Don’t Hug My Cuddle Bug?
By Judie Amyot
This article was first published in The Suburban.
It may not be something we humans want to accept but apparently we need to stifle the urge to wrap our arms around our canine companions and embrace them lovingly.
What? This can’t be true. As our loyal companions, they are there to give us comfort through the difficult times in our lives and day to day life so it only stands to reason that we should return the favour. Well, perhaps not.
According to research done by Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, dogs are not fond of being hugged and use body language to convey their distaste for it. While the warmth and closeness of a dog has always been therapeutic for stressed or ill humans, conversely, hugging your dog can cause it to become agitated and stressed. This, in turn, can result in it snapping at or biting the well intentioned human and often, a child is the recipient of this reaction to an unwanted embrace.
We know that as parents, hugging our children is a natural thing to do and is associated with loving and bonding with them. An adorable dog can bring out the same need in us but dogs are not human children and won’t become emotionally stunted if we fail to make regular physical contact with them in their early years. Dogs are technically cursorial animals, which means they are designed for swift running. This implies that in times of stress or threat, a dog’s first line of defense is not its teeth but its ability to run away. Behaviourists believe that depriving a dog of that course of action by immobilizing it with a hug can increase its stress level and can lead to a bite.
Trained individuals can easily observe the signs of stress and anxiety in dogs but everyone should educate themselves and teach their children these signs. Children, in particular, have difficulty reading signs of stress and anxiety based upon their dog’s facial expressions. They may tend to come flying at a dog and want to grab it but the dog may view this as an attack. I see this frequently when I work an Animatch meet and greet. Dogs will bare their teeth at the high end of stress but there are subtler indicators to watch for first.
The most common sign of anxiety will have the dog turn its head away from whatever is bothering or worrying it, sometimes with closed eyes. They will also show what is commonly called the “half moon eye” or “whale eye” where the white portion of the eye is visible at the corner of the rim. The dog’s ears may be lowered or slicked back against the side of its head. It may also lick its lips or a person’s face (no, it’s not in love with you right now) or yawn and raise one paw.
Of course, all dogs are individuals and a small percentage may actually enjoy being hugged while another percentage is neutral or ambiguous towards human physical contact. The vast majority, however, appear to find this human expression of affection to be unpleasant and/or anxiety inducing.
Most experts on canine behaviour will recommend that you reserve your hugs for your two-footed family members and express your love for your pet with a pat, a kind word or the ever popular cookie treat. Others maintain that hugging is fine — provided it is done with care based on the close relationship you have with the dog and its demeanour at the time. When in doubt, don’t hug.
Personally, my little 12 pounder fits perfectly in the cradle of my arms and is resigned to getting his daily hugs and kisses. Guilty as charged.
He knows I just can’t help myself.