If dogs could talk, they’d most likely have something to say about our favorite saying, “When all else fails, hug the dog.” It’s not that our four-legged friends don’t appreciate affection, but most canine behaviorists agree hugs and dogs don’t mix. Hugging is one of our favorite ways to show affection and comfort, and it’s hard to understand that dogs–the pets we feel so connected with—don’t agree. Dogs and humans have managed to form intimate relationships despite glaring differences, and how they feel about hugs is an example of how man and man’s best friend don’t always see eye to eye. Here’s why.
Flight Over Fight
According to Animal Diversity, dogs are cursorial animals. Basically, this means they’re built to be good runners. In times of stress or fear, their first instinct is to take advantage of their speed and swiftness by running away from their problems. Their teeth might look intimidating, but they’re much more likely to choose flight over fight as long as they have the option. As a result, dogs value their freedom to move and can become stressed when they feel trapped or held down.
While the intentions behind a hug are all about love and comfort, dogs don’t see it that way. Instead, they feel arms wrapping around them as a trap that blocks them from all potential escape roots. Dog behaviorist Dr. Stanley Coren says,
“Behaviorist believe that depriving a dog of that course of action by immobilizing him with a hug can increase his stress level, and if the dog’s anxiety becomes significantly intense, he may bite.”
This happens when strangers approach a dog and lean in for a hug, but it can also be an issue when a loving owner hugs their pet. It’s not that the dog doesn’t love their owner back, it’s that they don’t appreciate their human friend putting them in a potentially vulnerable position.
Take your pup to the dog park or schedule a playdate with their furry best friend, and you’ll see them interact and greet other dogs in a number of ways. There’s a lot of sniffing (most of which seems inappropriate to us humans), but there’s one obvious thing they’re not doing. You won’t catch your dog greet their buddy by draping a paw around their shoulders. They’ll sniff their behind and give a little play bow if they’re excited, but hugging isn’t a part of their interaction.
For dogs, hugging is unnatural. Some learn to tolerate it because of their owners, but it’s not an ingrained behavior like it is for humans. Small children that can barely say the word “hug” wrap their arms around family and friends as a way to give and receive comfort. They weren’t taught or told to do it, they just do. Dogs aren’t like that. To them, hugging is unnatural behavioral, even when it comes from someone they love.
Confusing Body Language
While hugging has no place in a dog’s repertoire of appropriate greetings, there is a hug-like gesture in the canine vocabulary. Dog behaviorists call it “standing over,” and it means something much different than a human hug. Dogs sometimes put one or two legs over another dog in a behavior that almost looks like they’re giving a hug, but what they’re actually doing is asserting their social status.
Standing over isn’t considered aggressive, but it isn’t exactly friendly, either. The dog is basically trying to show their companion they’re in control. It usually happens during particularly active play. The dogs jump and wrestle, and one of them might continuously stand over the other or push on their shoulders. So when a human leans down and puts weight on a dog’s shoulder, the dog doesn’t know it’s supposed to be nice. According to their understanding of body language, it means something quite different.
How to Tell a Dog Doesn’t Like Hugs
The best way to tell how your dog feels about hugs is to pay attention to their body language. According to VetStreet, pinned back ears, “whale eyes,” a tightly closed mouth, lip licking, and yawning are all signs your pooch is potentially stressed. They say,
“When your dog is relaxed, you can see it in his face. His eyes will be soft and rounded or possibly slightly squinted. The coloring of his eyes will be easily seen. He will hold his ears semierect and forward (unless he has floppy ears).”
It’s hard to get a good look at your dog’s face when you’re doling out a hug, and experts suggest asking a friend to take a picture of the interaction. That way you can closely study your dog’s body language. Studying pictures is what Dr. Coren did to find hard evidence that most dogs don’t like hugs. He looked at 250 randomly selected pictures of people hugging dogs and analyzed the dog’s body language in each. His personal research found that 80% of the dogs in the pictures exhibited signs of being stressed or uncomfortable.
Even if your dog doesn’t try to run away or escape your grasp, his compliance doesn’t mean he’s enjoying the moment the way you are. Most dogs simply tolerate their owner’s actions knowing from trust and experience the hug will only last a moment, and then they’ll be free. Dogs that are hugged by strangers or dogs that are especially fearful or anxious, however, can react aggressively. American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior warns people hugging a dog that doesn’t want to be hugged puts them at risk of being bitten.
Dogs As Individuals
While what we know about canine psychology and animal behavior directs us to understand that dogs don’t like hugs, that doesn’t mean every four-legged tail wagger is the same. Some dog breeds, like Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, are famous for loving all kinds of attention. Young ones, especially, will appreciate all forms of interaction—even hugs—because it means they’re being touched and recognized. On an individual level, there are also dogs that initiate their own hugs with their humans and like it when they can get as close as possible.
There is no rule that says all dogs hate hugs. If you’re convinced your pup lives for your daily hugging sessions, you could be right. But always remember you might also be wrong. To save your dog from unnecessary stress, take the time to figure out how they really feel.
Featured image via Flickr/Jeff Drongowski
(H/T: Psychology Today, VetStreet)