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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.

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

Photo by Librarian Avenger/flickr.

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