Wherever there's a group of friendly dogs out together with their owners, inevitably someone will declare "Oh look, he's a leaner! I love leaners!" Many people enjoy the feel of a big dog leaning against their legs. It's a bonding moment. But all is not as it seems.
Dogs are expressive animals with a lot to say. They've learned to understand the language of people, both verbal and nonverbal. They've learned to convey their needs to us as well. People spend countless hours and lots of money trying to decipher doggy dialect. It's quite an amazing feat that dogs "get people" the way they do. For example, when a dog wants to give us a warning, they show their teeth. But when people want to show friendship, they smile. Seeing a human face split in a broad grin coming straight at a dog's face should alarm the dog, yet dogs have learned it's not a bad thing. Some dogs have even mastered the submissive grin, a kind of doggy smile some dogs display when they're happy. When a dog wants to challenge another dog, he will stare deeply into his opponent's eyes. Yet when a person wants to show a dog affection, he looks lovingly into his dog's eyes. It was all part of domestication.
What Does THAT Mean?
Many experts have come forward with all manner of explanations as to why dogs act the way they do and do the things they do. They have ascribed human emotions to canine body language. One example is if a dog shyly looks away while watching you from the corner of his eye, it means he's feeling guilty. Another example is when a dog is seen humping another dog, it means he's feeling sexual. Experts rarely agree on why dogs do what they do and the significance of why dogs lean is no exception. The answer depends on whom you ask. Celebrated dog trainer Cesar Millan believes that dogs lean to show dominance over their owners. His theory is every example of canine body language has roots in pack mentality. Dogs lean on you, says Millan, because they are dominantly demanding attention. This may be true, but you have to look at the dog's entire attitude. Does the dog act in other ways like he wants to be the leader of the pack?
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Other signs to look for to determine if leaning is a dominance behavior, and should therefore be discouraged, include leaning on other dogs as well as people. A dog may lean against a new canine acquaintance to test the dog's "heft" so as to assure herself a prospective foe is not stronger than her. If a dog leans against you but shows no sign of wanting to assert dominance in any other way, most likely she is not seeking the so-called "alpha dog" position. It's also important to look at the situations in which she demonstrates this behavior. It's possible she senses danger of which you are unaware and is leaning against you so as to protect you or put her body between you and the perceived danger. She's using leaning as a sign of solidarity much like a human would put an arm around you to present a united front.
Some dogs are shy and insecure with people other than those in his immediate family and will lean against their owners in an effort to calm themselves. These behaviors are called "displacement signals." Other such signals include lip licking, yawning and avoiding direct eye contact. Leaning can be a way of seeking solace in a time of stress. It's important to look at the circumstances under which your dog leans on you for clues as to why he's doing so. The simple answer is almost always the right one, and he could just be asking for a little affection and reassurance that you still love him. Everyone likes to be reminded of how loved they are, and dogs are no exception.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.