To hug your dog or not to hug your dog… that is the question. And research says not to…

We all know the power of a really good hug – how you can go from stressed to calm with just a simple embrace from a loved one. Despite the fact that dogs are known to be an incredible companion and help fight depression, a study has revealed that, while we feel good giving our dogs a big bear hug, the act itself could give them anxiety.

But should you hug your dog?

Dr Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of British Columbia wrote a blog: The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog!”, where he explains that hugging dogs could raise their stress level.

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What the experts say about hugging your dog

Many dog owners might disagree with him, but like people, no two dogs are the same. Dr Stanley explains:

‘Dogs are technically cursorial animals, which is a term that indicates that they are designed for swift running. That implies that in times of stress or threat the first line of defence that a dog uses is not his teeth, but rather his ability to run away. Behaviourists believe that depriving a dog of that course of action by immobilising him with a hug can increase his stress level and, if the dog’s anxiety becomes significantly intense, he may bite.’

Johannesburg-based dog and cat behaviourist Katherine Brown agrees with Dr Stanley and says that she’s seen many dogs show discomfort when being hugged by people.

‘It is often very difficult for people to tell if their dog is not enjoying being hugged, as the signs of discomfort can be extremely subtle. The most common signs include lip licking, holding the ears back, turning the head away, showing the whites of the eyes, tensing, shaking off or moving away following the hug. Some dogs may go further and bare their teeth or growl while being hugged.’

It goes without saying that if a dog shows any of the above-mentioned signs that it clearly does not like to be hugged. Many dogs who are repeatedly hugged, despite trying to communicate discomfort with the gesture, would have no choice to resort to snapping or biting if its nervous cues are not taken seriously.

She warns that parents should take extra care when dogs are around kids as children are the most likely to get bitten while hugging a dog. ‘While dogs will tolerate hugs from people by simply waiting for it to be over, it is important to respect that dog and humans communicate affection in different ways.’

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Test your dog’s love language

According to Katherine the best way to give your dog affection is to find out what they like and respond most positively towards.

‘Most dogs enjoy being touched on their shoulders and having their ears scratched, but bear in mind that every dog is different. A simple way to find out what your dog likes or dislikes is to touch them for three seconds and then stop and pull your hand away and observe their response. Do they nudge your hand for more, or put out a paw, or move toward you? Then continue for another three seconds, and so on. If they don’t move towards you, and look away, or display any of the signs mentioned above, it’s probably best to stop touching them for now.’

Try this technique with different types of affections and your dog will tell you what they enjoy and when they’ve had enough.

‘Giving dogs the choice of how they receive affection can go a really long way towards improving the human-dog bond while ensuring that everyone is enjoying the experience. It can also help to prevent dogs from feeling wary of or overwhelmed by human contact, which in turn helps to prevent aggressive reactions.’

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