JoAnna Lou
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Conflicting Gestures of Affection
Hugs have the opposite meaning to dogs

As a kid, I remember watching the emotional scene in the movie Homeward Bound and seeing the oldest boy hug his Golden Retriever, Shadow, upon being reunited. I also remember reenacting the scene many times with my poor cat (unfortunately for the cat, I didn't have a dog when I was younger). We regard our pets like family, so hugging them feels natural.

According to a recent survey, 30 percent of dog lovers hug their pets more than their human family members. More than half of those surveyed said that hugging their dog makes them smile. However, it may not be the case the other way around.

In honor of the relationship we have with our pets, Purina's Beneful named April 10th the first annual Hug Your Dog Day. I understand the dog food company wanted to celebrate the human-canine bond, but encouraging people to hug their dogs isn't a good idea.

Of course, I've hugged my dogs before. It feels satisfying, but now that I know more about canine behavior, I can tell that the feeling isn't mutual. My dogs simply put up with hugging, but would rather I pet them instead.

According to canine behaviorist Patricia McConnell, in primates, hugging is an expression of love, endearment, support, or a gesture of mutual fear or sadness. Dogs, however, don't have arms like primates and evolved with no concept of our term of endearment.

In fact, a hug has the exact opposite meaning to a dog. What starts off as good intentions most closely resembles a gesture of dominance to our pets. Because we've built a relationship of trust with our dogs, they know we're not acting aggressively, but it still makes most pups uncomfortable.

It probably goes without saying to never hug a dog you haven't met before. This is also related to how you would approach a strange animal. The best way is pet them under the chin or chest, not on their head or back, which they may view as threatening, and looks similar to the beginnings of a hug! This is an important lesson to pass on to other animal lovers, especially children who are particularly vulnerable to bites.

So next time you go to hug your dog, pay close attention to their body language and facial expression. If your dog is licking his lips, panting, flicking his ears back, or shows stiffness in his body, even subtly, it's time to back off.

We may see our pets as our four-legged children, but it's important to remember that they're not humans. There are many other ways to show our dogs that we love them, however tempting it is to give them a hug.

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Photo by Librarian Avenger/flickr.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Anonymous | April 12 2012 |

I am getting tired of scientists telling us things about our dogs that a dog lover guardian has always known. I know all about the simian hug, and I know dogs that love the hug. They snuggle up and ask for it. So I disagree with the expert.

I remember in high school being told that animals cannot reason. Now they are debating if animals can have actual friends. Don't we already know that they can?

Scientists have called our insights anthropomorphication thereby doing the animals a huge disservice and not according them regard they should have as fellow passengers on the planet earth. Their cold scientific approach has caused untold suffering.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 16 2012 |

I too have had it with the scientists discrediting our own instincts and our abilities to read our own pets. My own German Shepherd loves hugs and even stands on her hind legs to wrap her front legs around me to hug me back, resting her head on my shoulder as she does it. Now that's a hug!

Submitted by Ruby | February 27 2014 |

Anonymous, I am guessing that your dogs have learned to like the hugs because it makes you happy. Occasionally I see someone with a dog that looks like the dog is enjoying a hug. But most dogs I see being hugged start looking a little bit stressed, and some are absolutely whale-eyed with anxiety. If your dog looks relaxes, and especially if he or she solicits, hugs, well, then, it is good you are hugging your dog.

Science is not absolute, especially behavioral science. I like the fact that studies are finally being done that are illuminating the similarities and differences between canines and primates. The work has helped me immensely in dealing the traumatized rescue dogs. That is the beauty of scientific thinking--it is always testing itself to improve it's description of reality. Most people will stick by beliefs for years, even after it is clear those beliefs are patently untrue. The scientific method is a way to help get around that basic human tendancy.

I like your phrasing, "dogs are our fellow passengers on the planet earth." That is lovely and so true.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 13 2012 |

Sorry, but I would not put my hand near the mouth ("pet them under the chin") of a dog I did not know, and I certainly would never teach a child to do that.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 13 2012 |

U should not touch a dog u dont know at all. And thats what u should teach ur childen. However if u r are meeting a dog, with the owner, scratching under the chin is the proper way. It gives the dog confidence, where as on top of thr head is where predators come from. You should nevrr pet ANY animal that u dont know on top of the head. It can be regarded as predatory or dominant.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 13 2012 |

absolutely right. Too many humans treat their animals like humans. Out of love of course, however out of love, humans should learn animal rules. Their would be alot less dog bites and attacks if humans knew better dog etticut.

Submitted by Cathy | April 13 2012 |

I've known two otherwise affectionate, though very different, shepherds (German and Belgian) who hated hugs. One of them is my current pup, who does love to have her head and belly scratched and will put her head in my lap when we're both sitting on the floor. I always thought it was a quirk of shepherds, or even just these two dogs; good to know otherwise!

Submitted by Anonymous | April 13 2012 |

I have two golden retrievers that get hugs each morning when we get up and each evening before bed. Not only that, but they will tap my arm or flip my hand to get an extra hug!

Regarding children, if a child comes up the "kids" I explain they always need to ask permission before touching a strange dog as all dogs are not friendly.

Submitted by Best Friend | April 13 2012 |

Petting dogs under the chin was something I was taught a long time ago and have always approached a dog this way without issues. They seem to love it! And I sense this article is correct about the submissive response of a dog when hugged. I have seen that reaction but had thought of it as more of a soothing response. Guess less hugging means more belly rubs! Great information, thank you.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 17 2012 |

i taught my border collie pup to hug . she would wrap her front legs around my neck and squeeze.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 19 2012 |

I was under the impression that a dog's behavior as described above (standing up, putting legs around one, pressing as if hugging) was an indication of dominance or sexual initiation...?

Submitted by Lisa | May 8 2012 |

I think this really depends on the dog. My dog loves hugs & actually asks for them. He will even sit up on his hind legs and put his front legs on your shoulders (while you're sitting) so he can nestle in closely. I had a golden retriever that wanted hugs literally all the time if you were sitting with her. But I had another dog that clearly hated hugs.

Submitted by freddie | July 5 2014 |

my gsd loves a morning hug it lets me tell him I am do every morning. then he can train and eat.

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