Can Dogs Understand Hugs?

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What could be better than snuggling up with your furry friend and wrapping your arms around them to show how much you care? As humans, we often exchange hugs to signify our love and empathy for one another. This gesture is easily recognizable as affectionate, loving, and kind. But does your canine companion feel the same way about hugs? Is this behavior welcome and enjoyed or foreign and tolerated? In the canine world, you won't see dogs hugging other dogs. Unlike humans, it is not a natural part of their behavioral repertoire. So, can your beloved pooch actually understand and appreciate your loving embrace?
Introduction of Can Dogs Understand Hugs?

Signs Of a Dog Understanding Your Affection

The best way to tell if your puppy pal understands the affection you're showing them is to keep a close eye on their behavior. Do they tense up with your arms around them or remain relaxed? If a dog is comfortable with the action, their ears should remain forward and their tail high.

Often times, if a dog knows you well and trusts you, they will tolerate your embrace. However, recent data suggests that for dogs, hugs may actually be interpreted as threatening and can raise their anxiety and stress. 

Upon receiving a hug, a dog may turn their head away, break eye contact, expose the white edges of their eyes, slick their ears back against their head, partially close their eyes, or even lick your mouth and face. These are all actually signs that your pooch is feeling anxious and does not recognize this gesture as affection. In some cases, a dog may even growl or bare their teeth. 

Certainly, reactions can vary from one dog to another. For example, puppies are much more tolerant of most forms of interaction and Golden Retrievers are known for their fondness for any kind of physical contact.  Still, hugging is a behavior not naturally exhibited by dogs and is typically not understood as a sign of affection. 

A dog may hug may interpret a hug as a threat, as they may feel trapped and unable to flee from danger. This can cause confusion for your canine companion, unable to understand why their trusted human would exhibit a threatening gesture. When dogs are uncertain or confused in a social setting like this, they may exhibit canine displacement behaviors, like yawning and lip licking. 

Don't fret though- there are many other ways to show your best pal you care, like a good brushing, couch cuddling, a walk, or their favorite engaging activity. Many dogs will tolerate a hug despite the discomfort it causes them, especially when they love and trust you. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to their subtle signs and body language to signify how your dog is feeling. 

Body Language

Here are some telltale signs you may notice if your dog is uncomfortable being hugged:
  • Growling
  • Cowering
  • Panting
  • Ears drop

Other Signs

Other signs that your dog might not be enjoying a hug:
  • Trying to move away
  • Breaking eye contact
  • Lip Licking
  • Yawning
  • Lowering tail
  • Baring teeth

History of Why Dogs May Not Understand Hugs

History of Can Dogs Understand Hugs?
The evolutionary history of canines versus primates (like humans) can help us understand why dogs don't quite understand receiving a hug.

Over time, humans and canines have co-evolved and become intimately linked. This has resulted in a beautifully harmonious relationship between the two species in which communication, play, and many other traits are shared. However, dogs are a different species from us and you must take into consideration the millions of years of evolution independent of humans that came first. 

Hugging is hard-wired into our history as a species. From a young age, humans express affection, empathy, and love for others with this gesture. Research shows that even in our closest primate relatives, like chimpanzees and bonobos, hugging is a significant part of giving and receiving affection. 

On the contrary, dogs evolved to interpret the behavior of a leg over their shoulder or body as an assertion of dominance. When a dog puts one or both legs over the shoulders of another, called standing over, it is usually a display of social status and is perceived as controlling and assertive. Historically, this behavior was likely to occur when dogs were competing for resources. 

This major difference in the evolutionary history of dogs and humans makes it easy to see why dogs may not interpret at hug as being affectionate.

Science Behind Why Dogs May Not Understand Hugs

Science of Can Dogs Understand Hugs?
As primates, humans have evolved to use hugs to express affection, love, or support. However, dogs did not evolve this way. As shown by history, the act of a dog putting a paw or foreleg on the back or shoulder of another is actually an assertive, dominant act. Thus, a hug from a human may translate this way to a dog. 

Additionally, dogs are cursorial animals, meaning they are designed and adapted to run. In times of distress, their first instinct is to flee. When you hug your dog, they may feel trapped and like they can't escape. This can lead them to feel anxious and uncomfortable. 

Though dogs don't hug each other, they do show affection in different ways. In nature, dogs have the tendency to lick other individuals they are attached to, called allogrooming. This gesture signifies social bonding and companionship. If your dog often licks you, this may explain why. 

Dogs may also display their affection through play, staying close to you, and following you around. These acts of affection are considered affiliative behaviors, or gestures between individuals sharing a social bond. 

Though your dog may not understand a hug, they still love you and will show you in other ways!

Training Your Dog to Tolerate Hugs

Training of Can Dogs Understand Hugs?
Some dogs may be totally fine with receiving a hug! However, many may feel threatened, scared, or anxious, especially if the behavior comes from a stranger. With a little effort, you can train your canine companion to tolerate hugs. 

This can be extremely beneficial in the context of going to the vet, when your dog may need to be held steady to receive vaccines, or interacting with children, who often don't know better than to lean on or throw their arms around the neck of a furry friend! 

Positive reinforcement is the way to go when training your dog to accept hugs. You can do so by linking gradual approximations of hugs with something your dog loves, like treats or belly rubs. Start with simply resting your hand on their shoulder while you sit side-by-side and reward them profusely. Gradually move your arm farther around your dog's shoulders, rewarding them with treats every step of the way. 

Over time, they will start to associate an arm over their shoulder with something good. If you would like your pooch to be comfortable accepting hugs from others as well, it is important for you to have several individuals practice this training method. However, be sure they are people your dog is already comfortable with and go very slowly to ensure safety. 

Training your dog to accept hugs is possible and most effective when initiated at a young age. Be sure to be patient, too! After all, you are teaching your dog to accept something that goes against their social instincts!

Safety Tips for Training Your Dog To Tolerate Hugs

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    Pay attention to your dog's body language- if they exhibit anxious behaviors (like dropping their ears, licking their lips, panting, or even growling), then stop! Try again later at a slower pace.
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    Reassure your dog every step of the way with lots of praise and treats!
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    Only allow people who your dog is very comfortable with to play a role in this training and be sure you are present to recognize signs of discomfort!