It’s a common sight but one that sends chills down every animal welfare specialist’s spine…a child hugging and kissing on the family dog. What seems like a loving interaction has often turned tragic in split seconds – but is completely avoidable if you know what to look for. Dogs don’t like hugs. It’s not a popular belief but it’s true. They see the act of hugging as restraint and for a quadruped without arms, it’s completely unnatural, often provoking fear. While dogs usually love interactions with their human companions like petting, massaging, and belly rubs, a full-out hug sends cortisol through their systems and can provoke a flight or fight response. Animal Behaviorist Kelley Bollen recently came back to the SPCA of Northern Nevada where she gave staff additional training regarding animal behavior and stress reduction techniques. Here’s what we learned about physical communication that dogs use to tell us they are uncomfortable.
When a dog’s mouth goes from relaxed and slightly open to closed and tight lipped – that’s a sign of discomfort. The dog also may flick it’s tongue out, or lick it’s lips as if it’s about to eat, but without the presence of food, those actions are called “displacement behaviors” and is the dog’s way of signaling it’s feeling anxiety or is uncomfortable with what is happening in its environment. Dogs will often also show signs of avoidance by moving their heads or bodies away. They might even turn their heads but keep their eyes on what makes them uncomfortable, making the whites of their eyes visible – a behavior called “whale eye” or “half-moon eye.” When being hugged, many dogs will also tuck their tails and will crouch down, not enjoying what is happening to them.
If a dog is showing any of the behaviors listed above, it’s communicating clearly that it is uncomfortable, feels some fear, and would appreciate it if the action making it feel that way would stop. Many family dogs will tolerate hugs because they love their people, but they do not enjoy the hug and it’s potentially dangerous as it could send the animal into a reactive state. It’s always best to avoid hugging any dog, especially an unfamiliar dog, such as those you are meeting for the first time at an adoption center.
The best way to show love and affection is by being aware and paying attention to the dog’s communication with you. When you approach a dog, make sure you are not hovering over its head or body. Approach dogs from the side and avoid direct eye contact with new dogs until you are both comfortable with each other. Make sure you pet dogs’ heads under the chin or around the ears, never approaching from the very top of their head, which could be frightening. By approaching with care and keeping a close watch on the dog’s behavior, you both can enjoy the friendly interaction and avoid dangerous or uncomfortable situations! Showing respect for these wonderful animals is the best way we can share our love with them.
We would like to thank Kelley Bollen for the training she is providing to staff and volunteers here at the SPCA of Northern Nevada. We are always working to improve the experiences for all our shelter pets and Kelley is helping us to do that. For more information about Kelley Bollen and her services, please visit her site, here.