Dogs Who Love Each Other (Or Don’t)

Two dogs lying on a bed, a tan one with a black muzzle and a white one with a brown ear and ticking. Both dogs are asleep, and the white dog has his front leg draped over the other dog and his muzzle tucked into her chest.

Is this an “Awww!” photo or what? Answer: more like “what.”

First, it’s not a deceptive photo. It really happened; Lewis and Clara slept like this for at least ten minutes. So it’s not one of those “split second in time” photos that can be so misleading.

But the photo creates a false narrative in most of our minds because of how we interpret certain positions and behaviors.

Lewis had his legs draped over Clara and his muzzle tucked under her shoulder. Both dogs were relaxed, with no tension in their faces; they were sound asleep.

The problem is not that the photo is deceptive, but the “Awww” narrative most of us can’t help but make up in our heads is wrong. Lewis putting his “arm” around Clara evokes big feelings in us ape-people. Oh wow, a hug! We primates get off on anything that looks like a hug, and this photo fits the bill.

Do an image search of “dogs hugging each other” if you want to cringe.

My photo doesn’t show two dogs who adore each other and mutually seek each other out. (Spoiler: neither do most of the photos that come up on that search.) Mine shows a sociable dog, Lewis, who also tries regularly to get Clara to move away by invading her space. He is usually aiming to move closer to me or trying to get Clara to leave so he can take over the spot she warmed. It shows a less sociable but tolerant dog, Clara, who is not moving away (this time). Dogs will stay in uncomfortable situations if there is a competing reinforcer, a stronger motivator present. I’m not sure what it was, but Clara stayed, and they ended up in a cute pile.

Granted, they know each other well. And Lewis really likes and seeks out other dogs. They would not be in the cuddly position shown in the first photo if they were strangers, and we can see a degree of genuine comfort. But they are not best friends, I regret to say. They get along. But Lewis blew his chance at being true buddies with Clara. He didn’t adapt his behavior in response to her clear, regular, but non-assertive signals to knock it off earlier in their relationship. He’s often rude and bratty. I still put a lot of energy into preventing nuisance behaviors through constant vigilance. But that’s a post for another day.

Two dogs a lnteracting on a bed, a tan one with a black muzzle and a white one with a brown ear and ticking. The white one has his foot on the other dog's back. Both are looking at the camera, and the tan dog has a pleading look on her face.

The photo on the right, taken later in the morning, shows both Lewis’ obvious intrusiveness and Clara’s typical, quiet protest.

Why Dogs End Up Close to Each Other

What a funny heading, but hear me out. Dogs don’t always end up in each other’s space because they are seeking the other’s company. It’s wonderful when they do. I always hope my dogs will be friends, and I love seeing bonded dogs who enjoy each other.

But with my current dogs, I can’t assume that when they end up in the same place, it’s to hang out together. It might be, sometimes. But here are two other reasons dogs may end up adjacent that are not about being buddies.

Local Enhancement

Local enhancement is a type of social behavior in which one animal goes to the same location as another animal (or to a location where another animal has been) because of a potential resource there. If Lewis is in the yard and drops his head and starts sniffing intensely, or starts to dig, it’s likely Clara will join him and also sniff or dig. I have several video examples of local enhancement in this post.

Local enhancement is often about prey or food, but there are other reasons a location may be desirable. Clara knows all the best places in the yard for sunning herself. When she lies down, Lewis will often come to join her. In the picture below, they are also in an excellent location for viewing some action in the neighborhood. I don’t know who lay down first in this photo, but they’re at a distance Clara is comfortable with. Not all mashed up together and cozy.

Two dogs are lying in a grassy yard, a tan one with a black muzzle and a white one with a brown ear and ticking. They are about 6–8 feet away from each other. They are facing the same direction and looking at something in the distance.

In the photo from 2013 below, Summer, Zani, and Clara are surprisingly close. They were comfortable together, but this arrangement, too, was at least partly about the sunny spot.

Three mixed breed dogs are lying in the sun by a fence: a tan one with a black muzzle, a mostly black hound with brown on her face and legs, and a sable (brownish black) one.

Resource Guarding

Another common reason dogs may end up next to each other that isn’t about affection is resource guarding. Most people include in the definition of resource guarding not only protecting resources that one already has, but trying to get resources.

This is one of Lewis’ major hobbies. In a perfect world for Lewis, anytime Clara had anything: a toy, a piece of cardboard, or even a hole in the ground—he would get it away from her. If Clara were snoozing on the couch, he would sniff her feet or sit on her until she moved off. Then he would grab her place. He would block and herd Clara away from the yard fence if his buddies, the neighbor dogs, were out there.

Of course I run vigorous interference, so he doesn’t get his perfect world.

Such a little ray of sunshine he can be! I describe all that to let you get a sense of how guardy he is. Now check out the photo at the top again. Does it look a little different? Maybe it was social; maybe it was an attempt at Clara’s place. He would get something he likes in either case.

How many “Awww” photos from the sentimental animal story sites are of this type?

I take my job of protecting Clara from the teenager seriously, making sure she can have items she enjoys and hang out in comfortable places. It’s of utmost importance to me; she should enjoy life unmolested.

Different Behaviors in Different Places

Beds are tight spaces, so it’s no wonder that dogs end up crammed together sometimes.

Two dogs are curled up symmetrically on a bed. Photo is shot from above and they look like two bagels. One dog is tan and the other is sable (brownish-black) with a longer coat.

But there’s another reason (besides fondness for each other) dogs may accept being up close and personal on the bed. The environment controls behavior. The bed is where we sleep and relax. Lewis is on his least obnoxious behavior on the bed at night and in the morning while the dogs sleep and I work. Clara can relax. His behavioral history predicts that he won’t suddenly pounce on her, which is a definite danger in the yard, in other parts of the house, and at other times of day. As the morning progresses, they both get active, and his tolerable behavior becomes…less so.

The Message

I didn’t write this to complain about Lewis. I’m used to managing dogs who aren’t perfect with each other, and this is not the worst situation I’ve had. I work hard at keeping Clara comfortable and safe from harassment. And Lewis is getting less bratty as he grows up.

My reason for writing about this is that I like to explore the way we make stories up about dogs. There is a whole industry around churning out “Awww” stories for people to share. It’s a multi-million dollar business, promulgated on specialty sites like The D*d* (convert the asterisks to the letter o) and, of course, general sites like TikTok and YouTube. Some shared videos about animals are lovely. Many are horror shows, but presented as sweet and sentimental.

Our assumptions and beliefs about dogs can hurt them, even endanger their lives. I’m not being dramatic. Rather than going into the potential problems with dogs and babies, I’ll refer you right now to Family Paws. This is a wonderful educational resource for parents and anyone who may be in situations where both children and dogs are present. (That means most of us at some point, right?)

My cozy little photo is not endangering anyone. It’s a tiny drop in the bucket and doesn’t even meet today’s “cute” threshold. Even so, I’d rather post it and talk about it here than to put it up as cute on social media. If I posted it on Instagram, I would get several bot requests from parasitic repost sites because it fits a certain algorithm and narrative. One that isn’t always true, unfortunately.

How about your dogs? Do they end up in an accidental cuddle sometimes? If you have dogs who are frenemies, how do they work out sharing space?

Copyright 2023 Eileen Anderson

Related Posts

• The Right Words, Revealed (example of a deceptive photo)
Before You Share that “Cute” Dog and Baby Photo
• Shelter Pup “Smiles” from FEAR after She’s Adopted
• Guess What! That Dog Video Is Probably Fake!

14 thoughts on “Dogs Who Love Each Other (Or Don’t)

  1. Sophy, my now elderly papillon, has always been very determined about her own space. I learned to say “Leave Tilly/Poppy/Freddy/Pippin alone, there is plenty of room for everyone” in my sleep as she objected vociferously to any of the other animals entering her exclusion zone on my bed. When Freddy first came home as a puppy she decided her space extended to 10 feet in every direction – over a few days that came down to her more usual 2 feet, and she will now, very occasionally, deign to share a bed with him. She will mither me till I clear her preferred bed and is extremely particular about it being just so. The other dogs – and the now only cat – are far less concerned, and will often cuddle up together. Sophy’s objections are, I think, caused in part by a horror of having her plume of a tail trodden on – she will warn off even humans if they might be about to catch the long hair there. Keeping the balance between her, Poppy (toy poodle) who is now declining into dementia and the long term effects of liver failure, and young Freddy (papillon, not yet two) is not always easy but is what I signed up for when I chose to have multiple animals, and for the most part everyone stays happy with just a little give and take!

    1. Frances, thank you for describing all this in such detail! And that makes sense about Sophy’s tail, although I never would have thought of it. Little dogs have it hard that way!
      You clearly do a great job seeing to your whole crew’s needs.


  2. Wonderful post, Eileen! I’m doing a unit on RG body language with an aspiring trainer I’m mentoring, and I’m going to add it to the reading. It presents a whole different perspective on RG and body language interpretation than the other materials I have, which primarily focus on the dog who has the resource guarding it from the other dog (or human). Thank you for always going to such lengths to provide the complete picture to dog lovers.

    1. Thanks, Sharon! I kind of avoided defining resource guarding formally in this post, but here is a definition that includes getting the resource.

      Here’s what I wrote in another post:

      Jean Donaldson defines resource guarding in her excellent book, “Mine!”, as

      Dogs behaving aggressively when in possession of (and sometimes to gain possession of) food, toys, bones, their owners, their resting spots and crates.

      — “Mine!” p. 6

      I haven’t looked it up lately, but I’m pretty sure the ethological definition of RG agrees with that.

      I’m pleased you will use my post!

      1. Yes, I think clients (and trainers) often also include gaining possession of the resource, but IME there are fewer examples of body language posts/pictures/books/videos on what “trying gain possession of the resource” body language looks like. Maybe they’re out there, but I just haven’t seen them. Anyway, I think this is a wonderful exploration of body language that can sometimes be harder to interpret.

  3. Great, informative post! My dogs have similar interactions with beds—in their case I think my older dog would genuinely like to cuddle with my younger dog, as he preferentially chooses to do that when around familiar dogs (or people) in general. She clearly prefers her own space, but will sometimes tolerate him sleeping next to her in order to stay in the bed. The only time I’ve seen her seek him out is when it’s very cold.

    I do think they’re friends, however, but my reasons for believing this are that they seem to prefer to be in the same general space (similar to how they are with me); they regularly play together, with both dogs inviting play; after being separated, they seem to enjoy greeting each other; and the biggest factor, they seem able to genuinely relax around each other. But the cuddling, adorable as it is, is definitely not a helpful clue!

    1. Thanks Maia, and that’s a wonderfully operationalized list of observations about your two who are likely friends. I’m going to remember that!


  4. My life too, given a little tweaking for intensity, timing, assignment of roles. 7-year-old terrier with strong opinions, willing to resource guard, history of being jumped by other dogs, only somewhat enjoying touch with a real tendency to startle. Added completely cheerful terrier puppy, high play drive, lots of confidence and excellent skills at squishing down to nothing to appease discipline by elder terrier. Huge skills at flirting with dogs and people to get attention. I’m still trying to get my management right, but meanwhile I am in awe of her resilience when the older dog tells her off about something neither of us understands. Her names both mean 🔥 Flame and I called her that because I knew she’d need her own strength.

    1. Hi Peggy,

      It sounds like your younger terrier has amazing social skills. I love it that your older terrier is getting better play skills! Thanks so much for sharing about them.


  5. Editing the above to add that either one of them may initiate play, and it makes my heart so happy when they do. The controlling older terrier is getting better play skills, and the little dog is a master at popping up out of a submissive roll to start the game again. She is amazing.

  6. My dog does this to the cat. He will jump up next to her and stay in there even when she softpaws then claws at him. She is actually nice for a cat and usually either tolerates him there or moves away. She rarely uses her claws and has never gone at him with her teeth. They have an odd relationship. The dog mostly ignores the cat unless she has space or food he wants with the rare occasion of barking at her which I generally interrupt. The cat mostly ignores him except for the rare moments when she tries to play with him which he mostly ignores but occasionally chases her. I think she enjoys that because she tries this repeatedly when she is playful but I usually interrupt the chase games. Our cat is really gentle she soft paws before using claw and has amazing bite inhibition on people. Though she seldom bites. In fact the only time she bites was due to my husband training her inadvertently to bite toes to get fed in the morning. I put a stop to that by not getting up and feeding her when she did this (also not allowing my husband to get up and fresher). The behaviour eventually faded and now she only attacks feet in play and it usually doesn’t involve much biting and none that hurts.

  7. Having 3 very independent breeds (akita, bear dog and shiba) I am always a little surprised when I see dogs from multi-dog households snuggled up together. My shiba is VERY protective of her personal space but when I had my first akita, she would shamelessly drape herself over the akita’s paws or curl up next to her as close as physically possible. The akita was rather ambivalent about the whole thing. She didn’t move away, but neither did she snuggle back. Even in light of all the potential reasons for close contact, I really do believe in this case the little dog had true affection for the big dog and wanted to be near her. Now I have a new akita, (the first one has passed) and they have an entirely different relationship. Her royal shibaness despised him until his testicles dropped, then she was in love. Unfortunately their relationship has been fraught with minor to major attacks on the shiba all stemming from resource guarding. And yet she still likes him… or does she ? She will still seek out his company, but in observing them closely, some of her behaviours could easily be appeasement. In the face of triggers (food, treats) she steers clear, but in other cases, she will nose touch, hip bump (actually hip to hock, given the size difference) and shiba punch him (stiff legged jump to the face, chest or shoulder). She will still curl up next to him to sleep, but as time goes by I am really beginning to wonder if it is case of ‘friends close, enemies closer’. And the shiba and the bear dog are like teenage sisters. Tolerance and no aggression, but I think in their case, they have just agreed to cohabitate. They have never curled up together and only on the rarest of occasions have been lying down close enough to even touch each other and that is only when they are on the bed with me. There is a decent age range with my 3 – 12, 8 and 4 1/2 and every day my observance of them teaches me something.

  8. “The photo on the right, taken later in the morning, shows both Lewis’ obvious intrusiveness and Clara’s typical, quiet protest.” – that is our Rowan (Lewis) and Obi (Clara) to a T. So interesting to read your descriptions of Lewis’ machinations and Clara’s responses. Don’t you wish our sweet older dogs would whup the pants off the pushy young brat – just once?! Instead, we run interference, as you do. Four years ago, when Rowan came to us at 1 year old, she was a little hellion to Obi (then 9). Through a lot of management and a lot of training, 98% of the time they hang out comfortably near each other, and if she starts ramping up it now just takes a hairy eyeball (mine) to redirect her away from him.

    1. Yes, I confess I wish that Clara would tell Lewis what for. Early on, I saw her twice show her teeth at him for trying to steal a toy or chew item. But he just wore her down after that. Our management strategy is that if I am unable to prevent him for a moment of hassling her, she knows she can come straight to me and I’ll not only intervene, but I’ll give her (only her!) treats. At least we’ve got that!

      Thanks for writing! Always great to hear from you.


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