HUGGING By Pippa Woodward-Smith

Maybe it is the big doleful eyes or general fluffy cuteness, but for some reason dogs seem to draw out the primate urges in humans and in particular behaviours such as cooing, squealing and hugging! Like many other primates such as chimps, humans enjoy body contact with those we know and love and will often express our affection by gathering these select few up in a big hug. As humans, as long as we know the person well enough and feel comfortable to do so, we find this kind of face to face contact pleasurable. However, when we do this with dogs how do they interpret our actions? Do they see this as a natural expression of our love for them?


Well I guess the first question that springs to mind when I think of this topic is, when was the last time that you saw a dog give another dog a hug to show they like each other? I’m not talking about adolescent dogs leaping on each other’s backs or rolling around on the floor playing, but a face to face, arms/legs wrapped all the way round each other, big bear hug. You just don’t see this behaviour in dogs, or at least you don’t see it demonstrated as a sign of their affection for each other. Close face to face contact is a good indication that a situation could escalate into aggression and if a dog pins another dog around its neck, this is not a sign of “dominance” but is actually a sign of aggression and a dog will only do this if they mean to kill. It is also important to remember that being hugged tightly gives a dog little room to escape and if they are also backed into a corner or on a lead, which further restricts their opportunity to escape, then they are more likely to be defensive and react aggressively.


So how to dogs react when people leap on them to give them a big hug? Well that will entirely depend on the dog’s socialisation history, past experiences and the person doing the hugging. At best they will be confused by this weird human behaviour but at worst they will see this as a sign that they could get seriously hurt. The behaviour that follows will be directly related to how they perceive the human’s behaviour.


I am owned by a Newfoundland 8 month old puppy called Oscar and his big fluffy head and sweet expression brings out the ape in most people – me included! People can’t seem to help themselves and want to get their hands on him. In one particular situation, I was having a pub lunch with my friend with Oscar lying by my feet. Oscar got spooked by the pub phone ringing and started barking. A well meaning stranger came over and without saying anything to me walked up behind Oscar, grabbed him in a huge bear hug while leaning over him - apparently he was attempting to calm him down. Luckily for this man, Oscar is not afraid of people and he just wriggled out of this man’s arms. Oscar generally brushes off any weird human behaviour without there being any lasting impact, but had he been a dog with a different history the situation could have ended very differently.



Dogs will never bite as their first form of defence or even growl, dogs who are frightened in a situation will initially use their body language to make the person/dog they are frightened of aware that they are not comfortable with the situation. The mildest of these signals are what have been termed by Turid Rugaas as calming signals. They are used by dogs to both show peaceful intentions to other dogs, and to calm themselves and other dogs/people down.



If you start to observe your dog’s behaviour in response to your own, you will notice that if you lean over your dog they will quite often dip their head, close their eyes, turn their head away, lick their nose, yawn, maybe even lift a paw. All of these are examples of calming signals that they are using to try to show you that they are not comfortable with the behaviour you are showing. By looking out for these signals we can spot the situations where dogs feel uncomfortable before they feel the need to defend themselves. We then have the option of what we do, if we are the person interacting with the dog we can then walk away or change our behaviour with the dog, (e.g. in the example above, turning side on to the dog and crouching down next to the dog instead of leaning over will make the person less threatening).


If we are the owner of the dog and a bystander we can take the dog out of the situation or stand in between your dog and the person leaning over them, maybe by introducing yourself to the person and thereby disrupting their attention away from your dog. This is a behaviour that dogs understand and they also use splitting up to try to prevent any potentially fraught situations between dogs escalating into aggression. This is why dogs will try to get in between people when they are cuddling or facing each other head on. They are not jealous, as people often think, they are instead trying to prevent conflict between these people. Dogs are naturally peace keepers and the majority of their behaviour is directed towards this end.


If these calming signals that dogs give are ignored (and they often are) then the dog will stop using these signals, and like when a person feels they are not being understood the signals they use will get “louder” as they try to get their message across. Next on the list of ways a dog will show they are uncomfortable with a situation (and they always go in this order by the way), is displacement behaviour, e.g. biting on the lead, mounting and jumping up to name a few. These are behaviours which a lot of owners will punish, which in turn means the dog will learn to stop using those signals and move further up the scale to lunging/barking.



If that also doesn’t seem to get the message across then the dog will continue to work its way up the scale of aggressive behaviours until one does work – freezing, growling, baring teeth, nipping, biting and then multi-bites. You can therefore see how a dog whose signals are ignored (i.e. the situation doesn’t improve for the dog when they use the signals) or gets punished for using those signals, can easily turn into a “Jeckyll and Hyde” dog, who one minute seems to be fine and the next minute “out of nowhere” attacks.


I am not suggesting that by hugging our dogs we are necessarily going to turn them into these “Jeckyll and Hyde” characters, what I am suggesting is that when approaching dogs who are unknown I would never recommend leaning over, hugging or kissing a dog. By reading the body language of these dogs in response to our interactions we can begin to tell how comfortable they are.



Too often I think people believe that if a dog stays put then they are happy with whatever behaviour is being demonstrated. This simply is not the case. Sometimes (as noted above) freezing is one of the signals they are using to try to change a person’s behaviour, or instead of continuing up the scale of aggressive behaviours noted above a dog shuts down. This is termed learned helplessness and it is when a dog or any animal learns that no matter what behaviour they show they are unable to influence the outcome of a situation, so they give up and comply. This is actually more worrying, as this leads to stress in the dog, which if it builds up over time will give rise to health problems.


Our own dogs can learn to put up with our weird ape behaviours and even grow to like it. I do on occasion allow my ape urges to be satisfied and will give my dog a hug. I don’t do it for long or often and it is my opinion that he observes my behaviour as being a moment of madness and just tries to calm me back down to my usual polite behaviour! It is not a big deal in his life. Most of the time though I try to get my ape body contact quota in ways that my dog is happy with. I allow him on the sofa and he will lie next to me with his head on my lap as long as our heads aren’t too close.


I don’t for one second think that people should or will stop hugging their dogs altogether, but what I do hope is that people will start to observe their dogs more and respond to their signals with behaviour their dogs will understand to prevent any escalation of behaviour up the aggression scale. We may have our ape urges to hug our dogs but we also need to respect their canine behaviour and realise how our behaviour may be interpreted by them. If we want to have good relationships with our dogs (and I’d hope every owner is striving for that goal), then we need to respect their wishes and in turn they will respect and tolerate ours.



About the author of this article - Pippa Woodward-Smith

I live and work in Southampton, Hampshire, UK. I have completed a 15 month course with the International Dog Behaviour and Training School run by Sheila Harper Limited and I am an associate member of Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE).


I have a male Newfoundland who was born August 2008 and has taught me an awful lot both about dog training and about the trials and delights of bringing up a puppy!


I run one-to-one behaviour training sessions, loose lead workshops, social walks and dog classes - http://hampshiredogtrainer.sampa.com/. I use positive reward based training methods only and always look at any behaviour problems in the context of the dog's life as a whole to ensure that the cause of the behaviour is treated and not just the symptom.


I am interested in helping people to enjoy their lives with their dogs and focus on long term solutions that work for the individual dog and family I'm working with.

Email: pwoodward_smith@hotmail.com

Mobile: 07711 989 722

Landline: 023 8058 5227


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