It’s completely natural for humans to hug somebody to express affection. Just as natural as dogs sniffing rear ends to say hello. Of course, people don’t share dogs’ love of sniffing behinds. And to the same degree, dogs don’t share our love of hugs. We speak different languages and use different behaviors to communicate. In fact, misreading your dog and subjecting them to hugs can stress them and even result in a bite. So, although it’s instinctive to hug and squeeze what you adore, particularly for children, it’s important to find other more dog-appropriate ways to show your dog you care.
Dogs Don’t Like Hugs
If you watch dogs interact, you’ll notice they don’t embrace each other. They might pin each other to the ground, but it’s in only one of two contexts: play fighting or real fighting. So, when you hug a dog, they don’t understand what you’re trying to say. In fact, you’re essentially trapping them. They can’t get away from anything that scares them or makes them uncomfortable while in your arms. And as hugging is often accompanied by direct staring and putting your face next to the dog’s, they might also interpret your actions as aggressive or threatening. It’s no wonder they don’t enjoy the squeezing sensation of a hug.
You might believe your dog adores your hugs. After all, you do it all the time and your dog doesn’t complain. But it’s far more likely your dog is simply tolerating your behavior. Although the odd dog doesn’t seem to mind, most dogs display stress signals when hugged, and their owners are oblivious. Dr. Stanley Coren did a research study where he looked at 250 photographs of people hugging their dogs. Although the people were smiling and happy, 81 percent of the dogs showed body language signs of stress.
If the dog’s stress level from a hug is high enough, the dog can bite. And the hugger’s face is right next the dog’s face and therefore their teeth. That puts whoever is hugging the dog at risk of serious injury. Even if your dog tolerates hugs from you, they might not be okay with one coming from a stranger or young child. It’s essential to teach children safe ways to interact with dogs other than hugging, especially dogs they don’t already know.
How to Know When Your Dog Is Uncomfortable
How do you know if your dog is genuinely enjoying your hugs? They won’t show any signs of stress or discomfort. Learn to read dog body language so you can recognize your dog’s emotional state and understand what they are trying to tell you. Some signs of stress are obvious like growling or baring of the teeth. But others are more subtle and require paying attention to every aspect of your dog. The following list will help you see when your dog is feeling uncomfortable:
- Stiffness. If you dog stiffens or becomes still when you hug them, they are not enjoying the experience. A happy dog is loose and relaxed.
- Head turned away. Dogs will not make eye contact when they are uncomfortable, so they might turn their head away from you, sometimes also closing their eyes.
- Whale eye. Also called half-moon eye, this is where you can see the white of your dog’s eyes.
- Ears lowered. A stressed dog will lower their ears or lay them back against the side of their head.
- Tail tucked. An unhappy dog will lower their tail or even tuck it under their belly.
- Yawns. This is not a sign of exhaustion but rather an indication your dog is stressed.
- Nose licks. This can be a very quick flick of the tongue, and it shows your dog is uncomfortable.
- Paw raised. When a dog is uncertain about something, they will often lift one front paw off the ground.
Teach Your Dog to Tolerate Hugs
For safety and to help prepare your dog for unexpected hugs from well-meaning strangers or children, teach your dog to tolerate hugs. This is critical if you want your dog to be a therapy dog. With desensitization and counterconditioning, you can change your dog’s negative associations with restraint to something more accepting. Start by pairing touch with treats or another reward, then slowly increase the invasiveness until you are gently restraining your dog. Finally, increase the firmness of your embrace, all while continuing to reward your dog after each hug. In time, your dog will put up with even the most awkward embrace for the chance to earn a reward.
Canine-Friendly Ways to Express Your Affection
Even if you’ve taught your dog to tolerate hugs, it won’t be their preferred way to accept affection. Find other more dog-friendly ways to say, “I love you.” Try giving your dog a belly rub for example. Or scratch their back, behind their ears, or whichever spot they like the best. Pats are great too, just avoid the top of your dog’s head. Dogs don’t like head pats any more than they like hugs. You can also play games with your dog, like fetch, tug-of-war, or hide-and-seek. And if you use positive reinforcement training, time spent learning a new behavior is fun and mentally stimulating for your dog. If you learn to speak your dog’s language, you will see that any kind of positive attention shows your dog how much you care.