We love dogs for many reasons. They're friendly, loving, playful, and just so darned cute. But for many dog owners, loyal companionship ranks at the top of the list of a dog's great qualities. From the moment you come home to the moment you leave the house, your dog is not far away. So why does your dog love being so close to you? You might hope that the reason is your sparkling personality but at times you probably suspect that your dog is just wishing that you might decide to give him or her a treat. Experts say, however, the underlying motivation is even simpler and possibly sweeter than you ever expected. Your dog is attached to you.
The Root of the Behavior
In a recent study conducted at Emory University, animal cognition experts used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to measure the reaction in a dog's brain when the researchers exposed the dogs to the smells of people and other dogs. The researchers found that the caudate nucleus, the reward center of the dogs' brains, activated more when exposed to human smells and that the smell of the dog's owner generated the strongest response. These findings align with other studies that confirm the strong bond between dogs and their people. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, dogs enthusiastically learned to press a button that opened a door to a room where their owners were sitting. The dogs' enthusiasm for opening the door remained even when the room contained plenty of toys, yet they showed much less interest in the door when their owners were already in the room with them. In addition, neuroscientist Atilla Andics of Eotvos Lorand University found in his own work that dogs seek out comfort from their owners when they are distressed, in the same way that young children rush to their parents when they are hurt or scared.
Of course, just like some toddlers are more insistent on being close to their parents, so some dogs cling more to their owners. Working dogs tend to have a more intense need for human company since they are bred to work side-by-side with people. For other dogs, it is their experiences and not their breeding that makes them want to stay close to their people. Dogs who are getting older may want to stay close to their owners, if only because they hear or see less well and are less comfortable moving around on their own. A dog may also follow his or her owners around for comfort if he or she is not feeling well or is stressed out by a life change such as a move to a new home. Some dogs learn that their owners give them a pat or a treat every time they see their canine companions nearby, and so closeness is a way of getting more attention. Conversely, if a dog is feeling bored and not having enough playtime, he or she can start following his or her owner in the hopes that a game will start or a walk will happen.
Encouraging the Behavior
So, when should you encourage your dog to stick by you, and when do you need to create some distance? If your dog is always following you around asking to play, it is more important to meet that need than to keep your dog close. Mental and physical stimulation is an important canine need, so consider taking some time out of your day for a romp in the backyard or even just a walk through the neighborhood. You may have a lot going on, but your dog only has you to meet all of his or her needs. If your dog just wants to be near you, and this is a new behavior, think about what else in your dog's life is new. Do you have a new person in the house, or has there been a change in your schedule? If so, make sure that your dog has a predictable routine. Once he or she feels more comfortable, the following behavior should decrease.
Remember that your dog may also be experiencing physical changes, so keep an eye on his or her health behaviors. If he or she seems lethargic or uncomfortable, the clingy behavior is secondary to the real issue, and a vet visit is in order. You may find that your dog is just naturally clingy, either by nature or nurture. Don't feel guilty if you suspect that you may be encouraging your dog to stay close by giving him or her extra attention. If you like having your dog by your side 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it works for the two of you, there is no reason why you should stop doing it.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If your dog not only needs to be close to you but shows intense distress when the two of you are apart, the issue may be separation anxiety rather than simple clinginess. This may be the case if your dog gets upset when you are about to leave the house, or if you hear him or her barking or howling as you walk away. Some dogs with separation anxiety will also show their distress through destructive behavior, such as chewing up household objects or urinating indoors, yet the behavior is not present when dog and owner are together. If your dog starts to appear nervous whenever it seems like the two of you are separated, try offering him or her a comfort object or an interesting toy such as one filled with treats. This may ease the dog's developing anxiety, but if it gets worse, you may need to consult with a veterinarian or behaviorist.
No one gets a dog because they want more alone time. Dogs' love for human companionship is one of the things that make them man's (or woman's) best friend, and that kind of unconditional love is certainly something to celebrate. If your dog seems happy when he's with you, and not too unhappy when you part, feel free to revel in the puppy love!