I love my dog. I tell her all the time. I stare into her eyes, whispering “I love you I love you I love you;” willing a psychic connection to unite us. But honestly, I’m not confident she always gets the message.
Of course, dogs do understand some of what we say. In 2016 Hungarian academics trained 13 dogs to lie in an MRI scanner so they could check what happened to their brains when people spoke to them. Their results showed similar activity to human brains when it came to processing meaning and emotions. Additionally key words and phrases like “good dog” elicited feelings of happiness in the dogs — suggesting some of the message is getting through.
But still, “good dog” doesn’t quite convey the all-consuming, inter-dimensional, limitless love that I’m trying to get across. So how do you say in dog: “You are the single most important creature in the universe”?
Before we get stuck in, remember all dogs are different so some of these suggestions could not be right for yours. More than anything, pay attention to their body language. If they seem relaxed they probably like what you’re doing. But if they pull away, flatten their ears, or look stressed maybe try another approach.
A Loving Touch Can Go a Long Way
For most people, the most instinctual way to show a dog affection is to pat them. It’s a classic for a reason: Touching your dog (through pats, massages, or even grooming) releases oxytocin—a love chemical—in both you and your pet. This is especially true when rubbing their ears, which are full of feeling receptors.
Dogs understand this too. You know when a dog bumps your hand for a pat? It’s not just because it feels nice, it’s a sign of affection. They want to continue bonding with you.
Many dogs also use leaning to show love and trust. You can return the feeling by gently pressing back on them when you’re hanging out—just be careful not to squish them!
The Look of Love
Like us, dogs get a lot of information by reading faces. When they stare lovingly they’re both reading your mood and saying they like you; so share the good vibes by gazing sweetly back. Even just smiling at a pet triggers the release of oxytocin (that love chemical).
But make sure you keep things light: If you seem angry or stressed a long gaze can also read as aggressive to a dog.
If you want to (literally) take things up a notch, raise your eyebrows too. Japanese researchers have found that dogs raise their brows when they’re feeling happy and connected. Do the same to show you’re glad to see them.
Use Your “Dog Voice”
Let’s get one thing straight: everyone has a dog voice. If someone says they don’t speak to their pet in weird high-pitched baby talk when they’re alone they’re lying (or missing out on a good thing).
Dogs respond more positively to higher pitched voices. But no matter how you sound, chatting to your dog is deeply soothing to them. That can mean making small talk, catching them up on your day, or even reading them a book. It might sound indulgent but rescue shelters have found reading is an effective way to calm and comfort dogs who are feeling scared or unsettled. Plus, most dogs are believed to understand around 165 words. So they might be following the conversation better than you think.
On the other side of things if your dog has a habit of sighing deeply or letting out a soft groan when near you it’s an extra marker of comfort. It may feel silly, but doing the same is another way to tell them you love them too.
Dogs are pack animals, they like getting out and running around together. A few hundred years ago, your lap dog might have expressed that urge through hunting with their buddies. But you don’t need to head out and catch a rabbit to give them the same feeling of connection—playing with a toy will tap into that part of their brain.
A daily walk is also an expression of love; especially if you follow a routine. Dogs like doing the same thing each day, it makes them feel safe and builds trust. It’s also a good chance to do training exercises together. Dogs interpret this pattern of rewarding their behaviour with treats or pats as affection.
Whether or not you let your dog sleep in your bed is a personal choice. But neuroscience Gregory Berns, author of How Dogs Love Us, has written that sleeping alongside you is the ultimate expression of love and closeness for a dog. To them, it’s a way of saying you trust each other totally and are part of the same pack. If you don’t want to tuck them in for the whole night, you can send the same message with a nap or a cuddle on the floor or couch. It only takes a few minutes to let them know you see them as family.
What Not To Do
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to express emotions to your dog. But while they’re often similar to how you show other family members affection, they’re not all the same. Most dogs don’t appreciate hugs as much as we do. Being enveloped can make them feel trapped and confined. Similarly, a kiss on the head can be mistaken for a little nip–which is often a sign of domination.
Also while treats are great in moderation, or as rewards while training, they aren’t the best option as an ongoing act of love. Remember, keeping your dog trim and healthy so they can run around with you is the real show of affection.
When in doubt consider a scratch behind the ears, or just stare into their eyes and smile. Trust us, they know how you feel.
For more on dog behaviour, check out:
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