You’re settling down onto the couch, and your dog saunters over. He leans his ribs against your knees, sighs, and stands there. What does he want? How do you respond?
We All Need Somebody to Lean On: Why Do Dogs Lean On Their Humans?
Dogs lean on their humans for several main reasons. It’s a totally normal behavior, usually related to attention-seeking. Basically, your dog is trying to subtly (or not-so-subtly) get something from you!
Let’s explore some of the underlying reasons that your dog leans on you.
Warmth. That’s right, even with all their fur, dogs get cold sometimes! My lab normally isn’t much of a cuddler – she likes her space. But if we return to a cold cabin after an afternoon of cross-country skiing together, she leans on me for a while to share warmth. This is most common in short-haired or small breeds.
Comfort. Dogs take comfort in being physically close to you. Even when my border collie and I have the whole house to ourselves, he tends to park it right under my chair. He isn’t much for petting, but he likes to have his paws touching my feet while I write articles. Shy dogs especially may lean on their owners for comfort when they’re nervous or anxious. Dogs are social animals, and we’ve bred them for thousands of years to want to be close to us!
To Get You to Move. Dogs that lean on you in order to steal your spot on the couch might need some help learning other ways to get what they want. If your dog is constantly encroaching on your space in order to get you to move, it might be time to change some rules around the house.
To Ask For Something. Some dogs lean to ask for dinner, playtime, petting, or to go outside. Similar to dogs that lean on you to get you to move, these dogs might need a bit of training or management to minimize the obnoxious behavior.
Do Dogs Lean On You To Express Dominance?
Modern science has pretty much chucked dog dominance theory out the window – even the scientist who originally proposed dominance theory has retracted it! There are still those who support it, but I don’t put any stock in it myself.
If your dog leans on you and it doesn’t bother you, don’t worry about changing anything in the house! Even if they lean on you to make you move or ask for something, this isn’t a problem unless you say it is. I like it when my dog leans on me – I like the warmth, too.
Your dog isn’t going to assert dominance over you or otherwise take over the house. She’s not disrespecting you, and the behavior isn’t dangerous. That said, if this behavior is getting annoying, it’s time to change something!
How to Reduce Your Pooch’s Leaning
If your dog is a needy leaner and it’s starting to bother you, it’s time to change a few rules in the house. The good news: this problem isn’t that hard to fix, and it’s likely not a huge deal to get right immediately!
When I’m working with dogs as a trainer, I have a two-step approach to reducing leaning in demanding dogs.
Step 1: Stop Rewarding the Lean
Stop giving your dog what he wants when he leans. Period. If your dog is leaning to ask for petting, games, or taking your couch cushion, you need to stop rewarding this behavior. Your dog is currently using leaning on you as a way to get what he wants. That’s fine, but if it’s bothering you, you must stop rewarding him for doing it!
Keep in mind that you’ll probably get an extinction burst when you stop rewarding your dog for leaning. This is the doggie version of hitting an elevator button 12 times before giving up and taking the stairs. Your dog is confused – leaning normally works, but now it’s not getting him what he wants. He may try to double down on the lean – he may lean more often, longer, or harder before giving up.
Instead of giving your dog what he wants (assuming you know what that is) when he leans on you, wait for him to stop leaning, and then call him over. Give him what he was asking for (whether that’s food, playtime, a toy, etc)- but on your terms!
Until you get the leaning under control, all good things happen to the dog only when you want them to. If he leans, barks, or paws at you, ignore him. When he finally gives up, then you can pet him, play a game, or go for a walk.
Step 2: Implementing the “Nothing in Life is Free” Policy
Your next goal is to give your dog a new way to ask for what he wants. Think of it like teaching your dog to say please. Make a list of all of the things in life that your dog likes – this may include:
- Going outside
- Sniffing things
- Getting pet
- Coming out of the crate
- Meeting other people
- Meeting other dogs
- Coming up on the couch
- Getting pet
- Eating dinner
These are called environmental rewards. They’re things that happen in your dog’s day-to-day life that are separate from treats or other training rewards. In order to reduce demanding behaviors like barking or leaning, we need to harness these environmental rewards.
Once you have your list of things that Fifi likes to do, come up with a way for your dog to say please. Most people choose sit. My border collie lies down, simply because he’s quicker to lie down than to sit – it’s a border collie thing. I know a boxer that shakes.
Pro Tip: Whatever action you pick, make sure it’s something your dog already knows on cue, and knows well. If he only sits when you’re holding a cookie alone in the kitchen, but not in the backyard or the park, your dog doesn’t really know “sit.” Work on generalizing the behavior before starting on “nothing in life is free.”
This “game” is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Before opening the door to go outside for a walk, ask your dog to sit. Only when he sits does he get to go outside. If your dog is a fetch maniac, ask him to sit in between throws. If he doesn’t sit, the game doesn’t continue. If your dog likes to be pet, ask him to sit before petting him. You get the idea!
This will help reducing leaning by showing your dog a new way to ask for something. It also helps your dog learn some impulse control, because now he has to work a bit for everything in life. Combining this with no longer rewarding leaning should dramatically reduce leaning in demanding dogs.
Other Doggie Body Behaviors That Are Kind of Weird
So maybe your dog doesn’t lean, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have some other weird attention-seeking behaviors!
As a trainer, people like to ask me all sorts of questions about their dogs. Some of the most common (and weird) doggie body behaviors that I am asked about include:
- Why does my dog rub up against me? Some dogs will rub against you for reasons similar to why dogs lean. Others may have an itch and be looking for a scratch! Rubbing against you can also be an appeasing or play behavior, where your dog is soliciting play, comfort, or petting.
- Why does my dog put his head between my legs? Some dogs love to shove their noses into your knees, legs, or crotch. They may be looking for behind-the-ear scratches. My lab likes to push her head into my legs when her eyes are itchy with summertime allergies. If you notice a sharp increase in this behavior (or any big behavior change), it might be a good idea to visit the vet!
- Why does my dog like to sit on my feet? Often, dogs that sit on feet are nervous. These dogs may back up and press their backs to your leg as they sit on your feet, surveying their surroundings. These dogs are seeking comfort and trying to put distance between themselves and the scary world. If you see lots of calming signals while your dog does this, your dog is likely spooked! Otherwise, your dog might be looking for warmth and touch, just like dogs that lean or rub.
Mat Training As A Solution to Dog Leaning
Still stuck with a hardcore leaner? Try mat training. Dog mat training can be done using a towel or blanket that your dog has never seen before. This “mat” will become a sacred space for your dog. Whenever he’s on the mat, good things happen.
A great step-by-step introduction to mat training from dog training guru Karen Pryor can be found here. Another great way to start mat training is Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol. We do this one every night before bed with our new fosters!
This behavior is different from “go to your bed” because the mat is only on the ground when the dog should be in it. This makes the behavior stronger, because the mat is a very easy, clear cue. If your dog is on the mat, he can’t lean on you. That easy!
I started mat training my new dog within 24 hours of bringing him home.
Is your dog a leaner? Do you love it or hate it? Let’s hear it!