Is this an “Awww!” photo or what? Answer: more like “what.”
First, it’s not a deceptive photo. It really happened; Lewis and Clara slept like this for at least ten minutes. So it’s not one of those “split second in time” photos that can be so misleading.
But the photo creates a false narrative in most of our minds because of how we interpret certain positions and behaviors.
Lewis had his legs draped over Clara and his muzzle tucked under her shoulder. Both dogs were relaxed, with no tension in their faces; they were sound asleep.
The problem is not that the photo is deceptive, but the “Awww” narrative most of us can’t help but make up in our heads is wrong. Lewis putting his “arm” around Clara evokes big feelings in us ape-people. Oh wow, a hug! We primates get off on anything that looks like a hug, and this photo fits the bill.
Do an image search of “dogs hugging each other” if you want to cringe.
My photo doesn’t show two dogs who adore each other and mutually seek each other out. (Spoiler: neither do most of the photos that come up on that search.) Mine shows a sociable dog, Lewis, who also tries regularly to get Clara to move away by invading her space. He is usually aiming to move closer to me or trying to get Clara to leave so he can take over the spot she warmed. It shows a less sociable but tolerant dog, Clara, who is not moving away (this time). Dogs will stay in uncomfortable situations if there is a competing reinforcer, a stronger motivator present. I’m not sure what it was, but Clara stayed, and they ended up in a cute pile.
Granted, they know each other well. And Lewis really likes and seeks out other dogs. They would not be in the cuddly position shown in the first photo if they were strangers, and we can see a degree of genuine comfort. But they are not best friends, I regret to say. They get along. But Lewis blew his chance at being true buddies with Clara. He didn’t adapt his behavior in response to her clear, regular, but non-assertive signals to knock it off earlier in their relationship. He’s often rude and bratty. I still put a lot of energy into preventing nuisance behaviors through constant vigilance. But that’s a post for another day.
The photo on the right, taken later in the morning, shows both Lewis’ obvious intrusiveness and Clara’s typical, quiet protest.
Why Dogs End Up Close to Each Other
What a funny heading, but hear me out. Dogs don’t always end up in each other’s space because they are seeking the other’s company. It’s wonderful when they do. I always hope my dogs will be friends, and I love seeing bonded dogs who enjoy each other.
But with my current dogs, I can’t assume that when they end up in the same place, it’s to hang out together. It might be, sometimes. But here are two other reasons dogs may end up adjacent that are not about being buddies.
Local enhancement is a type of social behavior in which one animal goes to the same location as another animal (or to a location where another animal has been) because of a potential resource there. If Lewis is in the yard and drops his head and starts sniffing intensely, or starts to dig, it’s likely Clara will join him and also sniff or dig. I have several video examples of local enhancement in this post.
Local enhancement is often about prey or food, but there are other reasons a location may be desirable. Clara knows all the best places in the yard for sunning herself. When she lies down, Lewis will often come to join her. In the picture below, they are also in an excellent location for viewing some action in the neighborhood. I don’t know who lay down first in this photo, but they’re at a distance Clara is comfortable with. Not all mashed up together and cozy.
In the photo from 2013 below, Summer, Zani, and Clara are surprisingly close. They were comfortable together, but this arrangement, too, was at least partly about the sunny spot.
Another common reason dogs may end up next to each other that isn’t about affection is resource guarding. Most people include in the definition of resource guarding not only protecting resources that one already has, but trying to get resources.
This is one of Lewis’ major hobbies. In a perfect world for Lewis, anytime Clara had anything: a toy, a piece of cardboard, or even a hole in the ground—he would get it away from her. If Clara were snoozing on the couch, he would sniff her feet or sit on her until she moved off. Then he would grab her place. He would block and herd Clara away from the yard fence if his buddies, the neighbor dogs, were out there.
Of course I run vigorous interference, so he doesn’t get his perfect world.
Such a little ray of sunshine he can be! I describe all that to let you get a sense of how guardy he is. Now check out the photo at the top again. Does it look a little different? Maybe it was social; maybe it was an attempt at Clara’s place. He would get something he likes in either case.
How many “Awww” photos from the sentimental animal story sites are of this type?
I take my job of protecting Clara from the teenager seriously, making sure she can have items she enjoys and hang out in comfortable places. It’s of utmost importance to me; she should enjoy life unmolested.
Different Behaviors in Different Places
Beds are tight spaces, so it’s no wonder that dogs end up crammed together sometimes.
But there’s another reason (besides fondness for each other) dogs may accept being up close and personal on the bed. The environment controls behavior. The bed is where we sleep and relax. Lewis is on his least obnoxious behavior on the bed at night and in the morning while the dogs sleep and I work. Clara can relax. His behavioral history predicts that he won’t suddenly pounce on her, which is a definite danger in the yard, in other parts of the house, and at other times of day. As the morning progresses, they both get active, and his tolerable behavior becomes…less so.
I didn’t write this to complain about Lewis. I’m used to managing dogs who aren’t perfect with each other, and this is not the worst situation I’ve had. I work hard at keeping Clara comfortable and safe from harassment. And Lewis is getting less bratty as he grows up.
My reason for writing about this is that I like to explore the way we make stories up about dogs. There is a whole industry around churning out “Awww” stories for people to share. It’s a multi-million dollar business, promulgated on specialty sites like The D*d* (convert the asterisks to the letter o) and, of course, general sites like TikTok and YouTube. Some shared videos about animals are lovely. Many are horror shows, but presented as sweet and sentimental.
Our assumptions and beliefs about dogs can hurt them, even endanger their lives. I’m not being dramatic. Rather than going into the potential problems with dogs and babies, I’ll refer you right now to Family Paws. This is a wonderful educational resource for parents and anyone who may be in situations where both children and dogs are present. (That means most of us at some point, right?)
My cozy little photo is not endangering anyone. It’s a tiny drop in the bucket and doesn’t even meet today’s “cute” threshold. Even so, I’d rather post it and talk about it here than to put it up as cute on social media. If I posted it on Instagram, I would get several bot requests from parasitic repost sites because it fits a certain algorithm and narrative. One that isn’t always true, unfortunately.
How about your dogs? Do they end up in an accidental cuddle sometimes? If you have dogs who are frenemies, how do they work out sharing space?
Copyright 2023 Eileen Anderson