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Dog behaviourist Dogs are complex - here are some tips on communicating with them

Suzi Walsh looks at the emotional makeup of dogs and offers some advice on how best to read their behaviour.

WE OFTEN THINK of pets as just members of the family, but what many fail to remember is that they have their own unique emotional lives. They can experience a range of feelings, from joy and excitement to anxiety and fear.

What does it mean when your dog licks you? Why do some dogs like to curl up next to you on the couch? Does your dog love you? How do you show your dog that you love them?

There’s no question that dogs have a special bond with humans. And, according to a recent study, it appears that this bond is even more special than we previously thought. The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Portsmouth, found that dogs seem to love humans more than they love other dogs and even food!

To reach this conclusion, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in which they observed how dogs responded to different stimuli. In one experiment, the dogs were given a choice between a bowl of food and their owner. The vast majority of the dogs chose their owner over the food – even when their owner was not offering any food. This suggests that the bond between dogs and humans goes beyond simply being fed.

In another study conducted by Yong and Ruffman they examined canine reactions to human crying. An increase in cortisol levels was observed in the dogs who responded by looking at, approaching, licking and nuzzling their humans – suggesting that they could discern and act on human emotional changes. Furthermore, mutual gazing had a great impact on both dogs and their caregivers. With oxytocin levels for the dogs more than doubling and increasing by four times for their humans.

Understanding a dog’s emotional life

A dog’s emotional life is not as complicated as a human’s, but they do experience a range of emotions. The most basic emotions dogs feel are happiness, fear, anger, and sadness.

Dogs also experience more complex emotions, such as love, jealousy, anxiety and pride.

Understanding your dog’s emotional life will help you to better bond with them and train them effectively.

1. Happiness: Dogs experience happiness when they are excited, content, and engaged in activities. Signs of a happy dog include wagging their tail, licking you, and initiating play. Although a wagging tail is not always a good indicator of a happy dog, be careful to look at the rest of your dog’s body to interpret what they are trying to communicate.

2. Fear: Fear is an emotion that all animals experience and a necessary emotion for survival. Fear responses in dogs can be triggered by loud noises, unfamiliar people or animals, unknown objects, or situations that require new skills. Fearful dogs may hide, shake, pant excessively or show their teeth as signs of fear. A dog may lick their lips, avoid eye contact and yawn in order to show they are stressed.

3. Anger: Dogs may express anger differently than humans do but they can still become angry when they feel frustrated or threatened. Signs of an angry dog include barking aggressively and growling at people or other dogs. It usually means your dog is asking for space rather than intent to do any harm.

4. Sadness: Dogs may appear melancholy after experiencing a traumatic event or the death of a close companion such as another pet or family member. Other signs of sadness in dogs could include decreased appetite and physical activity levels, sleeping more often than usual, lack of interest in playing, pacing around the house restlessly and even showing signs of depression-like behaviours like refusing to go outside for walks.

5. Love: When it comes to demonstrating love towards humans and other pets in the household, dogs often display signs of affection including tail wagging, resting their head on our laps and licking us. Wanting to be close to you and rest near you is a lovely sign that your dog loves you.

What does it mean when a dog licks you?

A dog’s lick brings a wealth of information. It can communicate a range of emotions, from love and affection to fear and anxiety. Dogs also lick when they need attention, comfort, or reassurance. When your dog licks you, they are telling you how they feel.

A licking dog is often a happy dog. Dogs lick to show their excitement and love. If your dog is licking you more than usual, it might be because they are especially happy or excited to see you.

On the other hand, licking is a common appeasement signal. Appeasement behaviours function to reduce or get rid of some part of the interaction which they do not like without using overt aggression. Watch your dog’s body language and if they are licking you while turning their head away or averting eye contact then your dog is likely asking for space or for you to stop what you are doing.

Bonding with dogs: How to show love

It’s no secret that dogs are one of the most loving, loyal and friendly animals on the planet. They have a strong ability to bond with their owners and form deep emotional attachments.

Spend time playing with your dog or taking them for fun walks. Play games with your dog such as tug, scent games or even teaching them a new trick.

Dogs love treats! Whether it’s a special treat meant only for them or something they can share with you, such as a piece of fruit or a healthy snack, offering them something tasty is sure to make their tail wag.

Giving your pup gentle strokes and scratches will make them feel special and loved. Not all dogs like it on their heads though, so pay close attention to what areas they enjoy being stroked on most.

Simply talking to your dog is an excellent way to show your pooch how much you care about them. So many dogs love just the interaction and love if you tell them just how wonderful they are.

Repercussions of not showing dogs affection

Many dog owners are unaware of the importance of showing affection to their dogs. Dogs are social animals that need love and attention just like we do. When they don’t receive the affection they crave, it can lead to a number of behavioural problems such as attention-seeking or destructive behaviour.

Another problem that can arise is aggression. Dogs that don’t feel loved and secure can be more prone to snapping and biting.

This is especially true if they feel threatened or unstable in their home environment. Contrary to what you may have heard always try to comfort your dog if they are stressed or anxious

Signs that a dog is not comfortable receiving affection

There are a few signs that a dog may not be comfortable receiving affection, and these should be respected. If a dog is lowering their body to the ground, has their tail between their legs, or is trying to move away, they are probably not enjoying the affection and would like it to stop.

It’s important to always respect a dog’s personal space and never force them to do anything they don’t want to do, including receiving affection.

Other signs that a dog may not be comfortable with affection include cowering, flattened ears, lip licking, squinted eyes and panting. It’s important to pay close attention to these body language cues and act accordingly. If a dog does not want to be touched, the best thing you can do is give them some space.

Understanding the emotional life of dogs can be a challenging yet rewarding process. It’s important to observe your dog from all angles – their body language, vocalisations, and overall behaviour all provide insight into their feelings. With patience and dedication to getting to know your pup better, you’ll soon have a trusted companion with whom you can share an even deeper connection.

Yes, dogs do love humans – and this has been proven time and time again through scientific research. In fact, the bond between a human and a dog is one of the strongest and most unique relationships in the animal kingdom. This is because dogs are incredibly attuned to our behaviour and emotional state. Dogs have been known to comfort us when we’re sad, protect us when we’re in danger, and even help us heal from physical and emotional injuries. In other words, dogs really are our best friends.

Suzi Walsh is an expert dog behaviourist and dog trainer. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a Masters in Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary. She has worked as a behaviourist on both TV, radio and has also worked training dogs in the film industry. 

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