Do dogs lean on us out of dominance?
I saw a comment thread on reddit where everyone was saying how cute it is when their dogs lean on them for affection. Most people said they like when their dogs lean on them, and they don’t seem to think anything of it, good or bad.
Then there were a few people who jumped in preaching Cesar-Millan talk, saying that a dog that leans on you is trying to assert his dominance. And of course this created all kinds of drama as people became overly emotional and defensive about “dominance theory.”
Here’s the thing: Sometimes dogs do use their bodies to claim space or to get to an object first or to simply be in the lead. Call it dominance. Call it cute. Call it whatever you want. It’s what dogs do.
But not a single person (except yours truly!) brought up the fact that many dogs will lean on their owners for security. They will lean on their owners because they are shy, fearful or insecure in that moment. They are not trying to dominate their owners. They are trying to feel safe.
Nine times out of 10, when dogs lean on us they really are just seeking attention. They like to be close to people. And yes, sometimes it’s rude.
Why dogs lean on us
My dogs Ace will come up and slam his side into my legs, wiggling his body into a U shape and whipping his tail every which way.
I don’t see this as dominance (although he does want my attention) or insecurity (although he does feel safer with me around). He’s just trying to connect with his best friend! And guess what? It works!
I always bend down and give him a good butt scratch. “Good boy, Ace!”
But there are dog owners who don’t read into anything their dogs are telling them. Everything the dog does is cute or funny to them, even when the dog is trying to communicate something. To them, a dog that leans couldn’t possibly be trying to say anything other than “I love you.”
And then there are dog owners who assume every action from a dog always means the same thing. Growling always represents dominance, for example. Or a wagging tail always represents happiness. Or leaning always represents friendship. Hmm …
In order to understand our dogs, we need to pay more attention to what they are trying to communicate during each specific situation.
Dogs can certainly block us with their bodies in order to gain access to what they want, but they will also lean on us in order to feel safe.
Here are some examples of when an insecure dog might lean on his owner:
1. Shy dogs will often lean on their owners in order to feel safe
My former foster dog Cosmo was a leaner.
He would lean on me when someone came to the door or when we attended an adoption event. This wasn’t because he was trying to dominate me. He was leaning on me in order to feel more secure.
Poor Cosmo was always stressed at adoption events. His ears would be back. He would avoid direct eye contact with people. He would pant with an open mouth. Usually one front paw would be raised and tucked up into his chest. Sometimes he trembled. Sometimes he even growled at people.
No wonder no one was very interested in him during these events!
I made sure not to give Cosmo affection when he leaned on me for security. Telling him “It’s OK. It’s OK. Good boy,” would only teach him to continue looking to me for security. In order to help him grow as an individual and build his confidence, I had to teach him not to depend on me so much.
So I would block Cosmo with my hip or my elbow (I was usually sitting on the floor with him). Or I would simply move away or up into a chair. He would usually shift back in order to lean on me again, and I would move away again as well. When he was relaxed and lying next to me without touching, I would pet him calmly.
I know, I know. Some of you are thinking, “But affection does not reinforce a dog’s fears.” That is true. And I’m not saying you should correct a fearful dog. Just look for ways to block some habits in order to slowly help the dog move on and grow.
See my post: Does affection reward a fearful dog?
Treats and favorite toys can also be very useful to help distract an insecure dog from everything going on. You can use treats to get him to think about something else like sit or stay and build his confidence that way. Sometimes I would make Cosmo lie down and stay a foot away. Then he would get the treat as a reward for maintaining distance. “Wow, what a good boy! So brave!”
2. Some dogs climb into their owners’ laps in order to feel more secure
Some little dogs will climb into their owners’ laps in order to feel more secure. Big dogs try this as well, but it’s usually the smaller dogs that tremble in their owners’ arms because they fear something in the environment.
Instead, the owner should place the dog on the ground and slowly help him understand that nothing bad happens in new situations. The owner should ignore the dog or move away when he frantically paws at her legs to get back up. She should give him a treat or pick him up only when he is calm or if the situation is truly unsafe for the little guy.
And of course, it’s important not to completely overwhelm the dog. If he’s fearful of new people and dogs it would be unfair to set him on the ground in the middle of a PetSmart or a street fair. But the owner should seek out less “scary” situations first and slowly challenge the dog more and more from there.
Some dogs will even become possessive of their owners, growling and biting from their owners’ arms if anyone gets too close. Of course they are going to be possessive. They don’t want to be removed from their “power source.”
But even these dogs are not barking out of dominance. They are barking up a storm because they are insecure. They are acting defensively.
So how can an owner fix this problem?
The same way as above. Seek out situations that are not too overwhelming, and keep the dog on the ground. Carrying him around will not help him build confidence.
Most little guys will immediately try to jump back into their owners’ arms – their place of empowerment.
The owner should not allow this, not unless the dog is truly in danger.
If the dog tries to jump back into his owner’s lap, she should block him with her arm. If he makes it into her lap, she should stand and push him off or set him on the ground. If he starts growling and barking at people from her feet, she should put his leash on him and tether him away from her. She should reward him when he’s calm and not barking or crying.
The goal is to help the dog grow as an individual by weaning him away from his dependence on his owner.
See my post: How to stop my dog from guarding me.
3. Some dogs will hide between their owners’ legs at the dog park
When dogs hide between their owners’ legs at the dog park, many owners respond by petting the dog or talking to the dog.
Instead, it’s best to just step away. Keep moving. Don’t allow the dog to hide behind you or under you. Help the dog build his confidence by decreasing his dependence on you.
If the dog seems overly shy or fearful, just walk away from the other dogs, re-group and return again after a few seconds. You don’t want to overwhelm your dog too much by forcing him to interact right off the bat. Visit the dog park during quieter hours and don’t plan on staying for long. If he plays for a few seconds and then seems overwhelmed, just quit while you are ahead. At least he played for a few seconds. That is a success.
Some dogs appreciate socializing in smaller groups just like some people like to socialize in smaller groups. Some dogs and some people get tired of socializing sooner than others. Heck, I’m one of the most introverted people I know! I can certainly relate to all those introverted dogs out there.
What have you noticed about your dog when he leans on you?
Is he usually seeking attention? Power? Security? Probably all of the above, depending on the situation. Let us know in the comments!
Why do dogs raise their hackles?
Sunday 21st of February 2021
Carti, a 70lb mix breed, will lean when it appears he needs reassurance for some reason. He is at his most comfortable when he is literally underneath me, whether I am on the couch or a chair, etc. He is a fearful dog, but I am trying to acclimate him to at least tolerate situations. If he wants my attention, he will come running and either jump up if he has the room or repeatedly lift my arm with his nose. He's sweet with people but can't be trusted with children or other dogs.
Thursday 26th of April 2018
..I just read another person's account of their large breed St Bernard leaning on them....well, I have a Bernese Mountain Dog, a breed notorious for leaning, or sitting on your foot....our breeder told us of this, and said that BMD's are very needy.....I went into this, fully understanding that, and my second BMD is exactly the same!!!....leaning is not an issue for me at all....I love it, and understanding the breed you have helps how you manage the behaviour....once I have hugged her, I tell her "all done", and she walks away...everyone, people AND dogs, needs a hug now and again, and it works for us!!!
Thursday 9th of November 2017
The reason Cesar is good is because he doesn’t humanize dogs. They don’t think like us. When we say oh they just want love or attention... we are saying why we think another human would behave like that. If you watch the way dogs treat other dogs, you would understand. My dogs fight for my attention. When they lean on me it’s often to say, “She is mine.” When they lean against each other, it’s often after one of them has lost a fight and the dominant one will lean on the loser. People have to stop thinking of dogs as humans. You are part of their “pack”. They protect you, seek your attention, and behave for you because you have established you are the alpha. They are perfectly fine knowing their rank in the pack... even if it’s at the bottom. They “love you” because you are their pack leader, you feed them, you work them. If you allow a dog to tell you what they want from you, you are being trained by them. And that IS dominance. On a walk, you walk them, you don’t let them walk you and tell you which way to go. It’s especially important with large breeds, because in many cases, if they feel like they can tell you what to do or what they want and you allow it... the time you try to gain control they can try to put you in your place. Don’t assume a dog thinks like you.
Monday 16th of October 2017
I'm pet sitting a friends three dogs. I have been watching them for 5 weeks, with two more weeks to go. They are great dogs.. but there is one that is driving me crazy. She is about 18-months old, was a stray that my friend rescued (at birth). She's sweet little dog, however she wants to SIT on everyone. I have three dogs, she literally moves from one dog to another sitting on TOP of them. She leans on me, tries to sit on me. I have yet, in five weeks seen her actually sit somewhere on her own. If you try to move her, she is dead weight and fights against it. The other dogs will growl, bite at her.. but she is relentless.. they move, and she moves on to the next dog. What is going on???
Thursday 9th of November 2017
She is establishing her place in the pack. She knows she is strong and she is using it to let all of you know she is boss. And it is working because the other dogs eventually submit. If you are a visitor, you might not want to disrupt her behavior because that’s the nature of dogs. But the owners should not allow her to lean on them or other humans on the house. That’s why it’s not wise to let dogs on furniture especially with children in the home or a potential baby being born because they WILL lay on them and even though it’s cute... they are seeing where the dominant pack leader draws the lines. They will register that if the alpha allows children on furniture and not me... then their rank must be higher than mine... and they are good with that. Well, once it sinks in. And they will still protect all members of the pack. That’s how they work.
Monday 16th of October 2017
Oh gosh! That does sound interesting. I wonder if it helps her feel more secure.
Thursday 20th of July 2017
My Lucy will go between my legs when she sees a lot of dogs somewhere or doesn't like the situation. She does lean in on me when she wants attention, if I'm walking her and stop to talk to somebody she will either lean on me or nudge me. I tell her no She's like a child then and I ignore her. It really is funny. Other times the lean is for affection. Then of course there's the security one but then we'll be hiking and she's in between growling. I like to say hello to anybody ahead of me of coming at me so she knows they're friendly.