There’s long been a theory that dogs don’t realize that they are larger than their heads, so they may not be aware that they have completely pinned you down when they come over to communicate something to you.
But what are they communicating? It’s kind of hard to tell with their nose about an inch away from yours. You have to uncross your eyes and figure out how to read their signals. Most of the time, they just want their scheduled period of adoration. But what if they’re scared, or on edge?
To help you become your own best dog whisperer, we’ve summarized a few of the main reasons your dog decides to lie on top of you or sleep there, and how to interpret their actions from context clues.
Possession is a broad concept, so we’ll narrow this down to possession of you, as their favorite, and possession of their routines and personal space.
Possession of you
Can dogs get jealous? Certainly, they can!
Field and laboratory studies of jealousy in primates date back to the 1960s. The more we investigate species with complex social hierarchies and indications of serial monogamy, the more we find that jealousy is a primordial instinct that exists to maintain important relationships. Dogs have a degree of cognitive sophistication that allows them to experience the jealous urge to protect what is theirs.
Provoust and Harris (2014) demonstrated a statistically significant difference between dogs’ jealous reactions to a fellow dog as opposed to an animatronic form of competition. Overall, dogs react more vigorously to a flesh-and-blood interloper, treating irritations like robodogs like the mere annoyances that they are.
However, when faced with your new partner (or perhaps a new pup or rescue dog) they may initially take umbrage. Perhaps there’s a new baby in the house?
If your dog can’t reassert their position as the alpha of the pets in the house, then they will escalate their displays of dominance. This can involve lying on you to keep the interloper at bay. There are clues to tell you that your dog has gone into “MINE!” mode:
- they may sit on your chest to make themselves taller than their competitor for your affection
- they may growl warningly if you’re approached
- they won’t sleep in protective mode
- they won’t show their belly
- they sit on your feet, facing the interloper, or wriggle on you, leaving their scent.
If this persists, then you’ll need to reintroduce the socialization training, involving the pet or person that they seem so threatened by. Rewarding positive interactions between your dog and their competition will help them to learn that they have nothing to worry about. If they begin to show signs of uncharacteristic aggression, then it’s time to seek help from your vet or a canine behavior expert.
If you’re rehoming a dog, then you may find that they bring their ingrained routines with them to your home. Thus, if they are used to hogging the couch after a hard day’s toil (particularly true of working/service dogs), then they will continue to do this. If you reach their favorite spot first, then fair enough. They respect you enough not to try to move you out of it, but they’ll sit there anyway. On top of you.
Although it can be funny when your dog acts as if they’re tolerating your presence between them and their favorite snoozing spot, try not to reward by laughing, rubbing their belly, or stroking them. It is your couch, after all, and no doubt you will have spent time and effort setting up a lovely spot for them to rest in. Create a reward system that teaches them to associate going to their crate or bed with your approval and affection.
There’s a fine line between possessive behavior and physically clingy behavior, but the line is distinguished by them experiencing fear. Jealous and possessive body language comes with an aura of frustration, whereas clingy behavior comes with timidity, distress, and sometimes withdrawn body language if they sincerely fear abandonment.
You may find that they’re particularly inclined to lie all over you if you’re having a sit down at the breakfast table before work because they don’t want you to leave. Other signs that show that your dog is experiencing separation anxiety are:
- Howling when you approach the front door
- Destructive behavior while you’re away (ripping cushions, tipping trash cans over)
- Destruction of escape routes (chewing window and door frames)
- Vigilant escort duty from room to room
- Pacing while you’re preparing to leave and getting under your feet
- If you have a back yard, your neighbors may report your dog pacing up and down in a set line, or walking in circles for long periods of time
- They won’t sleep while they’re anxious unless they’re exhausted by their own anxiety by the time you’ve returned
- In serious cases, they may wee or defecate in forbidden areas (shoes, on carpet), or eat what they’ve defecated.
The last three examples are signs of serious emotional distress. Your dog may display these symptoms even if they have shown every indication of being nicely house trained up to this point. It’s not that they don’t know how to behave; it’s more of a case that they suddenly don’t know how to “be” by themselves. This can happen for a variety of reasons, some more traumatic than others.
A change of residence or routine can have them acting up. If you’ve been extremely stressed and not exercised them as much, or if you’re very withdrawn, then they will start to take this personally after a week or so. One of the worst-case scenarios is when their beloved owner has disappeared and they struggle to rely upon other people, however affectionate or well-intentioned they may be.
Thankfully, there are ways you can handle this very sad situation. If things have gotten bad enough that you’re seeing the last few items on that symptoms list, then you’ll possibly need help from a canine behaviorist to reset their emotional state with a graduated desensitization program. Here are a couple of other things you can try by yourself.
Counter-conditioning: where you teach your dog to associate alone time with great results, like having the best treat on earth when you return, or more fun toys to play with when you’re away. Stuffing a Kong with treats that are a little difficult to get out will keep them busy for a long time. Just make sure that you put away the ‘best’ toys when you get home.
Down-play the significance of “departure cues”: Because your dog is smart, they will figure out that patterns of activity go together. They will figure out that you having breakfast, and then putting up makeup or shaving, then dressing in the same kind of clothes and picking up your purse or backpack means that you’re leaving and won’t be back for a while.
Teach them to realize that this isn’t always the case by picking up your car keys and sitting on the couch with them for a while with the keys where your dog can see them. Make a point of doing chores in your coat and inviting your dog to help out. In short, help them to break the association between departure behaviors and props, and their feelings of distress.
You know when this is working when your dog barely acknowledges you leaving the house. That means that they’re confident about your return.
Have you been particularly stressed, angry, or tearful? If so, it’s quite possible that they’re planting themselves on top of you as a form of a canine shield. Stresses are often entirely internal, like gibbering with nerves because you’ve accidentally posted something on social media which was only meant for the eyes of a private group.
Your dog won’t understand internal stresses, of course. They’ll assume from your demeanor that there is a foe afoot, and they’ll want to look after you. Here are the signs that protection is their motive for lying all over you:
- there are strangers around (canine and human)
- they bark or growl at people who they usually welcome
- if you’ve cried, then they are particularly watchful
- they will remain alert, possibly even restless
- they will not show any part of their belly when lying on you
If your dog is being protective, then you can reassure them that you’re feeling better by moving them off of you while you give them active affection, or you can combine being affectionate with them while engaging the person or pet that your dog is suddenly very suspicious of. This way you can help to remove their reason for thinking you need their physical presence to be safe.
They’re giving you a hint
If they feel that you’re being a little lazy, then they might sprawl over you to make it impossible for you to rest comfortably. They will often accompany this behavior by bringing you your shoes or their lead. Or they’ll try nipping at your pants and pulling you as a major clue that you should be getting up and doing interesting stuff with them.
They want all the hugs
This is the simplest and most common reason for your dog walking over, climbing up, and flattening you. They love you dearly and need to be with you right there and then.
Some dogs are more prone to this constant-connection requirement than others. Clingier dog breeds include the Havanese, Dalmatians, Retrievers and Labradors, French bulldogs, Great Danes, and Pugs. You’ll know that your dog is lying on you in the hope of enjoying cuddles if:
- They’re (almost!) just as happy with your hand on their shoulder
- Or if they haven’t seen you for half an hour and want to catch up
- If they have the habit of nudging their heads under your arm while you’re sleeping
- The offer their belly for stroking
- They will happily fall asleep on you when they’ve had their cuddle
- They will seek you out to fall asleep with
- They dissolve into a state of idiotic bliss the moment you start stroking them
- They bring you their favorite toy. Not because they want you to throw it or play, but because they value the toy and want to share.
They think it’s hilarious
Playful dogs can have a lively sense of humor. If you’re minding your own business on the couch, perhaps lying calmly with a book, then it’s an ideal moment for them to pounce upon their favorite human and see how fast they can get you to wag your arms.
You’ll know they’re doing this for the comedy gold if their eyes are wide open and shining, they’re panting expectantly, or if their tail is bashing away like a windshield wiper in a hurricane. When you’ve told them off, they may slink compliantly from couch to crate, but they’ll do so with an expression that says, “My work here is done.”
If they’re giant dogs (100lb+) then you may remind them that Kamikaze cuddles are not an acceptable way of getting your attention.