Giving your dog affection the right way

It may seem natural to hug and kiss your furry friend, but these gestures may actually feel threatening to some canines. Learn how to read his response to your affection, and show your love in a way he understands.

We adore our Irish setter, Coral. From the time we brought her home as a seven-week-old puppy, we’ve showered her with affection, giving her hundreds if not thousands of kisses on her head, paws, legs, body and ears. The only area we may have missed is her tail! In return, we’ve received as many, if not more, of what we call Coral Kisses – being licked on our hands, legs, feet and faces when we return home, when we wake up in the morning, and a host of other times.

Kissing vs. licking

Kissing and hugging are very important displays of affection among people, but clearly they are not in a dog’s behavioral repertoire. On the other hand, licking one another is important to dogs, but not something humans normally do! Because we love Coral so much, most of the time we don’t mind her licking. But depending on where, when, and for how long she chooses to deliver her licks to us, it can become annoying. In turn, we wonder if our kisses and hugs annoy her as well.

How can we tell?

Practically speaking, the best way to know how an animal feels is to observe her behavior. How will she behave if she enjoys our displays of affection? She should remain relaxed and not tense up. The ears should stay forward and the tail high. If Coral likes our kisses, for example, she shouldn’t move away and try to avoid being kissed. If we stop kissing her and she wants us to continue, we would expect her to move toward us and show a behavior that has worked in other contexts to get what she wants, such as pawing at us or leaning against us.

Coral rarely “asks” for more kisses. But she frequently asks for more petting by pawing at us, or just placing her paw on our arms if we stop stroking her. If we pair kissing the top of her head with massaging her ears, Coral will often move in closer to us, and position her head so we can more easily reach the back of her ears.

Many species of social animals — including dogs — lick other individuals they are attached to.

On the other hand, if our affectionate displays annoyed or frightened Coral, we’d expect completely different behaviors in response. We’d expect to see her tense up while being kissed, her eyes to get wide, her tail to go down, and her ears to go back. She might also move or duck away from us, as she does when she’s too busy to stay still and be petted.

Hugs can seem threatening

We have to admit, we also hug Coral. We do so gently, not tightly, so she is always free to escape from our arms if she wants to. Most dogs learn to accept or tolerate hugs from familiar individuals, but because they obviously don’t hug one another, it’s unlikely they recognize this as an affection behavior. In fact, just the opposite may be true.

Dogs sometimes bite children who try to hug them – especially children they don’t know well. For a dog, a hug can resemble the social threat of having another dog place his paws on or drape his neck overtop her shoulders. Dogs usually tell us they don’t like being hugged by using the postures we’ve already described – lowering their tails, pulling their ears back, tensing up, or trying to move away.

Being hugged is probably quite confusing for dogs. Why would their best friends, their family, all of a sudden attempt such a threatening gesture? When dogs are confused or uncertain in social situations, they display displacement behaviors. These are normal behaviors that are displaced out of their usual contexts. The most common canine displacement behaviors are lip licking and yawning. If a dog shows any of these behaviors when being hugged or kissed, it’s a clear sign to stop, because she not only doesn’t enjoy what you are doing, but could feel threatened enough to bite.

Find a common ground

Because dogs likely find at least some of our affectionate displays annoying or even frightening, what are the best ways to let them know we love them?

Dogs and people share some commonalities when it comes to how we behave toward individuals we are bonded to. Both dogs and people like to be close to those they love. Sitting next to each other on the couch, letting your dog sit in your lap or share your bed (contrary to popular dog training mythology, there is nothing inherently wrong with this!) are meaningful to both species. Spending time together and engaging in activities you both enjoy are also good. Touching is important too – it feels good to pet our dogs, and most dogs love it as well.

The best way to know how an animal feels is to observe her behavior.


Affiliative behaviors

It’s natural for both people and dogs to display their affection for one another with behaviors that are typical for their own species. Behaviorists usually use the term “affiliative behaviors” to describe gestures among individuals with a social bond.

Dogs will show canine-specific behaviors to demonstrate their affection, but their behaviors are different from the hugging, kissing and cuddling that people show to express their love.

  • Many species of social animal – including dogs – lick other individuals they are attached to. This is called “allogrooming” and is likely one reason Coral licks us.
  • Another very important affiliative behavior in dogs is simply being close to each other. Think about how often your dogs sleep curled next to one another – or to you. Following each other from place to place is another sign of social attachment. In our house, if Coral isn’t in the same room as us, she’s likely someplace where she can see us and monitor what we are doing.
  • Play is another affiliative behavior that is used to create as well as maintain social bonds.

When we do use human gestures of affection that dogs don’t share, such as kissing and hugging, we must be sensitive to the dog’s reactions. Carefully monitor his body language for signs of anxiety, stress or defensiveness. Some dogs will be happier (and humans safer) if we find other ways to express our love. Play a game of fetch, take your dog for a walk or give her a gentle brushing. These are things most dogs enjoy – and giving them the things they want is the best way to express our affection!
[activecampaign form=25]


Dr. Suzanne Hetts is an award-winning speaker and author, having lectured on four continents to animal parents and professionals. Her company, Animal Behavior Associates, Inc., provides pet behavior education to animal professionals at and animal parents at and