Home > Dog Behavior, Dog Park, Photos > Understanding dogs and their need for space: How big is your dog’s space bubble?

Understanding dogs and their need for space: How big is your dog’s space bubble?

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal space bubbles lately. Of course, it is mostly in relation to humans and their dogs.

We don’t often thing about space when it comes to us and our dogs, but we should. Our dogs are always telling us something about how they feel when we interact with them. They show it in the way they turn their heads, how they lean, how they turn their bodies and what they do with their eyes, ears, feet and tongue.

Daisy’s space bubble used to be huge (like the whole length of the backyard huge), but now she is happiest when she can cuddle up next to me on the couch. Her space bubble with me is in inches. She wants to be as close to me as possible. With strangers, it really depends. Sometimes she will get as close as she does with me and at other times it may be feet.

Maggie’s space bubble, on the other hand, is about the same as where Daisy started. Outside, Maggie prefers to be as far away from as possible – when I am standing, but when I am sitting, she is happy to approach within feet of me.

Reading Eileen Anderson’s blog post, “You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure” reminded me how often we miss these social cues when interacting with our dogs. I’ll be honest, sometimes I miss them too.

Looking at pictures or videos of me and my dogs, or someone else and my dog, can really help me to see a each of my dog’s space bubbles much more clearly. It allows me to take a step back and just observe.

For example, take a look at some pictures I have of Cupcake interacting with some friends and their dogs.  You’ll see in the first photo that, unlike the dogs surrounding her, Cupcake chooses to stand back a little. She knows that this takes her further from the treat, and that she risks another dog getting her treat, but this is where she feels most comfortable when it comes to interacting with people (even people she knows). In fact, her space bubble is sometimes so large that I can’t even capture her in the picture involving a person and other dogs.

Daisy, on the other hand, has a much smaller space bubble. Look at how close she gets to the people in each of these photos.

Treat time. #dogpark

This picture made me laugh. Truly a telling moment. The two girls are focused on treats and the boy is focused on what? His stick.

Cupcake's space bubble

Now look at some photos of Maggie. See how far she is from me compared to my other dogs? She knows that she is more likely to get cheese the closer she gets to me, but she also has a space bubble that is quite large and that is where she feels most comfortable and most safe.

Two Shelties are better than one, but three Shelties are better than none.

Sheltie girls when it comes to getting cheese.


Jasper on the other hand, will scoot right up to strangers and ask for a little attention. He had never met this man before Sunday, but he kept going back to him over and over again for a little attention.

Jasper is not afraid of getting a little love.

So what are some signs that a dog is feeling uncomfortable and may need more space?

  • Leaning back on his feet
  • Leaning away from you
  • Taking a step back
  • Turning her head to the side and away from you
  • Keeping him/herself out of reach of your hands
  • Lip licking
  • Ducking down and away

There are more behaviors you may see, but when ending space these are some common ones. I recommend reading Eileen’s blog post and watch her videos. They are quite good and quite educational for dog owners.

  1. August 5, 2014 at 8:35 AM

    I like your reminder that the space bubble changes depending on whether a person (or other dog) is sitting or standing. Standing or walking changes everything.

    It’s why it’s often a good idea to sit down when meeting a fearful dog.

  2. August 5, 2014 at 8:56 AM

    That is a good reminder. We see Hailey’s change based on what she is doing/feeling too. For example, when she is sleeping, if you touch her, she will tell you off, but when she is in the mood, look out, she is all over you (and will stand on you so you can rub her belly). Will keep that in mind when interacting with all dogs!

  3. Victoria Carter
    August 5, 2014 at 11:32 AM

    My Hank (also a Sheltie) is very much a mix, the longer he is around someone (any visit, including first) the closer he’ll get until he is right up on you begging for pets. At home he’ll even jump halfway on your lap for ‘hugs’. For him the key is being low key, and quiet.

    It’s a huge improvement from when we first got him (we are his third owners). He’s always been friendly sweet but he didn’t know how to be a dog or have a lot of trust with people (he’d let you pet or put a leash on but he’d freeze). It took me close to a year to teach him how to be a dog (with a lot of help from Putt-Putt and Willow) and to trust people, now he’ll play with me like the other dogs do; belly up waving paws while making groaning noises, he’ll listen to my commands; particularly ‘go inside’ when he gets into a barking spree, he’ll let me give belly rubs and mess with his feet without tensing his body. But if my husband tries any of that he’s a statue, he’ll play, and usually listen, but due to my husband being gone due to Military, I’ve been the one to do all the work with Hank so there is more trust from experience with me than my husband.

    He’s also gained more confidence to go exploring on his own and satisfy his curiosity, so long as there are not loud noises or harsh voices.

  4. August 5, 2014 at 1:54 PM

    My sister Katie likes a bit of space, but Bailie and I love to be right there in the middle of it all and close to Mom too. Bailie sleeps in bed with Mom who has a king size bed. Bailie insists on sleeping right next to her. Together they use up almost the space of one person.

  5. August 5, 2014 at 4:47 PM

    Excellent post. It’s amazing how many super subtle queues dogs give us that we don’t or can’t pick up on. Phoebe has a huge bubble, Isis pretty much has no bubble at all! She’ll get right in anyone’s face for some lovin’.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Cathy, Isis & Phoebe

  6. August 6, 2014 at 1:18 PM

    I’m also learning that the space bubble depends on how Ginko is feeling. Even at her sickest, Lilly LOVED to be cuddled and fussed on. BUT Ginko? He just wants to be left alone when he isn’t feeling well. It breaks my heart because I want to love on him while I still can, but I have to honor his need for space.

    Sometimes, though, like in herding sheep or goats, I can use pressure or no pressure to encourage Ginko to move where I want him to go, like when I’m convincing him to go outside to potty or whatever. I did it a lot with Lilly too in her most fearful times. I could use my body to encourage her to keep moving or to steer her toward the door, etc.

  7. August 6, 2014 at 11:50 PM

    Thanks for linking to my blog–it allowed me to track back to this great post! I follow but I hadn’t seen this one. Really nice observations about your dogs and great commentary on the photos.

  8. August 9, 2014 at 4:30 AM

    Our GSD Sams ‘bubble’ seems to just be around his back end. He will happily sit with you, stand, have pictures taken, lie on the couch or a blanket with you, anything. But if he’s laying down minding his own business, the moment you get too close to his back end he jumps up, making a groaning sound and moves away. As we’re all aware of his ‘zone’ we call it, we only ever go too close by mistake, and we have to explain to visitors too, as when he does jump up its so sudden, it does startle you! As far as we’re aware he has/has had no health problems in that area, so we just wonder whether something happened in the shelter before we adopted him, or he’s had his big bushy tail stood on in the past for example. Your photos speak volumes too, they’re really great examples 🙂

    • Mel
      August 9, 2014 at 7:39 AM

      I love that you call it “the zone.” 🙂
      It could be that he is just sensitive about that area, or there could be pain. You could always go to a chiropractor for pets and see if they find anything that may be causing him pain.

  9. August 12, 2014 at 12:07 PM

    great pictures that illustrate the concept!

    • Mel
      August 13, 2014 at 6:30 AM

      Thank you!

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