. If a dog has a tight mouth or tensed-up lips, that shows tension. A curled lip and exposed teeth may be signs of aggression, but some breeds (like Chesapeake Bay Retrievers) do this as a smile. Tongue flicking or licking often indicates uncertainty or uneasiness, and yawning helps lower a dog’s blood pressure and calms them.
Muscle tension is your guide to the emotions being conveyed by a dog. Tight muscles, especially around the head and shoulders, often indicate a dog who is scared or aggressive. Fur can also clue people in on how a dog is feeling. Calm dogs will display a smooth coat along their back, while scared or challenged dogs will raise the hairs (called hackles) along their neck and back to appear larger in size.
Tail position and movement are big indicators of dog emotions. Excited dogs hold their tails high and wag them quickly from side to side. A cautious or nervous dog will also wag their tail, but it will be straight out and wagged slower and more steadily. When alert, a dog holds their tail tall and erect, while a fearful dog will tuck the tail between the legs. A content dog keeps their tail relaxed in a position natural to them, because like dog ears, no two dog tails are alike.
These guidelines are a general overview of dog body language, and the signals and their meanings can vary between breeds. When in doubt, accept the most fearful or aggressive signal a dog is showing you. If the tail is wagging, but the dog is grimacing and looks tense, assume the most dangerous end is telling the truth. Your goal is to observe the entire dog, and the situation and context the animal is in, and do your best to accurately determine what the dog is trying to say. With time and education, you’ll soon speak another language — with man’s best friend!
4. GIVE THEM A SURPRISE TREAT
What dog doesn’t go bonkers for delicious tasty treats? Usually, they have to work for their treats, but sometimes, give them yummy snacks just because. Especially for special occasions, like Valentine’s Day!
5. LEAN ON ME
A dog leaning their head on you when you pet them shows they are seeking warmth and security. When a mother has her newborn puppies, the litter will rest on her and each other for the same reason. In many ways, domestic dogs see us as a parent and will replicate this behavior. A dog letting them pet you means they feel comfortable, but leaning their head on you implies even more affection.
Leaning against you while sleeping is also related to when they were a puppy. Furthermore, it is related to their wild ancestry. By sleeping together, dogs can better protect themselves from other predators, as well as alert each other quickly to any other dangers. Since your dog sees you as one of their pack, they will lean their head on you to sleep and know they can be safe.
Leaning because they want your attention Whether they want to go for a walk, play or for any other reason, your dog may lean on you so you will respond. They may have tried to get your attention in other ways, but they often learn that leaning on you works. They know it as a useful action for you to respond, especially if we do not notice other subtle calls for attention.
Leaning to tell others to stay away: if you live with other dogs, pets or even other people, it is possible your dog is leaning on you to show others they belong to you. It may be difficult at first to tell the difference between doing this and other reasons they lean on you, but we might start to notice they do it when others are around or approaching. More than saying you belong together, they may be telling others to stay away.
However, if your dog is leaning on you to get attention all the time, it might mean you are not giving them enough of it. Dogs need to be sufficiently emotionally and physically stimulated. How much stimulation they need depends on the individual. If you do not give them enough walks, play games with them or in any way deprive them of what they need, they may lean on you excessively to petition for more.
When the dog is leaning on you because they are possessive, it is not OK. While it is wonderful to develop a strong bond with your dog, if they become overly attached it creates behavioral problems. In extreme cases they may attack other dogs or people if they get too close to you. You may need to take the dog to a dog trainer or ethologist if they are overly possessive.
Separation anxiety is also a reason why a dog might lean on you to get your attention or become possessive. If they are not properly socialized or stimulated, they will feel insecure when you are around. They might lean on you simply to feel OK when you are around.
A small-breed dog can simply hop into your lap when he feels like cuddling but for larger dogs, leaning against your leg may be as close as they can get. Some dogs lean gently against their owner’s legs for a little bit of comfort but others will lean with the full force of their bodyweight. You can mimic this behavior to say “I also love and trust you” right back to your best furry friend and enjoy the physical contact.
6. EAR NOOGIES
The soft spot right behind your dog’s ears is a nerve center that’s packed with feeling receptors. If you scratch gently or massage them there, you’ll actually release endorphins. That’s mother nature’s natural painkiller. Your best friend will definitely feel the love.
7. SHARE A LOVING GAZE
Studies have shown that dogs can actually read human emotions through our facial expressions! And if you thought that was cool, you can use your facial expression to communicate emotions to your dog. Researchers in Japan discovered that when dogs feel connected to people, they raise their eyebrows at them - more often the left one. And, you can do the same back at your dog! Raise your left eyebrow and make eye contact to show your pet just how happy you are to see them!
8. TEACH THEM A NEW TRICK
Dogs tend to have great appetites - both for food and for learning! Learning a new trick not only keeps your dog's brain sharp, but it builds their confidence. Additionally, it’s one of the very best ways to build the human-animal bond.