For many of us, the human-animal bond has an important, positive psychological effect. There have been numerous documented cases of people suffering from depression who become significantly healed as a result of the bond with their dog.
Hugging, cuddling and kissing a dog comes second nature to most dog lovers. Seriously, who can resist snuggling up to your furry friend or giving it a huge embrace, especially after a hard day’s work.
But, do dogs like being hugged?
We have not-so-good news – they don’t. Like all other primates, we wrap our arms around another’s shoulders as a sign of affection.
Dogs, on the other hand, perceive having a limb put over their shoulder as a sign of dominance or assertiveness. Hence, for dogs, a hug is seen as potentially threatening. Also, an embrace prevents them from being able to escape – another basic instinct that kicks in when a dog is faced with threat.
Hugging a dog actually increases the dog’s stress level. If you look carefully at pictures of dogs being hugged, chances are, you will see these signs – pinned-back ears, licking of lips, yawning or leaning away. Often, they also show “whale-eye posture” – you can see the whites of their eyes. These are all signs of their obvious discomfort.
As adults, we can limit our own impulse to hug dogs. This, however, is much harder for young children. Children like to hug dogs – very much like how they would hug their favourite teddy bear. Hence, we have to be alert to this. When the dog’s milder stress signals are repeatedly ignored, the situation can get potentially dangerous. Cases of a normally calm dog, snapping and hurting, a child are quite common.
So, does this mean we can never hug a dog?
The good news is… dogs can be taught to accept, or even like, a variety of experiences – even those they dislike including hugging. For every action which a dog is uncomfortable with, we must teach it to tolerate and accept, and finally be totally relaxed with it.
We need to also do so slowly, from as young as possible, and if we pair it with something the dog loves, like yummy treats or a favourite toy, hugs can become a reinforcer for the dog.
A word of caution – it might take a lot of time, and a lot of treats, before your dog will accept being hugged. Always keep in mind that we are asking it to do something that goes against their natural instincts as a species. So, be patient and understand this from their perspective.
(We uploaded this photo just for fun. These two Border Collies have been taught by their owner to hug each other on command. You can follow their antics on Instagram: @kelly_bove)