Category: Human and dog misunderstandings

Dogs Who Love Each Other (Or Don’t)

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!

In Zani’s Honor: Help Your Dog Get Close

In Zani’s Honor: Help Your Dog Get Close

I made a mistake. I did Zani wrong.

I’m not looking for reassurance. I’m not down on myself, just very sad. And as usual, I want to share my cautionary tale.

This is the second time I’ve made this mistake, and I plan to never make it again. I’m going to begin by telling you about the first time I made this error, long ago with different dogs.

Continue reading “In Zani’s Honor: Help Your Dog Get Close”
Does Walking Your Dog Up to Something Scary “Cure” Their Fear?

Does Walking Your Dog Up to Something Scary “Cure” Their Fear?

Animal statues can be pretty scary for dogs

Will walking your dog up to something scary make their fear go away? Possibly, if your dog is not very scared in the first place. But it’s not a good method for helping a fearful dog.

Fear Rarely “Goes Away”

I am afraid of flying. I hate it but I do it if I have to.

Continue reading “Does Walking Your Dog Up to Something Scary “Cure” Their Fear?”
Guess What! That Dog Video Is Probably Fake!

Guess What! That Dog Video Is Probably Fake!

Text: Fake Dog Videos Often 1) Have an altered sound track; 2) Are short and heavily edited; 3) Make you go, "Awwww"; 4) Don't show everything

Most of us are beguiled by videos where dogs appear to be doing something very human or beyond what we usually consider to be their intelligence level. Creators of fake dog videos exploit this tendency to get clicks. They make it appear that the dog is doing something he is not, or attribute some pretend, human-centric motivation or interest. And there are people who are willing to alter videos or create mashups so one of these things appears to be happening.

Continue reading “Guess What! That Dog Video Is Probably Fake!”
Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?

Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?

Black dog with tail held high
Zani’s tail is up, and you’ll see in the video below that it is wagging. Does she look friendly and happy?

Why do dogs wag their tails? The prevailing view is that they do so when they feel happy and friendly. Many do, but dogs also wag their tails in other situations. So the answer to the title question is no. Dogs wagging their tails are not always expressing friendliness or joy. Not by a long shot.

Continue reading “Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?”
It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

This is the short version of this post. Here is the longer version.

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or choke collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only for the purpose of “getting the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

Others, while well meaning, use a special sound or a “No!” to get their dogs to stop doing something. Not the worst thing in the world, but these people will try to argue you to the ground, insisting that the noise or word is “neutral.” They’ll say that it doesn’t carry any aversive effect, that it “just gets the dog’s attention.”

If only! This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately, the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

I have another version of this post in which I analyze the possibilities of the so-called Magical Attention Signal using behavior analysis. Feel free to check it out. Or read forward and get the story through some straightforward analogies.


Imagine that you and I don’t share a common language or culture. But a friend in common has dropped you off to stay at my house for an afternoon.

You are looking around the house. You come into the bedroom and start looking through my jewelry box. I look up and casually say, “Glumph.” In my language, that means, “Please don’t bother my stuff; why don’t you go look around in the next room.” But you don’t know that. It was just a nonsense sound to you, so you keep looking through the jewelry. “Glumph” perhaps got your attention for a moment, but nothing else happened. It was a neutral stimulus. Now here’s where it gets interesting. What happens next?

Scenario 1: The “Neutral” Attention Signal

So what if nothing else happens besides my saying, “Glumph” every so often? If the jewelry (or my mail, or my wallet) is interesting, “Glumph” will not get your attention. In fact, the more I say it (staying in a neutral tone), the more it becomes part of the background. You habituate to it, and it loses even the tiny bit of attention-getting power it may have had at the beginning through novelty.

Outcome: “Glumph” is a neutral stimulus and doesn’t work to get attention.

Scenario 2: The Raised Voice

This is one of the likelier scenarios. After my first statement of “Glumph,” I say it again, but this time I raise my voice. I really need to interrupt you from going through my things! This time you are startled and you stop. Oops, the host is mad!

“Glumph” is now more effective. But how is it operating? It is interrupting you either because it is intrinsically startling, or because you know that yelling humans are more likely to harm you.

Outcome: “Glumph” is an interrupter operating through fear or threats.

Scenario 3: Taking Action

This is the most common scenario in dog training. What do I do after I say “Glumph,” conversationally to you, and you don’t stop what you are doing? I yell “Glumph,” I jump up, and physically stop you from going through my jewelry. I might do this a number of ways. Even though I’m upset, I might take you very gently away from my jewelry. Or I could do something less gentle. I could grab your hands or whack them. I could close the lid on your fingers. I could yell in your face. I could push you away. I could hit you.

So what does “Glumph” mean now? You will likely pay attention the next time I say or yell it. Because it means at the very least (the gentle scenario) you are going to lose access to the thing you are enjoying. But most likely you will have learned that my yelling “Glumph!” is a precursor to something unpleasant happening to you.

“Glumph” has become a punishment marker, and can operate as a threat.

A neutral stimulus by itself has no power, and the dog will habituate to it. If a word or noise works reliably to stop behaviors, it is not a neutral stimulus. It doesn’t just “get the dog’s attention” in a neutral way. It works because it is either intrinsically unpleasant or predicts unpleasantness.

Outcome: “Glumph” scares the dog or predicts something painful, scary, or otherwise unpleasant.

But Wait: There are Positive Interrupters!

Yes, thank goodness. There is a positive reinforcement based method for getting your dog to stop doing stuff. You can condition a positive interrupter.

Here’s a video by Emily Larlham that shows how to train a positive interrupter. Here’s a post about how I conditioned yelling at my dogs to be a positive thing for them—and it ended up having a similar effect.

But the thing is, the people who have conditioned a positive interrupter will tell you so. They can tell you the systematic process they went through to create it. They created it before they ever used it, not in the middle of difficult situations. They will emphatically not claim that their cue is a “neutral, attention-getting stimulus.” They know better. They implemented positive reinforcement.

No Magical Attention Signal

If someone says that Tool or Method A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also, ask them what happens if the first implementation of the tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

Many promoters of aversive methods in dog training don’t want to say that they hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Attention in the backyard, achieved with positive reinforcement

Copyright 2017, 2018 Eileen Anderson

Related Posts

Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?

Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?

Thank you to Randi Rossman for discussing the scholarly work about antecedents with me. All mistakes are my own. 

I recently found myself in a situation that dogs are in a lot of the time, and it was a revelation.

So here’s the deal. I use a Mac laptop at work when I do bookkeeping tasks. I also own a Mac laptop and use it at home (and other locations).

The one at work has a 13″ screen. My home computer has a 15″ screen. The work laptop is older and has an older operating system.

On my work computer, to scroll down, Continue reading “Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?”

Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

A baby about a year old, wearing a bright floral onesie, grabs the tongue of a large black and rust dog lying on a dog bed
Source: YouTube Creative Commons

First things first. I didn’t write this with you, dear reader, in mind. Let’s not make this about your dog or your parental decisions.

But there’s a problem with sharing that “cute” dog and baby picture. Maybe it’s somebody else’s photo. Maybe not. The important thing is that the problem is bigger than your individual situation, your family.

The problem is that posting a picture such as the one above sets an example and feeds a dangerous myth. A myth so dangerous that people die because of it. Children, especially, get hurt, and sometimes die because of it.

The myth is that good dogs, family dogs, your dogs—don’t bite. That dogs who bite are in some different classification. The myth says that dogs who live with us, dogs who like our kids, dogs who have always been “tolerant”—will stay that way, no matter what we or the kids do to them. The myth also says that dogs are supposed to take whatever kids dish out.

There’s even a whole genre of YouTube videos of dogs rocking cradles—usually either faked (a human or motor is doing the rocking) or a trained behavior. But what we see are those dogs with their heads right up close to babies again. And some of those dogs are stressed.

In about 80% of dog bites, the dog belongs to the victim’s family or someone they know, like a relative, caregiver, friend, or neighbor (Centers for Disease Control, 2001). We need to let go of our fantasy, our myth that family dogs won’t ever bite. They do.

When you post a picture of anybody’s dog with a very young child draped over him—hugging him; riding him; pulling his tongue, tail, or whiskers; or just plain sitting too close to him—and you Like it or share it or include an approving comment, you feed the myth. The myth that gets some people’s kids terribly hurt or killed, and dogs euthanized.

Dogs are animals. They can move at lightning speed. If you are six feet away, taking the picture, and the dog has his face right up next to your baby, you can’t get there near fast enough. Even if you are sitting right next to your child, the dog can still move faster than you.

A dog doesn’t have to be “vicious” or “mean” to bite. Sometimes all it takes is for him to be startled. Very young children, with their erratic movements, lack of fine motor skills, and exploratory natures, can stress out the most tolerant of dogs. It’s not fair to subject dogs to that. It’s not wise, either. Having a dog’s face, with that mouthful of teeth, up close to an infant’s head is an enormous risk. It’s not something to show off on social media.

Real-Life Examples

Many people out there believed the myth until they learned otherwise. The hard way. The tragic way. Here are some actual quotes from real people—mostly parents—from news stories about dogs seriously biting children. The quotes took about 15 minutes of web searching to find. I promise—they are real.

“Fido” was super cuddly, the nicest dog you would ever imagine, and never once snapped … never growled, nothing. He never, never, never went after a person. I’m just in disbelief. —2015

In an apparently unprovoked attack, a 3-year-old child was bitten by a pet dog on Saturday…. The girl was playing with the 2-year-old dog just before noon when she was bitten on the top and back of the head. —2015

She said the bite was out of the blue. “Mary” has known and played with the dog for years. —2014

I stood in the kitchen with my friend and her dog and my little girl. It was completely out of the blue, he jumped at my girl and tried to headbutt her to put her to the floor. —2015

I don’t really know what happened. It was right behind me. My dog just went for her. They are like best buddies. I don’t know what happened. —2014

He said the dog had no previous biting incidents, which is why he didn’t think anything of turning his back while his daughter went to play with the dog. —2014

The dogs had given no prior indication of behaving in this way, it was an attack out of the blue. —2015

The dogs had been observed many times in their home environment prior to and following the baby’s birth, and that “during these times they were very friendly.” —2022

He’d been absolutely fine for almost a year. Until that point he had been perfect with the kids. He was well trained and we’d never had any issues with him.—2022

What I didn’t include in the above quotes are the clues that were often just a few sentences away in the news story. The bites rarely come without warning, if one only knows how to read the signs. Perhaps the dog just got back from the vet after getting some shots. Maybe there’s a brand new dog in the household. Perhaps it is mentioned in passing that the dog doesn’t really like his tail pulled (but the child did it anyway). Maybe the dog has growled in the past, and the owners punished him for it. (That’s a bad idea, by the way.)

Shooting Down the Myth

Maybe I can’t persuade you that your dog has the potential to do animal things. Perhaps you really do have the single most tolerant dog in the world. Can I persuade you not to share those pictures, anyway? Your own or anybody else’s? Sharing them feeds the myth. If you share, you are implicitly condoning dangerous practices. You are encouraging others to let their kids get too close to their dogs and let them do uncomfortable things to the dogs for the sake of the myth, the romantic noble dog meme, that 15 minutes of Facebook fame.

A young boy has his arms around a large black dog. The boy is smiling; the dog looks uncomfortable.
This dog looks uncomfortable. Could anyone intervene fast enough if he was startled and snapped at the boy? (Source: CanStock photo)

There’s nothing new about what I’ve written here. (For instance, check out the second and third articles listed below.) Trainers and behaviorists cringe whenever they see photos like the two above because probably this very week they have seen several very nice family dogs who bit a child “out of the blue.” The parents were loving and well intentioned, but they grew up with the myth, and they still see social media saturated with it.

Let’s stop it now. Please don’t post or repost that picture. Please don’t take that picture. Please don’t let your child and dog interact that way.

Do learn about dog body language. Do keep your children and dog safe. Do check out the resources below on how to do that. Most of them have multiple, excellent articles on the subject.

Help educate people about safe practices with dogs and children. You can share the materials below instead of sharing that photo. Thank you!


Addendum: Some people have been concerned about sharing **this** post because of the photo. Great point! I debated whether to include any, but finally did because I felt I needed examples of what I’m talking about. I hope my narrative sheds a different light on these kinds of photos. Please do share the blog post if you are moved to do so.

© Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure

You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure

A small black and rust hound is standing several feet from a human (we see only lower half of human), looking up at her
Too close for comfort?

For a more extensive article on the theoretical side of body pressure, check out my post Space Invaders: How Humans Pressure Dogs and Other Animals. 

So you are standing at a party, or in your office, or on your front lawn. Someone you know only vaguely walks up to you. He walks up very close, face to face, close enough that you can see up his nose and smell his breath. He starts a conversation. What do you do?

Continue reading “You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure”
Is That “Smiling” Dog Happy?

Is That “Smiling” Dog Happy?

Maybe, but maybe not!

We humans tend to get warm and fuzzy feelings when we see dogs “smile.”

It’s true that some dogs’ mouths open in a cute smile when they are relaxed and happy. But a dog with his mouth open could alternatively be panting from pain, stress, or fear.

Can we tell the difference?

The following pairs of photos show my dogs stressed (left column) and relaxed (right column). The dogs have their mouths open in all the photos.

The usual disclaimers apply. When you run across someone’s still photo with no context, you can’t fairly make assumptions. It might have been taken during the millisecond in which a dog changed his expression. It could be misleading for a dozen other reasons. Videos are better, but we still miss context and may lack knowledge about the particular dog. But in this case I can vouch for the emotional states of my dogs, and I believe they are accurately represented by the photos with recognizable indicators.

Mind the Mouth

What all these photos have in common is a common “tell” regarding the dog’s emotional state. Look at the corners of the dogs’ mouths, also known as the commissures. In all cases, they are drawn back and stretched tight in the “stress” photos. In most of those photos you can also see the muscles bunched up in that area.

The photos have other indicators of the dogs’ emotional states as well. For instance, three of the stress photos have what is called a “spatulate” tongue, also usually connected with stress. The dogs’ eyes are markedly different between the stressed and relaxed photos as well.*

I hope these comparison photos can help some folks figure out their own dogs’ facial expressions, and maybe overcome our wiring–which is very difficult–to assume that an open mouth means a happy dog. Please share this blog post wherever it might be useful. The photos may also be used for educational purposes if credit is given. I’d appreciate it if you would drop me a line through the sidebar contact telling me about the use.

You can see labeled versions of the “Clara stressed” photos (and many more) in my post Dog Facial Expressions: Stress. You also might be interested in my Dog Body Language Posts and Videos page.

Many thanks to Julie Hecht at Dog Spies for giving me the idea for this post. 

*Patricia Tirrell points out that the dogs’ brows are furrowed in most of the “stressed” photos as well.

Related Post

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

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