Many dog owners know the sweet sensation of their beloved pup snuggling under their arm. Humans use touch to show affection, but do dogs do the same?
Most dog owners have wondered at some point in time, “Why does my dog bury his head in me (and how do I get him to do it forever)?”
For as long as dogs have been man’s best friend, humans have attributed their nuzzling, cuddling, and licking behavior to unconditional love.
Only recently have scientists started to investigate the question: Can dogs feel empathy?
The answer is most likely yes, although in a less complicated manner than humans. Dogs are descended from wolves and have even in modernity kept the pack mentality. Today, their human family takes the places of the wolf pack.
Like wolves, dogs protect members of their pack and are more likely to attack strangers that are perceived as a threat to their family members.
Wolves are incredibly social animals, and researchers have observed them comforting other members of their pack. Dogs have inherited this trait; they seem to know when their human is sad, and use nuzzling as a means of comfort and showing their love.
- 1 Dogs and Empathy
- 2 Understanding and Researching Dog Gestures
- 3 Typical Dog Gestures
- 4 In Summary: Can My Dog Feel and Express Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share others’ emotions.
For example, many people feel an urge to hug a crying child. Of course, dogs don’t understand the reasons for their human’s tears, but they often come to our aid regardless.
A recent study in 2018 tested this question by having owners whimper or cry behind a closed door.
They found that nearly all of the dogs were upset by the sound. Most dogs tried to run through the door to save their human. Dogs who stayed put were overwhelmed by stress. The majority, even those who didn’t take action, reacted negatively to their owner’s sadness.
Dogs have been man’s best friend for centuries, and in that time, they have learned to understand human gestures and signs of affection.
For example, if you clap and call your dog’s name, they will come running (if they’ve been trained). Of course, some breeds and pups are easier to train than others, but in general, dogs are one of the most socialized domestic animals.
In past studies, most researchers have focused on dogs’ ability to understand human signs. If you tilt your hand, do they sit? If you point at a particular bowl, will they ignore other food sources in favor of the one you chose?
In 2018, Hannah Worlsey and Sean O’Hara decided to focus on dog gestures and what they could mean.
They specifically focused on referential gestures, which, by definition, must be intentional. While humans use referential gestures all the time, other mammals use them rarely- if ever.
In their study, Worsley and O’Hara found that dogs were able to use several referential gestures to communicate different needs, including “Scratch me!”, “Give me food/drink,” “Open the door,” and “Get my toy/bone.”
From these results, it’s clear that dogs can express their needs by using human-like gestures.
What are the typical dog gestures, and what do they mean? Each dog comes with its unique quirks, but there are several universally beloved yet sometimes confusing gestures that every dog has in its repertoire.
Do you recognize any of these gestures?
- Licking/Doggy kisses
- The Head Tilt
- Tail Wagging
- Eye Contact
- Nuzzling/Burying Their Head
They all have many possible explanations.
Every dog owner has received at least one exuberant licking from their pup upon arriving home after work. Humans view doggy kisses as a way dogs show their love – but what is your dog actually trying to say?
Licking can have several meanings.
In the wild, puppies sometimes lick their mother to say hello or to ask for food. Wild dogs also sometimes simply lick one other to show affection, especially as a submissive gesture.
Another possibility is that from their point of view, you taste good! Dogs’ tongues are very sensitive, and they might just like how your skin tastes.
Although licking is usually a healthy, regular dog activity, it can become problematic.
If your dog is obsessively or excessively licking themselves, it could be a sign of stress or allergies. If their object of choice is you or a toy, then it’s likely to be boredom or stress.
They can and do lick owners who are visibly distressed and upset to try to comfort them and calm them down. However, they can also lick others when they are feeling stressed themselves, as licking releases a rush of endorphins and helps them to feel better.
“Want to go for a walk?” is almost always answered with a quick head tilt and a rush to the front door. There are many theories on why dogs tilt their heads but not many concrete answers.
Dogs have extremely sensitive ears, and they may tilt their head to hear higher frequencies better. When you speak in a baby voice to your pup, they might be tilting their head to catch all the inflections in your voice.
Another theory is that dogs tilt their head to see better. Unlike their other senses, dogs notoriously have bad vision. Especially for dogs with long noses, it might be easier for them to see with a tilted head.
Lastly, as we’ve seen with many other behaviors, it’s possible dogs picked up the head tilt from humans.
We view it as an adorable action, and through socialization, dogs have learned that. They might use their cute head tilt to endear you to them even more, securing their place within the pack.
Most of us think that when a dog wags his tail, he’s telling us he’s happy. However, did you know that this isn’t always the case? There are different types of tail movements for all sorts of different situations.
Puppies don’t have built-in knowledge of what their tail is for, and have to learn to use it after they are born in order to communicate with their mother and littermates.
Different tail wags have drastically different meanings.
For example, if a tail is arched high and stiff and wagging only slightly at the tip as if being blown in the wind, it could mean that the dog is alert. A tail that is wagging slowly and lowered between the legs could indicate uncertainty, anxiety and fear.
When a tail is held out horizontally, your dog may have found something that it finds interesting and is investigating. A tail that wags and then stops when encountering another dog or person may be showing that it doesn’t like the situation and wants it to stop.
Finally, when your dog holds his tail in a relaxed position and wags its tail frantically from side-to-side, right-to-left– that does mean your dog is happy to see you after a long day away!
So relish in that, and enjoy any accompanying licks and kisses that come your way.
It’s a known fact that dogs and humans bond through eye contact. Dogs have evolved throughout the millennia to read human eyes and guess what we are thinking.
In fact, it has been shown that breeds like the Siberian Husky that are more closely related to wolves- and thus more ancient- still do not communicate through eye contact as well as other, more modern breeds.
Dogs use eye contact to build trust and deepen their relationship with their human. Eye contact increases oxytocin levels, 130% for dogs, and a whopping 300%(!!) for humans.
Eye contact can also be a means of communication for your dog, particularly when he needs something from you.
The key with eye contact is that you don’t want to go overboard with it. Staring for hours on end into your dog’s eyes isn’t only creepy, it could also make your dog feel intimidated and uncomfortable.
A good nuzzle from your dog can be the difference between a bad day and a bearable one. But why do dogs bury their heads into us?
Dogs have scent glands in their faces, and it’s possible that when they nuzzle into us, they are marking us as ‘theirs.’ It’s a way for them to let other dogs know you are already part of a pack.
Nuzzling can also be a form of comfort, both for themselves and for their owners. If your dog thinks that you’re sad or hears you crying, they will give you a nuzzle or bury their head into you.
At the same time, if they are feeling anxious or afraid, dogs may also bury their head in you to feel more protected and safe. I myself have had very vivid experiences of this when my dogs would nuzzle in close to me during a visit at the vet’s office.
Dogs may also bury their head into you just as an extra special way of showing their affection and bond to you. Dogs have learnt throughout the ages to ingratiate themselves with their human owners, and no doubt do so in ways that will make us all feel fuzzy and warm inside.
No matter the reason- there’s really no sweeter feeling!
It’s entirely possible that your dog not only empathizes with you but wants to comfort you.
Because dogs have been so thoroughly socialized with humans throughout history and are pack animals, they often respond to situations similarly to humans.
Through their nuzzling, head tilts, kisses, tail wags and eye contact, we can feel secure that their love for us matches our love for them.