You love your dog, right? I know you do! And because your dog makes you so happy, you’re filled with gratitude and want her to know just how much you care. How do you go about showing her that you’re over the moon?
April 10th was “Hug Your Dog Day” and that made me cringe. While loving your dog up sounds like a wonderful concept, many canines are put off by our apelike shows of affection.
We humans are such frontal and tactile creatures. We love to make eye contact. We affirm our love by reaching out and touching those we hold dear. We clasp, grab, and pull them close for a true heart-to-heart connection.
Dogs, on the other hand are largely uncomfortable with eye contact, face-to-face greetings, and being grabbed. If you watch two dogs meet in the park, you’ll notice that usually they come at each other slightly from the side, sidling up for a rear-to-nose greeting stance that allows them to identify one another very efficiently by scent while keeping their faces as far apart as possible. Even puppies, who do go for the face of adult dogs upon greeting, do so obsequiously, coming up from underneath the dog’s muzzle.
Not having hands, dogs do all of their grabbing with their teeth. And while some dogs will nibble or mouth one another once they are intimately acquainted, teeth are primarily dangerous weapons used for hunting and displays of aggression, so most dogs consider it bad form to use them as a sign of good will.
With all of this in mind you can see how our lovey-dovey behavior might seem rude, at best, to some dogs and downright aggressive, at worst. Next time you hug or kiss your dog, or watch someone else’s lovefest, take a moment to observe the reaction. Even the friendliest of canine cuddlebugs will often yawn or lip-lick once you move in for the big smooch or pick them up for a hug. Yawns and lip-licking are low-level signs of stress in dogs, behaviors that function sort of like steam valves on a pressure cooker. Getting up and walking away is also a signal that your dog may not be as enthralled with your style of affection as you think.
Most of us have such good standing in the eyes of our dogs that they easily excuse our social faux pas. In other words, they tolerate our behavior. Over the years, we dog trainers have realized that it is much easier to condition our canines than it is to change human behavior, so our SIRIUS® puppy class curriculum is designed to teach dogs to not only tolerate our human ways, but to actually enjoy the handling, groping, grooming, and smooching people do.
Hand feeding your pup or newly adopted dog while practicing handling is one of the cornerstones of our program because it builds positive associations between something good and necessary (food) and an unnatural behavior (snuggling with us). It’s the quickest way to build a dog’s confidence and comfort about being hugged and petted or restrained and examined.
The dog’s perception of the handler is what determines whether she feels she’s being handled or mishandled. That’s why it’s so important that we positively influence her perception of our strange human ways, so she feels completely confidant in her interactions with family, friends, and even strangers. This prevents undue (and avoidable) stress for her and is good for us, because calm, confident, comfortable dogs are much less likely to growl, snap, or bite. So when the inevitable primate-hug-of-love comes her way, at least your dog is well prepared.
Now you know why I thought “Hug Your Dog Day” might not be the best idea. I’m all for showing our dogs how much we love them, but I’d prefer we do so in a ways that honor their doggie-ness.
The next time you want to show your dog how much she means to you, take a moment to consider whether or not she really enjoys hugs and kisses. Maybe you could provide her with one of her favorite things on the planet – like a romp in the park, a food-stuffed chew toy, or the simple gift of your full attention in a play/training session – instead of impulsively hugging away. And why not shower her with these gifts every day, not just on April, 10th?
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for the Dunbar family business, SIRIUS® Puppy & Dog Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program, and is in the process of bringing the French sport of cavage (truffle hunting) to the US. Kelly is also Founder and President of Open Paw and consults for animal shelters on various matters.