How do dogs show affection?

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a young student who was doing a school project on canine emotions and needed the input of “an expert”. They sent me a list of excellent questions. I sent responses that were at least somewhat developmentally appropriate for a middle-schooler, but then decided to elaborate here. Below is my reworking (for grownups) of my response to their first question.

The question: “How do dogs show affection for their owner?”

Each dog will have their own style and preferences when it comes to showing affection. Some dogs love to snuggle up with their humans, while others prefer to be close but not too close. Some dogs love to be petted, while others prefer not to be touched. Things can also change over time—a dog may love to show affection through active play as a puppy, but as an older dog may prefer engaging in lower-key games with their favourite people.

Attachment Theory and Dogs

Attachment is a hot topic right now, both in research on human-dog relationships and in some parts of the dog training world. This term is typically used to describe three things:

  • affection that is persistent across time
  • a desire for closeness
  • a sense of safety and security in the presence of the caregiver

Attachment theory comes from research on the (human) infant/parent bond. It’s an exciting area of research that is drawing attention to the importance of connectedness and trust in dog-human relationships.

Like most areas of research, the field of attachment research has its controversies. There is increasing attention among (human-focused) researchers and practitioners to the dangers of misusing attachment theory in assessments of parent-child relationships, and the ways in which the theory has even been weaponized as a tool for colonial harm.

A key issue is that attachment research has largely assumed Western middle-class values and assumptions about parenting and child development, and has tended to ignore and misinterpret cultural variations in family and kinship relationships. For example, methods for assessing attachment tend to assume that there is a single primary caregiver. However, this does not reflect reality for much of the world.

The controversy in the field of attachment is a good reminder that the ways in which dogs and humans experience and display affection, closeness, and trust are likely to have a lot to do with the culture and context in which they live. Just as many human children (especially in non-Western societies) are raised with multiple caregivers (e.g. parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc.), most dogs live in environments where they may have multiple caregivers. For example, this might be true for dogs in shelters, dogs who live as free-ranging in human villages, and dogs who live with multi-member human and/or canine families. The controversy is also a good reminder that we can unwittingly do harm when we fail to be aware of our own implicit values and assumptions about what relationships are supposed to be.

Affection is a two- (or multi-) way street

How dogs show affection isn’t just about the dog; it’s part of complex interactions with humans (and other species). The same dog might show affection to different people in different ways. With one person they may love to go on adventures in the woods and with another they may love to engage in a shared task or work together. They might like to sleep in a place where they can protect one friend from intruders in the night and with another they may love to play chase, or share a snack, or curl up together for a nap.

There are so many different ways that dogs and humans can show affection together. With about a billion dogs in the world, living in many different human and canine cultures, affection between dogs and humans has many different possible variations.

Additional Resources:

For anyone interested in learning more about controversies in human attachment theory and research, I recommend Heidi Keller’s (2022) book: The Myth of Attachment Theory: A Critical Understanding for Multicultural Societies (Routledge).