Tactile communication: How dogs use physical contact to communicate

Tactile communication: How dogs use physical contact to communicate

Pet Psychology

The ways in which people communicate with other people and how dogs communicate with other dogs are naturally very different from each other, and when it comes to the ways in which we bridge the species divide and communicate between ourselves and our dogs, compromise is required on both sides! Dogs do moderate their behaviour to a large degree when communicating with people, in order to be understood by us and work within the parameters that we set for them.

However, a lot of the behaviours and methods of communication that your dog will use with you are common to their interactions with other dogs too, and learning to understand how this works is important in order to ensure that you understand your dog, and what they need.

Perhaps the most detailed method of communication that dogs use in general is their body language and facial expressions, and once you have learned to interpret these in dog terms rather than human terms, canine communication becomes much easier! On the other hand, a combination of scent and body language are the main tools that dogs use to communicate with each other, and then verbalisations come next for both dog to dog and dog to human interaction.

However, there is another form of canine communication that is often overlooked in terms of its importance and how it is used, largely because it is so obvious that we don’t really consider it-physical touch.

Dogs are very tactile animals that like to be in close physical contact with their favourite people and other animals, and the various ways in which your dog touches you and uses their physical presence to interact with you is a vital element of their full repertoire of communication.

In this article, we will examine some of the most common forms of tactile communication that dogs use with people, and what they mean. Read on to learn more.


Dogs lick people for a whole host of reasons-because they like the taste of the salt on your skin, to gain olfactory information, to show affection, to “groom” you, as a submissive gesture, and to show love!

You have likely noticed your dog licking you for all of these various reasons at different times, and whilst being licked by a dog is not always pleasant and can of course spread germs, to your dog, this is a very common and viable communication tool.

Body to body contact

Dogs love to be physically close to their people, often physically touching by means of sitting and leaning against you, climbing into your lap for small and toy dog breeds like the Shih Tzu (and often, much larger dog breedstoo!), and resting their head on you. Physical contact helps dogs to feel secure and part of their pack, as well as helping to share warmth, provide reassurance, and increase the bond between you.

Swiping and pawing

Whether or not you have taught your dog to give you their paw, the chances are that you will have experienced your dog pawing at you or swiping at you with their paw at various times, such as if they are trying to get your attention, speed you up when preparing their food, or trying to get you to stop doing something that they don’t like!

This behaviour is very similar to how children will tug on your hand or clothes to get your attention!

Jumping up

Jumping up is a common canine behaviour that can be inconvenient but hard to curb, particularly if you’re not firm about it from the puppy stage onwards. Jumping up is again, often a way of getting your attention or a reaction from you, but it can also be due to excitement (such as when you first get home) or for small dogs, to try to raise themselves up to our level.

Nose nudging

Pushing and nudging with the nose is something else that dogs do a lot, both with dogs and other people. In fact, when a dam’s litter is still small, a lot of her interactions will involve pushing them about with her nose to move them around or divert them from getting into mischief!

A cold wet nose is hard to ignore and again, will quickly get your attention, and dogs also nudge you with their nose if they are trying to direct or prompt you, or to say hello!


Mouthing is the behaviour that dogs exhibit when they grab at you or hold onto you with their mouths, but without exerting pressure of biting down. Puppies learn this behaviour early on and explore the world with their mouths, learning the skills of bite inhibition and polite interaction with others.

A dog that mouths at you is trying to get you to do something or to pay attention to them, and your dog might do this in excitement if they want you to come and see something, throw a ball, or listen to them!

Leaning against your legs

Finally, dogs often lean against people, such as when they are sitting next to you as we discussed above. If you are out with your dog and stop to chat to someone and your dog leans on you, they may simply be taking a break and enjoying the various different feelings that body to body contact produces in them, but this can also serve as a dominant behaviour too.

If your dog always sits or stands in front of you when another person or dog is nearby, they are letting the other party know that you are theirs, and potentially, are trying to send a message that they are protecting you or in charge of you in a passive and non-aggressive manner.



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