For animals that don't speak, dogs are remarkably effective communicators. They use their barks, growls, whines, body language and touch to communicate with both other dogs and people. Often, tactile communication means different things depending on circumstances, so always take account of context when trying to read your dog.
It’s hard to ignore being pawed, and your dog has figured this out. Pawing can be an invitation to play or a way to ask for something specific (like food or head scratches). Either way, pawing is definitely a plea for some sort of attention. Observe your dog’s accompanying body language to figure out what he means when he’s pawing at you or another dog. A wagging tail and bowing posture most likely mean play is the goal; whining and general restlessness mean he’s pawing for attention.
Licking is a classic canine greeting and mark of affection, but dogs also lick to show submissiveness at a particular moment. A dog will lick another dog's face to say, “I’m friendly and pose no threat.” Dogs also lick one another to groom (for purposes of social bonding).
If you’ve ever held a puppy and thought he was trying to bite you, you may have been the recipient of some affectionate mouthing. Puppies explore with their mouths as much as they do with eyes and ears. Mouthing between young puppies is a form of play. If a puppy bites down too hard and hurts one of his siblings or his mother, the other dog will typically squeal so the biter learns that they've gone too far. This is known as a bite inhibition. It’s how dogs learn their limits and the tolerance levels of others. Biting is also a form of tactile communication. It is a way for dogs to show fear, to discipline other dogs that play too rough, or to protect themselves from aggression.
Dogs have very powerful senses of smell and their noses are also important tools in their communication repertoire. Touching noses is a greeting, a method of socialization and, as research in The University of Zurich Institute of Zoology revealed, a means for dogs to find out whether the dog they’re encountering has eaten recently! The study found that dogs would touch noses in order to gauge the likelihood of there being food in the area.
Leaning Their Weight on Another
You may have noticed that your dog places their weight on you or other dogs for reassurance and security if they feel threatened or anxious -- or if they sense that you feel that way. Or, they could simply be asking for attention (like pawing). Some have also suggested that, when dogs lean on other dogs, it could be a way of avoiding conflict with that dog over resources such as food or toys; that is, the leaning might be a way to say "Look how big I am! Don't mess with me and all will be well" or it could help the dog size up another dog's heft to see whether they'd be a dog to avoid messing with!
By Simon Foden
Border Collie Rescue: Pawing
ASPCA: Canine Body Language
Sheppard Software: Decoding Dog Behavior
Susan Bulanda: Biting and Mouthing in Dogs and Puppies
Psychology Today: Why Dogs Touch Noses; Communication and More
That Mutt: Why Does My Dog Lean on Me?
About the Author
Simon Foden has been a freelance writer and editor since 1999. He began his writing career after graduating with a Bachelors of Arts degree in music from Salford University. He has contributed to and written for various magazines including "K9 Magazine" and "Pet Friendly Magazine." He has also written for Dogmagazine.net.