It’s National Hug Your Dog Day! Let’s dig deep into the science of hugs!
I will be the first to admit: Sometimes I want to hug our dog and cats (and other animals) like the Abominable Snowman in the bit from “Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters” cartoon. But I don’t. I know they don’t enjoy receiving hugs as much as I love giving them. And frankly, I would not enjoy it if someone did that to me without my consent.
Been there; had that.
This might sound crazy, but sometimes a hug to our animal companion is more like holding them hostage. Obviously they aren’t really our “hostages”, but we may be unknowingly forcing them to interact with us in a way they would not choose on their own.
Don’t just take my word for it. Do some dog-behavior-digging for yourself:
Have someone take a picture of you holding your animal hostage (I mean, hugging and squeezing them). Then look carefully at the expression on their face.
NOTE: Before you do this activity, make sure you know the stress signals that dogs display when they are uncomfortable. Then go back and look at the picture and be really honest. Ask yourself: Are they truly enjoying it, or are they tolerating it?
If I found out that a person I loved to hug only tolerated my touches and squeezes, I would put an end to it. Mainly because I would feel weird now, but I also wouldn’t want to push myself onto someone that didn’t want my affection in that form.
Most people don’t want to hear this, but animals are no different in that way. A lot of animals really don’t want to be manhandled and coddled. Most of them will offer and solicit affection on their terms. And every species has their own unique way of displaying affection. And within each species, each individual as their own preference for affection.
As Conscious Companions, we need to be aware of this.
Let’s look at two dogs receiving hugs from a human. One dog is not enjoying the hug and one is cool it. Spend a few minutes carefully reviewing the two photos below. See if you can identify the emotional state of the dog in each pic.
In the top photo, the dog is leaning (or at least trying to lean) away from the human. His ears are held tightly back, his eyes are more tense with a slightly furrowed brow, and his mouth is closed. While there isn’t anything about the dog’s body language that says he will lash out, it is abundantly clear that the hug is not comfortable or appreciated.
In the bottom photo, the golden retriever is not leaning away from the hugger. His ears are relaxed, his eyes are soft, his mouth is open and lips are not tense, and the tongue is draped out in a relaxed pant. (Yes, even the way a dog holds his tongue is potentially a clue!)
“It takes a lot of experience, it turns out, to be good at reading signs of fear or stress or discomfort on the face of a dog.” —McConnell.
When you take your dog to the dog park, or even just to a friend’s house where she can play with another dog, how do the dogs greet one another? There are myriad ways dogs say hello depending on if they know each other and are reforming old bonds, or are meeting for the first time and feeling each other out as they establish the pecking order. There is face smelling, rump smelling, tail wagging, play bowing… but there is never hugging. Even among the best of friends. In fact, the closest approximation dogs have to a hug as we know it actually means something other than friendship. —Dr. Patricia McConnell, certified applied animal behaviorist,
If you discovered that your animal companion really didn’t enjoy your hug-a-palooza, would you continue to force it on them? I hope not. But what if you learned how your particular pup enjoys receiving and offering affection? That would be a game changer!
The hard truth is simple. It’s not in a dog’s nature to show affection by hugging. Many dogs don’t really enjoy being petted or hugged. They tolerate it.
Many very tolerant dogs, who allow the “kidnap cuddle”, can go from tolerant to intolerant very quickly under “the perfect storm” conditions. We must become dog aware and teach others how to do this as well, especially children.
Children are, by far, the most common victims of dog bites and are far more likely to be severely injured. Most dog bites affecting young children occur during everyday activities and while interacting with familiar dogs. Many bites happen when children are hugging their dog and holding him/her “hostage”.
Studies have shown that dogs who bite children involved familiar children, who were most commonly bitten in relation to food or resource guarding and “benign” interactions such as petting, hugging, bending over, or speaking to the dog.
Although some dogs are not reactive about being kissed and hugged, these types of interactions are potentially provocative, leading to bites. In a study we published in a journal called Injury Prevention, we looked at dogs that had bitten children and found that most children had been bitten by dogs that had no history of biting. Most important here, familiar children were bitten most often in the contexts of ‘nice’ interactions — such as kissing and hugging with their own dogs, or dogs that they knew. ~ Dr. Reisner, Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services
Different Strokes for Different Species
One of the biggest hangups with hugs is how hard it is for many pet parents to admit to themselves that their dog doesn’t enjoy their hugs. I see this resistance and disappointment with new clients a lot. But here’s the human-doggie deal: Hugs are a natural and primary way for most of the human species to show affection.
Research on primates, especially chimpanzees and bonobos to whom we are most closely related, reveals that hugging is an integral part in giving and seeking out comfort and affection. But it’s not in a dog’s nature to show affection by hugging.
If you watch little kids, tiny little kids who are just barely able to stand on their legs, they wrap their arms around another to express affection, empathy and love by hugging. It’s just so hard-wired into who we are and what we do. And so I think when we tell people that dogs don’t like hugging, it’s like some primal, limbic part of our brain says, ‘You mean my dog doesn’t love me?!’ — Dr. Patricia McConnell, certified applied animal behaviorist
Languages of Love
Just because your pup might not enjoy receiving your hugs as much as you enjoy giving them, does not mean your canine companion doesn’t love you with all of his/her heart. Dogs love us (and their animal companion friends) in their brilliant and beautiful Canid way, while we, as their humans, love them in our primate way.
Dogs and humans are two incredibly different species. But, through the centuries, we have become intimately connected. But thousands of years of co-evolution doesn’t erase millions of years of separate-species evolution.
This is why it’s important to look at the social science of what a hug really means to dogs.
—> Please take a moment to check out this brief and insightful post, “You’re Making Me Uncomfortable!” to understand how uninvited hugs can adversely affect both dogs AND people! <—
Check out this video about Dog Body Language:
Next time, you go in for that monster love hug, ask yourself: Is this dog (or cat) really enjoying the hug? Or is he/she just enduring/tolerating it because they know it will be over soon?
Consider asking them to come over to you, instead of coming into their space.
Next time you see your child (or someone else’s child) going in for the monster hug to the family dog (or cat), please stop the child and show them safer ways to love an animal.
Let’s encourage our pets and other companion animals to offer affection and attention (that we so deeply appreciate), on their own terms.
Below are some great examples of happy hugs, where both dog and human are enjoying the interaction as a consensual canine team 😉
This is a judgement free zone! All comments and feedback are welcome! I deeply understand that most parents and guardians are doing the best with what they have, and what they know how to do. This post is meant to help and educate families living with pets. We would Love to hear from you!
What has been your experience with hugs?
“Recognizing our own mistakes helps us to empathise non-judgmentally with others and helps enable us to understand their issues.” ― Jay Woodman
- Family Dog Cheat Sheet
- Dog Behavior and Bite Prevention Safety
- Supervision is only as good as your knowledge of body language!
- Canine Calming Signals and Stress