How to be affectionate with your dog – in the right way

Author picture Jessica  - updated: 11/04/2019

In addition to eating, exercising, and physical care, your dog needs social care. Dogs must have a sense of security, and they need to know that they are part of a group and are understood and appreciated. Showing them affection is the way you can provide this. Moreover, affection is an important and fun way of rewarding your dog, especially during training. 

Dogs, like humans, have a rich emotional life. They can be happy, angry, scared, anxious, insecure, sad, lonely, or excited. They have their own way of communicating their emotions, so it’s important to understand their language. When you pat your dog, you send a message, and they then respond to that message in dog language. That is why it is important to give your dog the right kind of affection so they receive the intended message.

Start once your dog is calm

Before you pet your dog, notice whether they are calm and relaxed and not jumping or climbing on you (you don’t want to reward those behaviours). Is the dog afraid or stressed? Insecure dogs can benefit enormously from getting the right kind of affection; they can benefit from being touched in a friendly and safe manner in order to relax. But it’s absolutely critical to make sure first that the dog is open to contact: let them quietly sniff your hand and then start petting them gently.

Watch how the dog reacts. Does the dog lick their lips, gasp or yawn? If so, they are probably not feeling at ease. Then it’s best to take a step back. Are their ears and tail relaxed, will they sit quietly in front of you or even lie down, maybe sniffing at you a bit? Then they are telling you: keep it up! You can now pet your dog using long, calm strokes.

Read more about the body language signals of your dog here

Approach the dog safely

A dog feels safe if they can see your hand, as they won’t feel targeted from a blind spot. Patting the neck, along the flanks, and behind the ears is non-threatening and most dogs like it! A stroke on the flank is a nice way to pat and, to a dog, means 'we are buddies'. Rubbing the back means 'let's play!'. Gently patting around the mouth and the ears is great for quiet dogs and it means 'I respect you'. 

Equal partners

Suddenly petting the top of a dog’s head can be very overwhelming for your pooch. A hand on top of the head means: subject yourself to me. Although some people think that “dominating a dog” is good, you actually don’t want to do that. It’s better to create a good relationship with your dog based on friendship and respect, so approach the dog in a way that feels safe. Once you have started patting, they may like to be stroked on the top of the head, but never start out that way, and certainly not with a dog you do not know or with insecure dogs.

Cuddling: no. Talking: yes, please!

We think our dogs are so cute that we want to hug them. But dogs do not understand this gesture very well – they feel trapped by the arms around their body. It is not safe and the dog can respond aggressively when you don’t expect it. It is also not a good idea to put the front legs of a dog on your shoulders and hug your dog that way – legs on your shoulders means to a dog: I am in charge of you. A dog doesn’t want that at all and it will confuse them. So stay away from hugs and stick to gentle patting.

What you can do, though, is talk to your dog. It’s a very effective and important way to give affection. You can put a frightened dog at ease or calm an overexcited dog down by talking to them. Be aware of your own state of mind: if you are tense or scared yourself, the dog will sense it in your voice. Make sure you are relaxed and then enjoy talking to your dog!

Read more about the importance of talking to your pet here

In short:


  • Pat with long calm strokes
  • Confine patting to the flanks and around the neck
  • Talk to your dog


  • Approach a dog from above
  • Hug
  • Raise energy or get overexcited around a dog

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