If you've ever wondered "Do hugs make dogs uncomfortable?," this article has the answers.
If you think "Hugs are supposed to feel nice; how do hugs make dogs uncomfortable?," this article explains that as well.
There are signs to look for when assessing your dog's comfort level with affection.
In the human world, a hug is a gesture of affection on various levels. Some individuals are considered “huggers” while others are not as comfortable with that level of physical touch. When it comes to the animal world, do hugs make dogs uncomfortable?
Dogs and humans communicate in different ways. This includes the ways that they show affection. In this article, you’ll find an answer to the question, “Do hugs make dogs uncomfortable?” Researchers and experts weigh in on how to show affection toward your dog.
Are Hugs Stressful for Dogs?
When a child gets hurt physically or feels emotionally bad, a hug reassures them and makes them feel better. This physical contact from their caregivers is important to their development. When a child gets scared, they run and wrap their arms around their parent’s leg or want to be held.
A dog’s reaction to a frightening situation is much different. You have no doubt heard of the “fight or flight” reaction. In a moment of fear or confrontation, an animal has one of two responses: They either act aggressively (fight) or run away (flight).
If a dog is hugged –- especially by someone they don’t know –- they are easily triggered into one of these two reactions. If they are well-trained not to be aggressive, they first try to get away. If they are unable, they use whatever line of defense is available to them. In the case of a hug, a person’s face is close to the dog’s. The dog then bites the person in the face to get away. Even a mild-tempered dog resorts to this behavior if they are driven to a high level of anxiety.
Stanley Coren PhD., DSc., FRSC is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is best known to the public for his popular books on dogs and general psychological issues. In 2016, Dr. Cohen wrote an article published in Psychology Today called "The Data Says 'Don’t Hug the Dog!'" in which he explains the following:
“Dogs are technically cursorial animals, which is a term that indicates that they are designed for swift running. That 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.”
In Dr. Cohen’s research, he studied many social media photos of people hugging their dogs. In most of the photos, the dog showed body language that indicated they did not like being hugged. Most people are unaware of these subtle signs.
Signs That Your Dog Is “Not That Into” Your Hugs
You think your dog enjoys your displays of affection, but you aren’t sure. After all, the dog isn’t able to tell you with words. However, they do communicate through their body language.
Here are some signs to look for that tell you maybe you should back off:
Trying To Escape
The most obvious sign that a hug is making your dog uncomfortable is the fact that they are squirming or trying to get away. As Dr. Cohen mentioned, this is their first line of defense. Most dogs like enclosed den-like spaces but not so tight that they are unable to move. Even in a crate or kennel, they can stand up and turn around.
Avoiding Eye Contact
When a dog is uncomfortable (or even a human, for that matter), they avoid looking the person in the eye. During a hug, your faces are inches apart so avoiding eye contact may mean that they must turn their head away or you may see the “half-moon” look in their eyes. They are looking away because they want to escape.
Mouth Closed or Licking Lips
If a dog is happy, their mouth is open, panting with their tongue out. The opposite is true as well. If their mouth is closed, they are feeling tense and uncomfortable. Licking their lips is another nervous reaction to note.
A dog flattens their ears when they are in an aggressive or frightened stance. This is true of other animals including horses and cats. Animals flatten their ears close to their heads as a measure of protection. In a fight, their ears are less likely to get damaged if they are flat against their heads. In some breeds of dogs with floppy ears, this may be more difficult to notice.
Listen for any whimpering or whining when holding your dog. This is a sign of anxiety and they are letting you know that they don’t like the situation. Yipping and barking are more aggressive vocalizations and may be signs that the fear is escalating.
Signs That Your Dog Enjoys Your Physical Affection
Even though research shows that most dogs do not like to be hugged, there are exceptions. If your dog was acclimated to hugs from a young age, they might at least tolerate being held or wrapped in a hug. If you want to be more assured of their acceptance of affection, there are a few signs to look for.
Wagging Their Back Ends
Dogs wag their tails in various situations, not all of which are positive. Even a dog in an aggressive stance may be wagging their tail. They also wag their tails when they're anxious, nervous, or excited.
In an article for ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, writer Mara B. points out, “Dogs wag their tails for many different reasons. It can communicate fear, tension, and happiness as well as a whole swell of other emotions. When a dog is really happy, they tend to wag their tail with their entire back end. You probably notice your dog wagging in this way when you greet them at the door.”
You may be unsure of the meaning behind tail-wagging since it means different things at different times. In these instances, look for other signs that clarify their demeanor. If you see other positive signs, the wagging is likely a good thing.
Licking and Leaning
If you go to pet your dog or put your arm around them and they turn to lick your face or hand, it is a sign that they like what you’re doing and want you to continue. If they nudge you with their nose or lean into your body, they are okay with the close physical proximity. They may put their weight against your body and then slide to the floor and roll onto their back. This indicates that they aren't looking for a hug but a belly rub.
Pawing and Nudging
If you scratch your dog behind the ears and then stop, does your dog paw at your leg or place their paw on your arm? Do they nudge your hand with their nose? These gestures typically mean they want you to continue or repeat what you’re doing.
Some dogs wrap their paws around your leg or over your shoulder. This feels like your dog is hugging you. However, this is on their terms and they are not being forced into an embrace.
Just because your dog likes scratches and petting doesn’t automatically mean they want to be hugged. When your dog wraps their paws around you, it shouldn’t be automatically assumed that they want an affectionate hug. An article on The Farmer’s Dog Digest website in February 2021 reads,
“Affection aside, laying a paw is most likely your dog’s way of getting your attention. They could be saying ‘give me food,’ or ‘I need to pee,’ which is usually supported by other body language.”
It is suggested that you look for other context clues to determine what your dog is asking for. The bottom line is that pawing you isn't necessarily a sign of affection but merely a request for attention. A perceived "hug" from them doesn't mean that they want that reciprocated.
What About Calming Beds and Wraps?
You may have a dog with separation anxiety or nervousness during thunderstorms. You want to comfort them and think that a hug helps. The truth is, with most dogs, hugs cause more anxiety than they alleviate. Instead of a hug, consider other options.
A calming dog bed –- like the Calming Cuddle Bed Plus Memory Foam –- allows your dog to sink into the soft foam and faux fur lining. Its bolstered sides wrap around them and softly envelop them. You may wonder what the difference is between that and a hug from their owner.
When a dog is feeling restricted and tightly confined, they want to get away. With a calming dog bed, they are supported in comfort but not confined. They still have the option to get away if they want. Also, give them the Calming Cuddle Blanket Plus if they want to burrow underneath it.
A calming dog wrap like a Thundershirt fits around them snuggly making them feel secure and protected. Isn’t that what a hug would do? Yes and no. Yes, a hug applies pressure around their body, similar to a form-fitting wrap, but with a calming wrap or vest, they are still able to move around without restriction of motion. A hug makes them feel trapped and unable to get away.
Training a Dog To Like Hugs
You should not try to force a dog to hug if it makes them anxious. However, you may want to teach them to at least tolerate a loose hug to prepare them for a situation that might cause them anxiety in the future.
As mentioned earlier, children like to hug. If you are bringing a new baby or child into your household, they want to show affection to their dog in the same ways that they show it to their parents and other humans. You should prepare your dog for this possibility.
Sian Tranter MA, VetMB, CertAVP, MRCVS is a contributor for Vet Help Direct, and in an article from December 2020, he advises about training a dog to accept hugs. He recommends starting with touches and petting coupled with positive reinforcements like treats and praise:
"Observe your dog for signs of discomfort. If they show any distress signals, cease training or take a step back. By incrementally increasing the physical contact while rewarding the dog you can build positive associations with gentle, loose hugs. It remains essential to be aware of context. If your dog is overstimulated or exhausted, a hug may still be a step too far.”
When it comes to any type of training with your dog, take it in small steps. Be patient with them and be aware that they don’t understand affection the way that humans express it. As much as we want them to be man’s best friend, they are still part of the animal world.
Even after successful training, a dog still may exhibit anxiety when embraced. Your child probably wants to hug their dog, but it should not be encouraged. Your dog may learn to tolerate these displays of affection, but other dogs may not. Your child doesn’t know the difference and there is potential for a dangerous situation.
You want to view your dog as a protector and they are to a point. Under stressful conditions, they revert to instinctive behavior –- that fight or flight reaction. You need to be prepared for this possibility.
Embracing the Truth
You may like to show affection toward your dog with a hug, but the research shows that they probably don’t like it. Surprisingly, it may cause them unnecessary anxiety. If you want to train them to accept your hugs, proceed gradually and with caution.
If you want to relieve your dog’s anxiety, there are better options than cuddling them. Show your affection for your dog in other ways, but save your hugs for your partner and kids. For your canine companion, give them a scratch behind the ears and a "good dog."