Hugs are such an essential part of the way human beings show affection for one another. So naturally, we’ve extended that physical gesture to the dogs we love too. It seems simple and logical enough, but some scientists and ethicists debate whether dogs want to have arms wrapped around them and faces pressed into their fur.
So which is it? Have cynical researchers completely missed the point or are we dog huggers in total denial? Let’s look at both sides and consider the evidence.
Evidence Against Hugging Dogs
Confusion And Lack Of Social Understanding
One reason dogs might be averse to being hugged is they don’t understand what emotional purpose that gesture serves. Trainer and expert Irith Bloom points to the lack of an equivalent to hugs in dog’s social interactions. They have no frame of reference for understanding exactly what purpose a hug serves.
“I suspect dogs interpret hugs mostly as confinement or restraint (not something most dogs enjoy—picture the last time you saw a dog being restrained to have a nail trim, or during a vet visit.)”
This unexplained constriction leaves room for the dog to misinterpret the action and become fearful or aggressive. In fact, human beings’ tendency to hug as a display of affection may have a lot to do with our specific biology, Bloom says.
“Scientists believe humans have this propensity because we are positioned chest to chest with our mothers when we are nursing as babies, so that body position comes to be associated with comfort and affection.”
Body Language Says It All
In an essay for Psychology Today, psychology professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia Stanley Coren advised against squeezing your pup. The evidence, he says, is all in observing their body language.
Dr. Coren looked at 250 images of people hugging dogs on Google and Flickr. About 81% of these photos, he observed, showed dogs giving off at least one sign of discomfort, stress or anxiety. The remainder depicted dogs that looked either comfortable exhibited neutral responses.
“The internet is filled with pictures of happy people hugging stressed dogs,” Coren told CNN.
Critics of this method note that Coren’s selection process of the images may pose bias, intentional or not.
Fight Or Flight In Dogs
In his essay, Coren points out that dogs are technically “cursorial animals,” meaning their bodies are designed for swift running. When their legs are restricted, they lose the power to act upon their instinct. This limitation of their natural response can cause stress, Coren argues.
“[Their build] implies that in times of stress or threat the first line of defense that a dog uses is not his teeth, but rather his ability to run away. Behaviorists 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.”
Coren’s ultimate advice is to forget hugs and use alternative methods of praise giving.
“Save your hugs for your two-footed family members and lovers. It is clearly better from the dog’s point of view if you express your fondness for your pet with a pat, a kind word and maybe a treat.”
Evidence In Favor Of Hugging Dogs
The ‘No Two Snowflakes’ Argument
Here’s a major pro-hug argument: it completely depends on the dog.
“There is no such thing as ‘The Dog,’ and we can’t generalize about what dogs like and don’t like, because each one is a unique individual. Know your dog.”
Erica Lieberman, dog trainer and behavior consultant with Pawsibilities Pets in New York City, encourages exercising caution in general. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t really walk up to a dog you don’t know and wrap your arms around their neck. That dog could be one that despises hugs.
How Well The Dog Knows Its Hugger
In the absence of signs of stress or discomfort though Lieberman says, hugs are okay for dogs who understand their relationship with their person.
“If you don’t see any of that, there are plenty of dogs who not only don’t mind, but they get that it is what makes it a human’s companion.”
Biologist Paul Paquet and wolf and dog behavior expert Erik Zimen performed additional research on the topic back in the 70s. Their study controlled for the age, sex, and breed of dogs. Another factor was familiarity or “context” – how well the dog knew the person doing the hugging or petting. Age and sex of the human huggers were also controlled.
During the petting and hugging, the researchers measured the dogs’ responses using heart rate and respirators. Researchers also noted the dogs’ behavior responses including body positioning, ears, tails, and lips.
“Our general findings were clear: Dogs familiar with their ‘hugger’ responded very positively to hugging, petting, and inguinal stroking. Dogs unfamiliar with their ‘hugger’ were initially cautious but gradually relaxed. Breed differences were evident but not adequately predictive of how the dogs would react.”
One interesting thing they noticed is that the dogs’ observable stress-indicating behaviors didn’t necessarily match with physiological stress signals. Corey Cohen, a companion animal behavior therapist at A New Leash on Life in Pennsylvania, says a bond between dog and person can help familiarize dogs with hugs.
“The truth is, if you have a decent relationship with your dog, it releases oxytocin. I don’t think there is any other creature on earth that will do this.”
So, the important thing here is to always consider the context. No need to adopt one single behavioral rule for every pup!
Dogs Can Be Counter-Conditioned To Enjoy Hugs
It’s natural for your dog to be wary of hugs, but you can train him just like you train any other behavior: with treat rewards. Hug your pup briefly and then give them a treat. Eventually, they will associate hugs with joy.
All of the experts note there are also alternatives to hugging when it comes to showing affection for our pups. Things like scratches and head pats will always be appreciated. But of course, some of us may have a difficult time letting go, literally and figuratively.
Signs A Dog Doesn’t Want To Be Hugged
There are subtle and overt ways dogs show us their discomfort. Even if your pup doesn’t wriggle out of your grasp, it’s possible he isn’t enjoying himself the same way you are. A dog who hates receiving a hug might:
- Attempt to shake the hugger off
- Turn its head away from the source of its concern (aka the hugger)
- Display “half-moon” or “whale eye” where you can see the white portion at the corners
- Lower its ears or slick its ears against the side of its head
- Lick its lips
- Yawn excessively
If none of those signs are observed, odds are your pup is a-okay with being lovingly squeezed.