Two girls with a happy white dog in grass.
Two girls with a happy white dog in grass. Photography ©TongRo Images Inc | Thinkstock.

How Do Dogs Show Affection to Humans?

How do dogs show affection? Dogs communicate with us through body language and actions — here are are four ways dogs show affection to humans.
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As a professional dog trainer, I am immersed in teaching dogs and their humans. It’s rare to get a question I haven’t been asked many times before — but I did recently, and not from a client but from a cat-fanatic friend who has never had a dog. She asked: How do dogs show affection to humans? Great question! Even those who have lived with dogs can sometimes misread canine language.

Before I share the top ways that dogs show affection, though, please keep in mind that something occurring to a dog IS aversive if the dog feels it is. In other words, it’s not just children who need to ask if they may pet someone else’s dog. Even if given permission to say hello, please not only be respectful of the dog’s space, but also watch his body and face closely to make sure that your petting is pleasing. Not all dogs want to be touched by strangers! So, how do dogs show affection to humans? Let’s look at four ways!

1. Dogs show affection with their tails

A puppy wagging his tail.
Dogs show affection to humans with their tails. Photography ©MirasWonderland | Thinkstock.

When people ask, “How do dogs show affection?” a wagging tail probably comes to mind. A wagging tail speaks volumes (although what is communicates isn’t as important to canine language as is a dog’s face and overall body posture). I love seeing what I call the big, windy helicopter tail on a dog I am meeting. My Border Collie, Radar, gives a big, circling tail wag when he meets people. If you tried to move your head around in the same way as his tail moves, you’d get dizzy quickly.

A dog with a wagging tail can bite someone or another dog, by the way, but it won’t look like Radar’s big wag. A dog’s tail that is up over his back and stiff is not a come-let’s-be friends tail. Walk away from a dog showing such stiffness, as it is often a warning flag. Look for the big, circling tail and wagging butt, especially if the dog is like my dog, Monster, who doesn’t have a tail so much as a stub. He waggles his entire butt when he is happy and meeting a new person.

2. Dogs show affection with their faces

How do dogs show affection with their faces? Dogs can smile or grin. In general, you want to see an open, relaxed mouth and not a shut-tight grimace. Panting can be a sign of stress, so a happy dog might have her mouth open toward you, but shouldn’t be excessively panting  — unless it’s a hot day or she has been exercising. Canine language must be taken in context.

The I-love-you dog eyes are not hard but soft, round, and probably looking you right in the eyes, which is completely different than a hard stare with little to no blinking coming from a dog — that’s a warning to back up. You also don’t want to approach a dog showing “whale eyes,” where the eyes are wide and you can see the whites around the pupils.

Watch out for “cheek puffing,” as well, where his mouth is closed and he rapidly blows air out of his mouth, causing his cheeks to go in and out. That’s often a sign of nervousness.

3. Dogs show affection with jumping

How do dogs show affection through jumping? Not all humans, of course, like to be jumped on, but often dogs do so to get closer to your face and give you a big “Welcome home, friend!” lick. The human face is incredibly important to dogs. They are so attuned to us that they know us better than we know them. Most humans like to see an exuberant dog greeting them when they get home, but we trainers like to give the dogs different greeting ritual behaviors, like a lovely sit with a happy tail thumping on the ground.

Please be aware that sometimes dogs jump on humans for other reasons, such as those who suffer from separation anxiety and only get relief when their humans walk through the door. Frantic jumping tells you something a bit different than happy-camper jumping.

Also, some dogs can jump and boink you in the face hard with their muzzle. That is not a friendly greeting. It’s hard to get a good look at a dog’s eyes and mouth position as they are jumping toward your face, so while jumping up can be an indicator of happiness that you have returned to the home castle, it can mean others things, as well.

4. Dogs show affection with leaning

Leaning is something that doesn’t come to mind as often when thinking, “How do dogs show affection?” I’ve worked with some large Labradors and Rottweilers (as well as other breeds) who love to lean on their human’s leg while getting a scratch hello. The dog is often looking up and into the their humans’ eyes during the lean in, looking all smiley with a mouth open and soft eyes. On the other paw, sometimes an insecure dog leans in for comfort and support. Nothing wrong with that.

Once, however, I met a “junkyard dog” who the owner proudly told me he had bred himself and that the dog was a combination of about five perceived tough-breed dogs. That dog never growled or put his hackles up when he met me. He gave me a hard stare on his way over to lean against my leg. It was not a loving lean. It made my blood run cold. He didn’t bite me, but he warned me for sure. His body was stiff as a board, and his eyes told me that one wrong move and he’d dispatch me.

Take a look at what the face, body and tail are doing as a dog leans in. You want to see an open mouth, rounded and relaxed eyes, and a relaxed body with a swooping big tail or butt wag.

The bottom line to, “How do dogs show affection?”

It’s helpful to dogs everywhere for humans to slow their approach when meeting a new dog and to consider: Does this dog really want to greet me? Don’t take it personally if the dog isn’t interested. Petting such a dog is harmful to that dog, and who wants to be pushy to another species? Do take it personally, though, if you get any of the signs of affection noted above.

Tell us: How do dogs show affection in your experience? How do your dogs show affection to you?

Thumbnail: Photography ©TongRo Images Inc | Thinkstock. 

This piece was originally published in 2015. 

Plus, check out some adorable photos of dogs saying ‘I love you’ right here >>

About the author:

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.

Read more about dog training on Dogster.com:

16 thoughts on “How Do Dogs Show Affection to Humans?”

  1. such a great article. 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. https://esacare.com/30-most-in-demand-pet-influencers-you-should-follow/

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  6. I am a first time dog owner…in my fifties….afraid of dogs my whole life. Before I got my dog I read ALOT about dogs. I have a medium goldendoodle who is the best dog ever. I talk lovingly to her. She gives me licks on my hand and arms and even my legs. She sits her head on my lap and will move closer to me on the sofa or the bed. I often wonder if she knows how much I love her and if she loves me. I am blessed.

  7. Good,That’s a really great post about the affection showed by dogs to humans
    i think that a dog is the only pet who loves unconditionally to human

    we make pet portraits to express your love towards your pet,and we donate for street dogs

  8. Well, ladies. Very nicely done. I will read them both more than three time. Yes. I recognize I’m a pretty slow learner :-).

  9. Great post! That’s awesome you found something that works wonderfully for you! This was a great post, and I enjoyed the idea of dividing my daily tasks into even smaller tasks. I will try to implement some of this stuff and see how it goes. thank you so much.

  10. Wonderful article. There’s an important piece of information that I’ve never seen published. I have seen several approaches to greet a strangers dog that lead to a potential disaster. Let me explain. One of the biggest mistakes is people of all ages approaching a dog will reach over the dogs head while invading their the pups personal space. From 35 years of personal experience with having dogs, mainly large breeds I can read a dogs body language. When a stranger is given permission to pet the pup they should not walk “ into “ the animals personal space. First they should let pup come towards them. Second they should need to have their hand open and lower then the pups head, this shows the pup a non threatening jester. When people approach strangers dogs the animal is already unsure of what your intentions are and may interpret a hand reaching over their head as a threat rather than a greeting, thus can create an aggressive response from the dog. I’ve seen this more times than I want to remember. The end result is person is injured- “ sometimes severely “ and the animal may be put down because it’s deemed aggressive. 3rd people will approach the animals personal space and start petting the pups body before he’s had a chance to establish weather or not they are a threat or a friend. Another important thing to know is just because you’re given permission to pet a strangers dog doesn’t mean it’s going to be a positive outcome. The pup may not be feeling well or just having an off day. Just like humans animals have some “ off days “ where they don’t want to be bothered. Also again like humans their may just be bad chemistry, and the pup wants nothing to do with you. So sorry to ramble on, I feel all these details are important. If people , especially parents with small children follow the correct steps to meeting a strangers pup all will be a positive experience. It’s also best that the dog owner tells strangers how to approach their dog. I always direct people to lower their hand and keep it open, I then explain let him smell you. By watching my pups body language I can tell them weather it’s okay or not. I try to educate them when I see a bad approach “ in the kindest way of course “ so all their future experiences will be positive. Thank you so very much for allowing me too participate in your educational site.

    1. Absolutely. My Sheltie is a wonderful gentle dog especially with my 2 yr old granddaughter But she is an alpha guard dog, many herding breeds are. If I’m walking my dog and my granddaughter in the stroller DON’T LET YOUR KIDS RUN AT HER, OR ADULTS. approach gently, let Her sniff you and decide if you r safe she is guarding her two most precious people in the world.

    2. Erin Colleen Gunn

      I appreciate the article so much, as I’ve got a similar experience going on with pup raising , etc, and I found the heart of the story was just what my Fur Baby and I needed with some guidelines on protecting my animal, other animals and how to properly engage with canine professionals !
      MY HEART FELT & TINKERS’ HEARTFELT GRATITUDE JUST FOR LISTENING TO MY DILEMMA ~Erin Colleen Gunn BHC, AZ

  11. My Westie greets me by holding on to my foot or gripping my wrist in her jaws. She constantly licks anyone in her space. Those things have slowly eroded her standing with my husband and grandchildren.

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