When my dog was younger, she had a very… exuberant way of greeting people. The first time I met her, she nearly launched herself from the yard through the car window onto me (and this car was not low to the ground either!)
Now that she’s a bit older, wiser, and calmer, she greets people in a much different way. When we come home, or someone she knows stops by, she’ll bury her head into their legs, or their chest, if they sit down on the ground next to her.
Why does your dog bury your head into you? It depends on the context, but it could be because they are happy to see you and want to show affection, because they want attention, because they are anxious and want comfort, or because they want to smell and mark you with scent glands in their face. In rare circumstances, your dog might show head pressing (against a hard surface like a wall, rather than a person), which can indicate a serious medical condition.
Let’s discuss each of these in more depth!
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Dog Behavior Is All About Context
As with other dog behavior topic we’ve covered (such as about ears, tails, snorting, and licking), context is everything. As we cover the reasons why your dog might be showing this behavior, keep in mind the rest of their body language–such as their tail and ears–as well as the overall environment.
For example, do they bury your head into you when you’re getting home, or when you’re leaving? Does it only happen after you’ve been out and about with other dogs (gasp!), or does it only happen during thunderstorms? Try to think of the underlying pattern and keep that in mind as you read through the various reasons.
Greetings and Showing Affection
My dog buries her head in me (and other people she knows) as a way of greeting, and showing affection. You’ll know that this applies to your dog’s behavior by the rest of their body language, and the situation.
Look for relaxed, happy ears, and a wagging tail. This also will likely occur after the end of the work day (as you’re returning home), or if a guest stops by.
You might also see this behavior for new friends as well. If your dog meets someone new and decides they like the person, they might bury their head into them to show affection towards them.
There’s nothing wrong with this behavior. It’s like the dog equivalent of giving a hug. You don’t have to discourage this behavior, instead, bask in the knowledge that your dog is happy to see you.
Asking for Affection, Attention, or Food
The flip side of showing affection is asking for affection. No judgement here! We as humans do this all the time, making “bids” towards other people in hopes of a positive response.
If your dog has been alone all day, and then greet you with head burying, they may also want some attention from you. This will likely come with relaxed ears and a wagging tail. This is a totally normal behavior and doesn’t need to be discouraged. Dogs are social creatures, so give them some loving before you move on to your next task.
In addition to being social creatures, dogs are also smart creatures. They learn from your responses and repeat behavior that is rewarded with something they want. Asking for some attention or affection from you? Not problematic.
If Head Burying for Food or Attention Becomes An Issue
But in some cases, this can become an issue. For example, if your dog knows that they can bury their head in you repeatedly until you give them food, they will do so.
First of all, acknowledge that this is a learned behavior–either from you, family member, or a previous owner. Your dog is simply doing what they know works.
Second, know that you have to redirect this behavior and correct it over time. Rather than giving into the expected behavior, redirect their attention somewhere else, such as by praising them but not giving them food, or giving them a toy to play with instead.
Head Burying to Show Dominance
Likewise, head burying that is aggressive or overly pushy might be a sign of dominance. You don’t need to get caught up in “who’s the alpha” and taking it personally.
Instead, if head burying and pushing has become an issue for you personally, you can firmly redirect the behavior to something else. You may also consider getting help from a trainer so that your dog’s energy can be directed into good behavior, rather than shows of dominance.
Head Burying Might Mean Anxiety
Some dogs are naturally anxious, while other dogs only show anxiety in certain situations. Our dog is afraid of thunderstorms and will try to “hide” herself under our legs or behind us when we have a particularly scary storm.
Other dogs, like the one owned by this Slate advice reader, might show fear in more general situations. Dogs also might show anxiety around certain types of people. For example, when I volunteered at an animal shelter, some dogs would be afraid of men, likely due to a past abusive situation.
In any case, if your dog is showing head burying as a sign of anxiety, the rest of their body language will reflect this. They might pull their tail between their legs, have their ears back, or whine.
If at all possible, you’ll want to help remove the source of anxiety. Of course, you can’t do this with thunderstorms, but if your dog is afraid of, say, vacuum cleaners, maybe you can help them out by sending them on a walk with a neighbor.
You may also be able to use positive reinforcement to help your dog address specific fears, and slowly ease their fears. For situations like thunderstorms or fireworks, you can get them a “thunder shirt” to help them out.
And of course, you can help them out by being there for them. If your dog is head burying or nuzzling because they’re anxious, comfort them and let them know that they’re safe. There is nothing wrong with providing comfort to your dog when they are asking for comfort.
One subset of anxiety is separation anxiety. In this case, your dog isn’t afraid of the presence of something, but instead in the absence of you.
If this is the reason for head burying, it will likely happen as you’re leaving the house (or as your dog thinks you’re leaving the house). Your dog will likely also show signs of anxiety, such as ears pulled back, and whining or pacing.
Dog separation anxiety is a real issue that requires patience and progressive training to address. You can “counter-condition” your dog by building up positive associations with you leaving, such as giving them a Kong. Depending on your dog’s level of anxiety, you may have to leave them in a room by themselves for short periods of time (always with positive associations) before working your way up to leaving the house or leaving for longer periods of time.
Anxiety in You
There’s also a chance that your dog senses that you are the one with anxiety. Dogs are incredibly empathetic and have been scientifically proven to recognize stress in people. This study showed that dogs are capable of empathy, and this more recent article show that dogs are able to detect a variety of stressful conditions in their people… via sniffing. So there’s a chance that your dog is burying their head in you to provide comfort–to you.
Head Burying or Nuzzling to Alert You
You may have seen trained service dogs “boop” their owners to alert them to low blood sugar, or a severe allergen in their food. While my dog is not a service animal, she sometimes “boops” me with her nose to get my attention. What’s going on here?
Dogs are descended from wolves, who innately show face-related behaviors to communicate with one another, including nuzzling and face licking.
So, be on the lookout for your dog trying to alert you. They may briefly head bury, nuzzle, or “boop” you. If this is the case, they might be trying to get your attention for another reason. Maybe they are out of water or food, or someone is at the door.
The Nose Knows – Smelling and Marking You
Dogs have an incredibly good sense of smell. If you return home from a day at the office, they might be interested in smelling you and all the scents on you.
But they also might be leaving some of their own scent. Most people are aware that dogs have scent glands around their butt. Dogs and cats also have scent glands in their face, and can leave some of their own scent on you by nuzzling or head burying. So in addition to seeing what you’ve been up to all day, they’re re-applying their scent to you.
Head Pressing Vs Head Burying
So far we’ve only discussed head burying as a positive or relatively benign behavior. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention “head pressing”, which is when a dog pushes its head into a solid surface like a wall or table leg. This is outside of normal scratching or itching behavior. Think of it like when you have a really bad migraine and you push on your own forehead.
In dogs, this is likely a sign of a neurological condition and should be investigated by a veterinarian right away. Reading possible diagnoses on the internet is always scary but head pressing can mean anything from head trauma to toxins to brain tumors to metabolic conditions, according to PetMD.
If your dog is pressing its head against a wall or other hard surface, please get them to a vet.
There you have it: the reasons why your dog might be burying their head into you. If your dog shows this behavior as a greeting, or otherwise displays it while exhibiting other positive body language (such as tail wagging), there is no cause for concern. You don’t need to discourage this behavior if it’s not an issue for you. Just enjoy those dog snuggles!
Dogs are social animals and have a strong sense of smell. These two things combined help explain why natural canine behavior consists of many head-related behavior, such as nuzzling or burying. As always, dog behavior should be taken in context.
If your dog shows head burying alongside fearful or anxious behavior, try to remove the source of anxiety if possible. If not, work with your dog to build up positive associations to lessen their anxiety over time, and comfort them when they need comfort.
If your dog is aggressive with head burying or nuzzling, consider getting help from a trainer to re-establish positive behavior. Likewise, if your dog displays nuzzling, head-butting, head burying until you give and give them food or attention (to the point that it is a problem), you will need patience and training to un-learn this behavior.
Lastly, if your dog shows head-pressing behavior against a wall, get them veterinary help.