Dogs cannot walk up and tell you how they feel. Instead, they use certain actions to show you when they feel affection. It is up to you to decipher these signs and behaviors to learn what your dog is trying to tell you and how.
NOTE: "Dominance Theory" is a widely debated topic among dog behaviorists, but we at Cuteness like to give voice to writers on both sides of the debate. For an opposing view, please see our article Social Hierarchy Among Dogs.
Tail wagging is the first sign that many people notice, but it may not always be a sign of affection. Your dog may wag his tail when he's glad to see you or when you rub his back, and these are instances when the meaning is obviously positive. There are times, however, when your dog will wag his tail to indicate nervousness or fear. Typically, dogs wag their tail in an upright position to show happiness and affection, and in a lower or more horizontal position to indicate uncertainty. Understanding the subtle differences in tail wags can reveal the true emotions behind the gesture.
The act of licking can have several meanings, but if your dog licks you when you greet her, it is often a sign of affection. Affectionate dogs may lick upon meeting you, after petting or when cuddling up together on the couch. In the dog world, licking is a display of submission to dominant pack members. In the human-dog world, licking is a way for the dog to feel closer to his human friend and a form of repetitive habit that relaxes the animal. It also allows your dog to taste the salt in your sweat and to show respect toward your elevated social position.
Barking and Jumping
Dogs play with other dogs that they like. Dog play typically consists of barking, jumping, nipping at one another and generally having fun. If your dog views you as a friend and someone he cares for, the odds are he will display this type of frolicking behavior from time to time as a show of affection. While nails and teeth can hurt soft human skin, your dog does not intend any harm. Instead, he just wants to engage his friend in some bonding activities in an attempt to become closer with the dominant animal of the house and to strengthen the pack overall.
If you think your pooch is smiling at you, you could be right. It turns out that both humans and dogs use facial expressions to indicate how they are feeling, and they may even use some of the same muscles to create those expressions. According to Jeffrey Mogil, a neuro-scientist at Montreal's McGill University, animals feel some of the same emotions as humans and they use their facial muscles to show it. Watch your dog carefully for signs of emotion and the next time you notice something that looks like a smile, it's okay to smile back.
By Robert Morello
Psychology Today: What a Dog's Tail Wags Really Mean: Some New Scientific Data
Animal Planet: Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?
ASPCA: Mouthing, Nipping and Play Biting in Adult Dogs
Animal Planet: Dogs that Lick
ABC News: Did That Dog Just Smile at You?
Cesar's Way: When Dogs Play Too Rough
About the Author
Robert Morello has an extensive travel, marketing and business background. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University in 2002 and has worked in travel as a guide, corporate senior marketing and product manager and travel consultant/expert. Morello is a professional writer and adjunct professor of travel and tourism.