Why do dogs like to cuddle? Pet experts explain how to bond with your pup
“No two dogs are the same.”
Every dog owner has experienced it at least once: you come home after a hard day at work or a long trip, and your eager pup leaps into your arms, begging for licks and cuddles. And then they don’t. So, what’s the deal?
Why do dogs like to cuddle sometimes and not others? How can you tell whether your dog wants to cuddle in the first place, and does breed play a role in determining a dog’s level of affection?
Inverse speaks with three pet experts to answer these complicated questions and more. Your dog is an individual — not a toy.
“No two dogs are the same, and this rings true for their preference and willingness to cuddle,” Danielle Bernal, a veterinarian with Wellness Natural Pet Food, tells Inverse.
Why do dogs like to cuddle?
“Dogs cuddle to get warmth, bond with their family members or pack, and because it releases chemicals and hormones that make them feel good,” Bernal says.
When dogs cuddle with us, their brains release the feel-good hormone oxytocin, “which reinforces their desire and enjoyment of touch and bonding,” she adds.
The desire to cuddle is rooted in dog domestication — dogs have evolved to be with humans — but it also has to do with a more fundamental evolutionary desire to be in social groups with other dogs.
“Dogs in the wild and young puppies often cuddle with their littermates and mother as a way of bonding and showing subordination,” Chyrle Bonk, a veterinarian at Hepper, tells Inverse.
“When your dog cuddles with you, they’re showing their complete trust and love in your relationship,” Bonk adds.
“Dogs are pack animals by nature, so touch and affection are a strong love language,” Bernal explains further.
But cuddles can mean very different things to dogs than humans, she adds. It can even lead to another typical dog behavior: Zoomies.
“For some dogs, especially those who are younger and learning to play, cuddling can be a way of engagement that excites them, leading to a period of hyperactivity or those classic zoomies around your home,” Bernal adds.
Cuddling can also turn into aggression if another person is nearby and the dog feels protective of their pet parent.
Please pay attention to your dog’s body language to assess whether and how they want to be cuddled (more on that below).
How do dogs like to cuddle?
There are nearly as many forms of cuddling as there are types of dogs in the world: hugging, belly scratches, ear scratching, petting, cradling your dog’s face... the list goes on.
“Dogs like to be cuddled in different ways. Some prefer to snuggle on your lap, while others want to keep their distance a bit but will allow belly rubs or ear scratches,” Bonk says.
Your dog’s comfort needs to take top priority over your neediness.
“If they don’t want to be in your lap, get down to their level and sit on the floor with them,” Bonk says. “Don’t force your pup into a position that they are uncomfortable with, and watch for any signs of tensing or pinning their ears to know if they’re not into it.”
In general, your dog’s body position can help guide your interaction:
“Some dogs will roll over on their back to ask for a belly rub, and some will keep that belly fully protected and only ask for their back or ears to be scratched,” Bonk explains.
As you develop a bond with your dog over time, you’ll get acquainted with their favorite forms of cuddling and their desired times for affection.
Some dogs may like cuddling, so if you’re sitting on the couch, they’ll seek out “a gentle caress by placing their head on your thigh,” Bernal says.
Other dogs may enthusiastically roll over as you’re walking past, possibly indicating they want a belly rub.
To start, try to avoid petting a dog’s head and start with the chest instead.
“In general, most dogs do not want to be reached over their head to be pet on the top of their head as this may feel threatening. Petting the chest may be a safe starting option,” Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, tells Inverse.
But we should also question the idea that all dogs always want to be cuddled.
“A dog’s willingness to cuddle depends a lot on their personality. Some like to do it more than others,” Bonk says.
“Even dogs that like to be touched may not want to be touched all the time,” Pankratz adds. “Cuddling can be enjoyable for dogs — even more so if they can have a sense of choice and control.”
How do you know if your dog wants to be cuddled?
Numerous studies suggest humans like to cuddle dogs and get mental health benefits from touching and playing with their canine friends.
But it’s not always clear whether dogs, in turn, want to be cuddled. Stanley Coren, a canine psychology expert, reviewed photos available online of people hugging their dogs to assess the dogs’ body language cues. As Coren reports in Psychology Today, 81.6 percent of the images showed dogs experiencing discomfort, stress, and anxiety.
This jibes with past research showing humans, especially young children, are terrible at interpreting dog body language, leading to potentially dangerous interactions. A 2018 study found that 53 percent of three-year-old children mistook aggressive dog behavior as signs that the dog was happy.
“Having a good understanding of your dog’s body language and a good ability to also read the room is key to determining your dog’s reaction to touching them,” Bernal says.
Here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind:
1. Let the dog come to you or ask for its owner's permission
“Dogs will let you know when they want to be cuddled by coming to you or by hanging around when you come to them,” Bonk says.
Pankratz stresses that it’s essential to let the dog make the first move if unfamiliar to you.
“First and foremost, ask the owner of the dog for permission to approach and interact with their dog,” Pankratz says.
2. Assess the dog’s body language
“Reading a dog’s behavior is key to understanding the signs that they are enthused or not so enthused for snuggle time,” Bernal says.
The following body language signs may indicate a dog is open to pets:
- Tail wagging
- Eye contact
- Rolling over
- Maneuvering its head, paw, or body into your personal space
“Some pups even give their pet parent an enthusiastic paw nudge or gentle, playful talk to let them know that they want more of those delightful pats,” Bernal says.
But it’s also easy to misinterpret some of these behaviors. Pankratz says a wagging tail means the dog feels emotional and wants to move forward — it may be happy or fearful, depending on the circumstance.
“The facial features and body position are more valuable to determine a dog's emotional state” rather than its tail, Pankratz says.
Please pay attention to signs a dog feels tense and give them space. These signs include:
- Grumbling growl
- Baring teeth or snarling
- Tensing up
- Pinning their ears
- Shifting their weight
- Keeping their distance
When it comes to unfamiliar dogs, exercise even more caution. Extending a hand to a strange dog can be a reflex for dog lovers, but it's a dangerous gambit.
“You’ve reached your hand into the dog’s space, sometimes without fully assessing their comfort or consent to the interaction,” Pankratz says.
“An alternative approach would be to approach in a nonthreatening manner — often turned to the side and crouched down — at a distance from the dog,” she adds.
Don’t stare head-on, but turn your head slightly to the right instead. Similarly, don’t extend your hand, but keep it available next to your body so a dog can sniff or touch it.
These behaviors can suggest an unfamiliar dog is open to interacting with you:
- Mouth hanging open softly
- Approaching with a loose, wiggly posture or leaning into you
- Soft muscles in the face or relaxed eyes
3. Decide if the dog likes the cuddle — and re-assess
The dog may have accepted your touch, but you still need to pay attention to their body language to see if your gestures are enjoyable or distressing.
“If their eyelids are drooping in a state of bliss, their body is relaxed and molded into yours; then it is safe to conclude they are completely content,” Bernal says.
“If they are tense, nervous, or showing signs of aggression with a grumbling growl or visual appearance of their teeth, then there may be other considerations which they are worried about,” she explains.
Essentially, a pat is like a handshake: You need to read body language to end the handshake at the appropriate moment and move on. If you don’t, it can get awkward. The same goes for dog cuddles.
Petting consent tests can help gauge a dog’s response, too, Pankratz says. All you need to do for the test is to:
- Interact with the dog
- See what they do next
A “yes” would take the form of showing an evident desire to interact with you again. For example, they move closer to you, lean on you, or rub against you. A “no” might come in the form of the dog moving away or staying still.
Experts suggest that understanding when your dog wants to be alone is just as important as knowing when they want cuddle time.
Which dog breeds like to cuddle?
Each dog has its own life experiences and preferences — similar to any human. Genetics is just one of many factors that can shape how affectionate a dog might be to humans.
“Many other factors can affect whether or not a dog wants to cuddle beyond breeds, including early life experience and socialization, continued learning experience, and their physical health,” Pankratz explains.
It’s also worth keeping in mind there aren’t peer-reviewed studies investigating how cuddly specific breeds of dogs are in comparison to one another, Pankratz adds.
Some dog breeds are known to be more affectionate based on anecdotal evidence from owners over the years, the experts say.
“Some of the most affectionate breeds may surprise you since they are way too big to be lap dogs,” Bonk says.
The most affectionate breeds include:
- Golden retrievers
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Shih Tzus
But even if the big dogs on this list can’t curl up on your lap, larger dogs often “see their size as no barrier to snuggling in close,” according to Bernal. So make room on the couch.
Of course, “rescue dogs can also be just as cuddly” as any other dog, Bernal says. It’s not all to do with the breed (yes, grumpy golden retrievers do exist).
There are always exceptions to the rule, “so choose the right dog for your family,” she says, by looking at overall breed traits and your family lifestyle to find the right pairing.
Why doesn’t my dog like to cuddle anymore?
Experts say that if your dog used to be the queen of cuddles but isn’t interested in being affectionate anymore, that could be a sign of more troubling health problems.
“If you have a dog that has a seemingly sudden change in their preferences, from either changing from cuddly to aloof or shifting from standoffish to velcro, it is possible that this change could be due to a medical condition,” Pankratz says.
As dogs get older or change their health condition, their preferences for touching may change, too — because the place they once liked to get pats is now sore or a position is too uncomfortable to be in, Bernal says.
“Behavior such as them appearing to withdraw to their bed, displaying tenseness or aggression, or just reluctance to join in overall may indicate there could be something more serious underlying,” she adds.
If you notice these mood shifts, check in with your veterinarian immediately.
“Your veterinarian can assess the health of your pet, rule out potential medical conditions of concern, and refer you to a specialist, such as a board-certified veterinary behaviorist if needed,” Pankratz says.