Dogs do not often touch us by accident (unless there is linoleum and an exuberant dog with slippery feet!). I realized this very important nugget years and years (and years) ago, while I was collecting data for my dissertation. My research was focused on developing a tool to better identify shelter dogs for wheelchair assistance work. I spent countless hours observing the videotaped assessments of dogs, noting all behaviors and interactions. At first I was not paying attention to some subtle behaviors that the dogs were doing in relation to the assessor, but over time, patterns of human touch and dog response emerged.
3 Ways Dogs Touch Us (and what they’re trying to say)
Whether it is jumping up to put their lips to ours (a canine greeting) or jumping and popping their paws on us and then turning away (a behavior indicating control of a resource), dogs’ touches are communication—and by recognizing this simple fact, we can often greatly decrease stress and increase opportunities for the dogs in our care.
Take the dog who backs into you as you interact with him, slowly pushing his hip or tush against your leg. His body likely feels soft, and it is likely that he collapses or at least sinks to a sit. This behavior, even though the pup is not facing you, is a lovely social behavior indicating a level of safety and comfort with the handler. Without knowing this, we may push the dog away—but the knowledge allows us to help the dog create bonds and find safety.
“Without knowing what it means when a dog touches us, we may push the dog away—but knowing why he’s doing it allows us to help the dog create bonds and find safety.”
Teaching dogs not to jump
Some spend quite a bit of time in adoption agencies teaching the dogs not to jump. Interestingly, we recently conducted some research exploring adopter choice. We found that jumping was a behavior that was commonly noted as the behavior shown by the dog when they first met! It may be that this is a behavior we do not need to spend time modifying in a shelter, as it appears to potentially positively impact adopter choice.
Regardless of that research, knowing that soft body jumps with wiggly bodies that occur at the time of initial interaction are simply greetings, indicating “Great to see you—No fight” (yes, I am anthropomorphizing a bit), we should be thoughtful about behavior modification without providing an outlet for this very important behavior. There are likely few behaviors as crucial for communicating a safe relationship from the dog’s perspective. As these dogs are jumping up only because they want to reach your lips to finalize the greeting, we can eliminate the behavior not by stopping the greeting, but by bringing our lips down to the dog (for those concerned with zoonoses, a cheek will do fine as well). Of course, bending and placing one’s face by the dog should be conducted with dogs who have been deemed social and safe.
There is one other time (other than that slippery floor) when dogs will touch you “by accident”—and that is when they engage in play. Front end bowed as back end is high with flagging tail, or quick popping body movements. Take a peek at this video of my Que and Sea to observe some lovely play behavior – note the play bow, popping body movements and then the abandon with which they touch, bite and slam into each other (you are welcome to note how adorable they are as well…):
Dogs communicate through touch. By recognizing this, we can improve our interactions with them, decrease stress and save more lives.
Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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