Dogs are pack animals and pack animals do many things that are physical communication to other members of their pack. Since animals aren’t verbal, they rely on body language. Many of the things they do are telegraphing their meanings to us and humans often miss the communication because they don’t know how to interpret the behavior.
Fortunately, ethologists and animal behavior experts have spent entire careers learning what cues from dogs mean, even something as simple as raising a paw and turning their head away has a special meaning. It says, ‘you may approach me but I am nervous’ and you’ll see this behavior from shy puppies very often if you pay attention.
Why, then, do dogs lay on your feet? It isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all answer because it has to be seen in the context of what else is happening and the dog in question’s personality. If you and the dog are in the room alone, with no outside interference or stimulation, odds are that your dog is simply conveying affection for you.
If there is a loud noise outside, like a jackhammer running in the street, and your dog is trembling, then he is seeking comfort and safety. If another dog is in the room and your dog is staring at that dog and possibly showing teeth or growling, your dog is protecting you as if you are a possession he doesn’t want to share.
As you can see, there are potentially many meanings to this one simple act of laying on the feet of their master. You need the entire context of the situation and to know the dog’s personality a bit to really paint the entire picture, so to speak.
Dogs communicate nearly 100% with body language. There are some basic vocalizations and some of them are breed specific. Huskies, for example, are far more vocal than many other breeds. Huskies can also be quite melodramatic in their vocalizations and really appear to be trying to communicate with humans.
Most dogs communicate with their head tilt, tail height, showing of teeth or slight lift of a lip, lowering of the head is a threat posture, and dogs stick their rear end in the air and rest their elbows on the ground to invite each other to play. This is called a play bow and puppies and even senior dogs will do this. They are, essentially, saying, ‘don’t take anything I am doing as serious. Let’s play!’
Dogs may sound like they are fighting and getting very ugly with each other, but if this we predicated by a play bow, then it is all in good fun and fine.
Dog language is actually far more complex than we’ve given them credit for, according to leading behaviorists in the field. They are astute learners and manipulators because they are so adept at understanding body language. They seem to know what humans are going to do before they do it. When you grab your keys, they know you are leaving the house and they react. They see the signs….shoes on, coat on, keys in hand, purse, etc.
Usually, this is when they hide so you cannot put them in a kennel or they stand at the door, demanding to go with you. Dogs learn your body language clues faster than anything else. This is why professional dogs trainers teach you to use hand signals when training your dog to sit, down, and stay. Using the same hand signal over and over is what helps your dog bridge the meaning of the word. Eventually, they respond to just the word.
Can Dogs Learn Our Language?
Dogs are capable of learning many of our words. Some dogs learn over a thousand words. One border collie was reputed to know and understand nearly five-thousand words. Some breeds seem to be more intelligent as a general rule but all dogs can be very intelligent.
Dogs can have the cognitive skills of a three-year-old to a five-year-old child. Dogs are capable of problem-solving at the level of this aged child. In fact, there are puzzle games designed to hide treats in that promote the dog using his own natural smelling instincts to problem solve and learn how to get the treat from under doors that have buttons to activate them.
It is said that these toys can improve the IQ of the average dog by as much as 50 points. You can also work with your dog to teach them the names of their toys too. Dogs, in other words, are capable of learning the meaning of human words if we teach them and they are generally very willing to learn.
Some dogs learn without us necessarily attempting to teach them. For example, each time you go to the dog park you ask your dog if he is ready to go for a ride. He will quickly learn that this word means he ends up at the dog park and acts nuts when he hears you say it. He doesn’t know the exact translation, but he knows what the gist of the question is.
Dogs Use Body Language to Get Their Way Sometimes
Dogs can be manipulative but not in a calculating way. They don’t lay awake at night planning world domination but they do know how to push your buttons to get you to hand over part of that sandwich. If they are successful in any effort, they file this away for future use.
This is simply a part of their instinctual survival skills. The animals that learn and adapt are the ones who survive, so it is in their genes. They repeat behaviors that pay off in a positive way. Begging is a behavior that will continue whenever it has been rewarded.
We can use this behavior to teach them skills and tricks but they also use it against us a fair amount of time. If giving you a certain look makes you melt every time, they quickly learn to repeat that same look to get the extra treat from you.
In fact, because dogs communicate with body language, they are better at training most humans than those humans are at training them. They know how to make their wishes known and they know how to adapt their behaviors when necessary.
Recently, researchers at the Duke University animal behavior program have learned that dogs have far more ability to reason then we ever gave them credit for. Our canine companions are capable of understanding more than we realized and to problem solve at a higher level of skill than had been believed.
Dogs are also very adept at knowing our moods by our facial expressions and understanding when we are sad. They are brilliant at subtle changes in a downward frown, a forehead furrow, and tears on our faces. They can even attempt to show us comfort in these times and this is part of what endears them to us more than any other animal on the planet. We feel like they read our minds; in reality, they are reading our bodies.
Challenge Your Dog to Create Deeper Bonds
Teaching your dog new skills and giving them problems to solve will keep their mind growing and expanding. As you work together as a team in training for obedience competitions, or agility sports, even in learning frisbee tricks. The more you do with your dog, the more you will both develop communication and language of your own.
Dogs are capable of understanding directional gestures of the hand, whistles, signals, learning words, and communicating with you using the things they have learned. They will even pick up when their human is running a temperature, has high blood sugar, or about to have a seizure. They smell the subtle changes in body chemistry that take place within you and they react to it because they know you so well. This is what makes dogs fantastic service animals.
So you see, leaning on you can have a very deep meaning, depending on your relationship with your dog. Your dog may be noticing that you are feeling well and trying to comfort you. He may be signaling you that he is aware you may need him. Conversely, he could be needing some reassurance at the moment and just wants to be close to you. No matter what the exact reason, the most obvious thing is clear, he wants to be close to you.
Laura Barnes is a passionate blogger and animal rights activist. She is a pet lover, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, pet nutritionist, and former veterinary technician. She continues her work while writing blogs for pet lovers around the globe.