Raise your hand if you've ever hugged a dog you love in a moment of joy and affection. Now raise your hand if you've ever paid close attention to whether or not your dog enjoyed that hug. What you interpret as enjoyment might be your dog simply enduring the moment, or even barely contained dislike for what is happening.
Do dogs really like hugs? The short answer is not really. But the full answer is much more complex.
While some dogs make it abundantly clear that hugs are not tolerated, others might simply let the moment pass without comment. And others might absolutely adore hugs from you, their trusted companion, but not from other humans. Why is this? Aren't dogs humans' best friends, craving affection from us? Don't they think hugs are as wonderful as a belly rub or rump scratch?
We talked with Dr. Patricia McConnell, a certified applied animal behaviorist and respected expert on the topic of dogs. In her research and her decades of working with and rehabilitating dogs with behavioral problems, McConnell has become acutely attuned to canid biology, social interactions and body language. She provides us not only with insight into why dogs in general don't like hugs, but also how we can tell whether or not our own dogs enjoy them.
Why don't you love me?!
When delving into this topic, it's important to get one thing clear: just because your dog might not like your hugs does not mean he doesn't love you with all his heart. It's hard for many of us to think that our dogs don't enjoy our hugs because to us, hugs are a primary way we show affection.
"If you watch little kids, tiny little kids who are just barely able to stand on their legs," says McConnell, "they wrap their arms around another to express affection, empathy and love by hugging. It’s just so hard-wired into who we are and what we do."
McConnell notes that research on primates, especially chimpanzees and bonobos to whom we are most closely related, reveals that hugging is an integral part in giving and seeking out comfort and affection.
"And so I think when we tell people that dogs don’t like hugging, it’s like some primal, limbic part of our brain says, 'You mean my dog doesn’t love me?!'"
But yes, our dogs do love us. Yet they love us in their canid way while we love them in our primate way. We are two very different species who have, miraculously, managed to become intimately linked through our evolutionary history. Even so, thousands of years of co-evolution doesn't quite erase millions of years of separate species evolution. And that's why we have to get into the social science of what a hug is to a dog.
Why dogs feel uncomfortable with hugs
When you take your dog to the dog park, or even just to a friend's house where she can play with another dog, how do the dogs greet one another? There are myriad ways dogs say hello depending on if they know each other and are reforming old bonds, or are meeting for the first time and feeling each other out as they establish the pecking order. There is face smelling, rump smelling, tail wagging, play bowing... but there is never hugging. Even among the best of friends. In fact, the closest approximation dogs have to a hug as we know it actually means something other than friendship.
"Dogs, like people, have a particular way of greeting, none of which involves having a foreleg over the shoulder," says McConnell. "But dogs do put a leg over the shoulders of another -- either one leg or both legs -- and it’s called 'standing over.' It usually relates to some form of social status or perhaps competition for resources, so it is considered to be [done by] a dog who is trying to get some control."
Dogs also do this during the context of play as well, and you might have witnessed this while watching dogs romp at the park. But as Dr. McConnell points out, "Even in play, you can see dogs who are a little bit bullying in that they’re constantly standing on dogs, standing over dogs, pushing down on their shoulders. It is seen to be not necessarily aggressive but very assertive, controlling behavior."
In primates, we wrap our arms around another's shoulders as a sign of affection. But in canids, a leg over the shoulder is a sign of dominance or assertiveness.
"So when we [hug] dogs, how are they to interpret that?" asks McConnell. "At best, I think some dogs just shrug it off and don’t pay a lot of attention to it for whatever reason. For instance, golden retrievers are famous for their fondness for any kind of touching. But for a lot of dogs, they see it as a potential threat."
The response a dog has when someone puts their arm over them is varied. "They’ll go stiff, they’ll close their mouth, maybe they’ll do a little lip licking. They’re anxious, they’re concerned, perhaps wondering, 'Did I do something wrong? What should I do now? Should I just sit still and not do anything?'"
"We share so much with dogs; we love to communicate, we love to play, there’s so much we share. But we’re not the same species. There are things that are very different about us and how we relate to each other, and this is one of them."
How to find out what your dog thinks about hugs
You might already know exactly how your dog feels about hugs. If your dog leans into you and adamantly snuggles up, it's safe to say he likes hugs just fine. If he gets up and walk away (or leaps away) when you lean in, it's safe to say he doesn't like them at all. But many of us don't actually know how our dog is reacting to hugs.
It's good to be sure how your dog feels when you hug him or her, and how he feels when strangers go in for a hug, especially since hugs mean putting your face next to a sharp set of teeth. If a dog barely tolerates hugs, then the wrong hug at the wrong time could mean the dog snaps at the hugger. No one wants that. Thankfully, dogs make their thoughts abundantly clear through body language. As long as you know what to look for, you will know what your dog thinks of a love-squeeze.
"One of the best things that I’ve found to help people decide whether their dog likes it or not, is to hug your dog and have someone take a picture," says McConnell, "When we hug our dogs, we don’t see their face. [A client] will say, 'My dog loves it!' Then I’ll take a picture and show them, and they’ll say, 'Oooh…'"
Recent research done by Dr. Michele Wan revealed that people have trouble reading negative feelings in dogs, especially fear and anxiety. In fact, it is only those more experienced with dogs who tend to pay attention to subtle changes, such as a dog's ear position, as a clue for a dog's emotional state. Yet ears, eyes, lips, tongue, even the way a dog leans can all reveal what a dog thinks about something like a human hugging them.
Let's take a look at two different dogs, one that clearly doesn't enjoy the hug from the human, and one that is totally fine with it. Spend a little time looking over the two photos and see if you can identify the emotional state of the dog.
Look at the signals the dog is giving here. (Photo: Jiri Vaclavek/Shutterstock)
But this dog is much more relaxed. (Photo: GTeam/Shutterstock)
In the top photo, the dog is leaning (or at least trying to lean) away from the human. His ears are held tightly back, his eyes are more tense with a slightly furrowed brow, and his mouth is closed. While there isn't anything about the dog's body language that says he will lash out, it is abundantly clear that the hug is not comfortable or appreciated.
In the bottom photo, the golden retriever is not leaning away from the hugger. His ears are relaxed, his eyes are soft, his mouth is open and lips are not tense, and the tongue is draped out in a relaxed pant. (Yes, even the way a dog holds his tongue is potentially a clue!)
"It takes a lot of experience, it turns out, to be good at reading signs of fear or stress or discomfort on the face of a dog," says McConnell. She relates the extent to which many dog owners are unaware of their dog's emotional state. "I’ve had people with dogs with really serious problems come into my office and say, 'Oh, you can go ahead and pet him, he’s fine.' But the dog would be radiating, just radiating, 'Do not touch me. Do not touch me.' The person thinks their dog is fine because he’s not growling and his tail is wagging — which as we know is not necessarily a sign of happiness. So you might have to help them through seeing what the expression means."
So, what's a great indicator that even those less experienced in reading dog body language can use to gauge a dog's feelings about hugs? "Looking at whether [the dog's] mouth is open or closed is one of the most obvious indicators. Just because a dog’s mouth is closed doesn’t mean he is miserable. But if his mouth is open and relaxed, then closing the mouth means something has changed and it needs the dog's attention," such as being unsure or uncomfortable about an arm now wrapped around his shoulder.
"I was in a situation in which dogs were being evaluated, and it was really helpful for me to show the owner that her dog wasn’t comfortable with hugging. Her dog is a big friendly, goofy dog that loves everybody. While I was sitting beside him, his mouth was open with a big silly smile on his face, and he was panting. I wrapped my arm around his shoulder like you would put your arm around the shoulder of a friend, and sort of leaned into him and gave him a little hug. He immediately went stiff and still, and his mouth closed. I said to her, 'Watch his mouth,' and I did it back and forth. I pulled my hand away and he opened his mouth and panted, and I put my hand over him, moved a little bit toward him, and he went stiff and closed his mouth. I said, 'See, mouth open and panting; see, mouth closed.' I did that three or four times in a row and she got it."
So paying attention to your dog's mouth, feeling if he leans away from you, and having a photo taken so you can get a better sense of what his eyes and ears are telling you are all great ways to learn more about just what your dog thinks about how you show affection.
How to teach your dog to tolerate hugs
Whether or not your dog likes hugs, it can be beneficial to teach him to tolerate hugs. This is useful for many things including trips to the vet when you need to hold your dog steady for vaccinations, and especially important if you have small children around who are likely to lean on, cuddle, and wrap their arms around the neck of their furry family member.
McConnell offers some advice: "Link gradual approximations of hugs with something your dog adores, whether it is food, playing with a ball or belly rubs. Sit beside your dog, shoulder to shoulder, and rest your hand on top of their back. Reward them as you do this several times. Then move your arm around your dog a little bit more, and give them some treats. A little bit more, and give them some treats. And so you gradually and slowly get them associated that your arm over their shoulders is related to something good. If you want them to associate this with other people doing it, you need to have other people doing it, but I would caution people from just jumping into that unless they know their dog very, very well and can tell if their dog isn’t about to object in some kind of way that can cause someone harm. It’s best to start when the dog is a small puppy to do this desensitization work."
Remember that it may take a lot of time — and a lot of treats — before your dog will tolerate a hug. We are, after all, asking them to do something that goes against their social instincts as a species. So have patience, and be kind.
Every dog is an individual
Another important thing to remember is that each dog is different. You may be sitting there saying, "My dogs love my hugs!" And you may be right. And you may not be right. One of your dogs may adore your hugs and another of your dogs might prefer you don't hug and give a good ear scratch instead. Some dogs might enjoy hugs from anyone. Some might enjoy hugs from their family but not others.
McConnell has experienced this with her own dogs. "One of my border collies, Willie, loves it when I hug him. He comes up to me and pushes his head in my neck, just leans against me and literally moans. I put my arms around him and rub his head and his neck and he moans. But if you came up to him and did that, he wouldn’t be comfortable. That’s another distinction that people often fail to make; somehow there’s this assumption that every dog should love petting in all ways from all people in all contexts. And of course they don’t. There are some dogs who love touching in all ways, but most dogs make a big distinction between friend-familiar, stranger-unfamiliar. That is an obvious distinction for us [as individual human beings], but for some reason we don’t apply it to dogs."
Every dog is indeed an individual with his or her own distinct personality. They each land somewhere on the hugging like-dislike scale; but when it comes to dogs in general, that sliding scale is skewed toward the "dislike" side. And that goes for even the most famously friendly breeds like Labradors and golden retrievers. "Dogs are not clones; all Labradors are not the same, they’re not widgets that come off an assembly line," notes McConnell.
That's why understanding where our dogs are coming from — as a species, and as an individual — is a key component to sharing a joyful friendship. There is no other species on earth to which humans have been so intricately linked in so many roles: hunting partners, protectors of our livestock and our homes, working animals to haul sleds and carts, companions for comfort, assistants for us when we are physically and emotionally impaired — and the list goes on.
"I think it’s a biological miracle in so many ways. I think that’s why our relationship with dogs is so profound and deep and amazing. We are more like dogs than so many other animals. I mean just the fact that we love to play as adults. That’s not very common. There are very few adult mammals who play, and we’re all sort of like Peter Pans. We do share a lot, but I find it so interesting that people would not be able to accept that you can share a lot but be so different."
The more we take on the responsibility of seeing the world from a dog's perspective, the easier it is to continue this amazing relationship. And that comes right down to the simple act of hugging. If you want to be your dog's best friend, find out what they do and don't like and adjust the hugs they receive from you or others to where your dog is comfortable.
Additional input from experts
As McConnell points out, taking a photo of your dog being hugged is a strategy to understand what their body language reveals. This is the approach Stanley Coren Ph.D., F.R.S.C. used in his recent analysis of how dogs feel about hugging.
Using a sample of 250 random images pulled from the web of people hugging their dogs (in which the dog's face is clearly visible) Coren looked for tell-tale signs of stress such as squinting eyes, lowered ears, avoiding eye contact, lip-licking and so on. He found that 81.6 percent of the photographs showed dogs showing at least one sign of discomfort, stress or anxiety. Only 7.6 percent of the photographs showed dogs that seemed fine with the hug, and the remaining 10.8 percent were considered too ambiguous to know for sure.
"I can summarize the data quite simply by saying that the results indicated that the Internet contains many pictures of happy people hugging what appear to be unhappy dogs," he writes in Psychology Today. "[T]his data clearly shows that while a few dogs may like being hugged, more than four out of five dogs find this human expression of affection to be unpleasant and/or anxiety arousing."
If people are willing to post images of people hugging unhappy dogs, then they're likely not realizing that the dog is unhappy. Here, Wan's research showing people have difficulty reading signs of negative emotion in dogs rings especially true.
While this is a very small sampling of images taken from the web, rather than a larger study of observed reactions by dogs to hugging, the analysis clearly shows what many behaviorists have known for a long time, though the public is slower to grasp: dogs don't appreciate the human hug. Indeed it's an issue trainers and behaviorists have tried to hammer home in no small part because it's a safety issue, particularly for children.
"There are few if any dogs who enjoy hugs the way kids do it, which is to clasp the dog around the neck and hang on. This is very threatening to a dog. The fact that the dog is uncomfortable or even feeling a threat and the proximity of the child's face to the dog's teeth makes this potentially very dangerous. This is why we recommend that parents teach children to show affection to the dog in ways that do not involve hugs and kisses," writes Doggone Safe, a respected nonprofit dedicated to educating on safe human-canine interactions.
We have more advice on how to prevent a child from being bitten by the family dog.
Here's a list of books that are recommended reading for dog owners who want to learn more about how their dog thinks, which helps to get a better handle on dog body language and more success in training. One of these is Dr. McConnell’s “The Other End of the Leash.” In this book, McConnell brings together the science as well as the intuition between humans and our dogs. From the realities behind “aggression” to body language to what we can and can’t know about what a dog understands, all in approachable language. Readers come away feeling like they just attended a weekend workshop for dog training. In addition, McConnell has written several books that address specific behavioral issues or training goals, including fearful and reactive dogs, raising a puppy, and delving into the world of dog body language and how they perceive the world.
Editor's note: This story was originally written in September 2014 and has been updated with more recent information.