I think it’s safe to say, we all love our dogs and we want to show them how much we love them. One of the most common bits of information I deliver to clients is that most dogs don’t like to be hugged or kissed. It’s a hard conversation to have and it often shatters them. They tell me, “But, but, I love her and want to show her how much!” (Video of a very sad young girl learning dogs don’t like to be hugged here. And at the end you see the dog lip lick, walk away, stretch and shake off – all signs of stress.) The core problem here is humans and dogs show affection in different ways. And to dogs, hugging is restraint.
Think about the times your dog gets restrained – vet and groomers primarily, and for many dogs, those aren’t very fun experiences (but, they can be with proper training!). Remember fight or flight in science class? If your dog is unsure about a situation, very often their first instinct is to flee – to flight – away from the scary thing, to create distance and feel safer. Hugging/restraint prevents your dog’s natural instinct of flight and often if the flight option isn’t available, then the dog tips the other way – to the fight side. If the dog can’t create distance by fleeing then he may feel the need to create distance by trying to get the hugger/kisser to go away by growling, snapping or biting (fight). The end goal is the same if the dog feels uncomfortable or threatened – to create distance between them and the threat – either I go away or you go away.
This is the second big obstacle for clients. People don’t want to think that their dog sees them as scary. But if we’re doing something that is weird and completely unnatural to our dog then that’s often how it will be perceived. It’s not about our intent – it’s about how the dog interprets it.
Dr. Coren, a psychology professor at University of British Columbia looked at 250 images online of dogs being hugged and over 81% of the images showed at least one sign of the dog being stressed. The findings were reported on Psychology Today.
A small percentage of dogs, 7.6%, seemed to be comfortable with hugging, and some may genuinely enjoy it, but it’s not the norm for most dogs. Most are likely tolerating it, at best. And that’s where having a solid understanding of dog body language comes in. (Pictured here is me and one of my personal dogs, BooBoo.)
What do you see in these pictures? In the pictures at the top you can spot whale eye/side eye, lip lick, ears back, stiff bodies, furrowed brow, leaning away, closed mouths and tight muzzles. But, in the picture to the side, BooBoo is relaxed, her mouth is open, eyes squinty/closed and she’s leaning in, not away. (There’s a great, free, self-paced course on body language if you’d like a refresher or need some help. Get it here.)
Let’s talk a little about kids and dogs. Often I get called into clients for bite situations and sometimes it’s because the dog has bitten the child, sometimes because the child tried to hug/kiss the dog or startled the dog while they were sleeping. Children can be scary to many dogs, even without them hugging. Kids are on the dog’s eye-level and have a much harder time understanding the dog isn’t a toy stuffy. They can be grabby, not realize they’re hurting the dog, are unpredictable and move differently than adults. And kids are often encouraged by their parents to hug and kiss to show affection, so a child would naturally want to hug and kiss a dog. And this is where problems happen. In my work as a licensed Family Paws Parent Educator and a private trainer for The Family Dog programs, I spend a lot of time counseling families on dog bite prevention and kid/dog safety. Dogs bites and kids are a huge public safety concern. 77% of all dog bites come from a familiar dog, not a stray dog wandering the streets. We need to do better to keep kids safe and dogs from being surrendered or euthanized because of biting kids.
So how can we show our dog we love them without hugging or kissing? Here’s some ideas that I’m sure your dog will love!
- Take them on a sniffari! Let them wander and sniff all they want. No heeling here!
- Play their favorite game – fetch, tug, hide and seek – whatever they enjoy!
- Give them a yummy treat not because you asked them to do something to earn it but just because you love them and they like pleasure too!
- Teach a fun, new trick using some special treat. If you need some tricks ideas, this self-paced online course is a great start. (Use code RBT for a discount too!)
And don’t forget, if you’re in the NYC area, join me for my Dogs & Storks Bringing Home Baby event on Feb 24th at 7PM. Let’s help you prepare your dog for your new human baby! Details and tickets here.