Nobody wants to get bitten by a dog.
Worse still, no one wants their dog to be the biter — especially where kids are involved.
But say a child hugs a fluffy dog they know. If the dog isn’t happy, then disaster can strike.
This raises an important question: Do dogs like hugs?
Well, just because people like being cuddled doesn’t mean dogs do, too.
Think of it this way: Consider how dogs like to sniff rears … and yet we humans would be unhappy if forced to butt-sniff. So why do we assume dogs like the human behavior of hugs?
Do Dogs Like Hugs? The Science Says Not Really.
As it happens, basic dog psychology easily explains why some dogs dislike hugs.
It’s called the fight-or-flight reflex.
Let’s say a toddler runs over to a big fluffy dog and throws their arms around them. While the dog may look like an oversized teddy bear, a surprised dog’s reaction can be extreme.
A stressed, surprised or frightened dog experiences a massive shot of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. These are the fight-or-flight hormones. They put the dog into survival mode to either flee from the threat or fight back.
OK, what if a dog feels threatened by the child but is held so tight they can’t wriggle free? What happens next?
- If the dog is good-natured, then nothing may happen — except the dog feels miserable.
- However, there’s a chance instinct clicks in. The dog unable to escape turns to fight and bites the child to make the hugging stop.
Why Children Shouldn’t Hug Dogs
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) — as a sponsor of Dog Bite Prevention Week1 — advises against children hugging dogs.
Because children are small, hugging puts them close to the dog’s mouth. Therefore, hug-related bites are often to the child’s face.
What’s more, hugging an unwilling dog puts the dog under stress. Think of the last time you were forced to stay somewhere you didn’t want to be. How did that make you feel?
With a stressed dog unable to escape the hugger’s arms, their next action might be to bite.
For more, see our related article “Teach Your Kids How to Greet a Strange Dog.”
In the Wild, Dogs Huddle When There’s Danger
“But my dog loves hugs!” you say.
Do they? Truly?
Another argument against hugging is what happens in a pack situation. OK, so this takes some imagination — when was the last time you saw a pack of Cockapoos in the wild? — but you get the point.
Take a pack of wild dogs, for example:
- Danger threatens, and they huddle together. Shoulder to shoulder, safety in numbers.
- The pressure of another dog pressed into against their flanks (a “hug”) is a signal there’s danger around.
- This gets the fight-or-flight reflex kicking in, placing the dogs on high alert.
So when we hug a dog and hold them tight, the pressure against their body can send the wrong message. In some cases, instead of reassuring the dog, it’s like hanging out a flashing neon light that screams, “DANGER!”
This presses a lot of buttons for me as a veterinarian.
It’s common to have a small dog clutched tight to the bosom of a “comforting” client. That little dog then snarls and snaps.
This is hardly surprising, because the little dog has picked up on the person’s anxiety, and the hug sends a “DANGER!” message. Of course the dog is going to be wary.
Instead, it’s better to reassure your dog by doing the following:
- Calm yourself with some deep breathing and acting normal.
- The dog then reads your body language and may even learn that vets are lovely people.
In 81% of Photos of People Hugging Dogs, the Dogs Look Distressed
In 2016, dog-psychology supremo Professor Stanley Coren, PhD, DSc, FRSC, did his own back-of-the-envelope investigation.
He wanted to know if dogs loved or hated hugs.2
Dr. Coren looked at 250 images of people hugging dogs. He then analyzed the dogs’ body language for signs of stress.
The results were surprising and even alarming:
- 81% of the photos showed dogs giving off at least one distress sign.
- 11% showed dogs who seemed to neither like nor dislike the hugs.
- 8% of the dogs seemed to enjoy the cuddle.
Signs of Stress in Dogs
What were the signs of stress that Dr. Cohen looked for?
They included classic dog body language that signal emotional discomfort or inner conflict:3
- Avoiding eye contact
- Turning the head away
- Showing the whites of the eyes
- Lowered or flattened ears
- Lip licking
- Submissive eye closing
- Stiffness and lack of relaxation
Now, take a look at the images below:
This is just a snapshot of a Google image search for the phrase “people hugging dogs.”
What do you see in most of these pictures above: love, dislike or ambivalence?
6 Tips for Hugging Your Dog the Right Way
So does this mean you should not hug your hound?
Actually, no — but there is a right and a wrong way to go about it.
Above all, you want the dog to be happy. There’s no point in giving a selfish hug that you enjoy but the dog hates.
Make sure your dog is happy by following these 6 tips:
1. Get the dog used to being touched.
Touch a part of their body that’s not controversial, such as stroking along their back.
Then praise them for being so brave, and reward them with a treat. This helps the dog associate touch with nice things.
2. Now gradually extend the areas you touch.
Slide your hand down a leg slightly, then praise and reward. This is also a great technique for teaching foot-phobic dogs to have their paws touched.
3. Avoid forcing the dog into a situation they’re unhappy with.
Take things slow and steady so that you don’t overwhelm the dog with affection.
4. Keep hugs short.
Less is more. Give the dog the option to leave while they’re still happy.
5. Be aware that dogs are individuals.
Some dogs may enjoy a hug and a snuggle, and others? Not so much.
Try to give them a choice of whether they walk away or participate.
6. Reading the individual dog is key to happy hugs.
Don’t overlook the context of the cuddle. For example, your dog may be happy to snuggle while watching TV in the evening, but they wriggle and squirm when it’s time for supper. Don’t push a point and force the dog to stay still, or this could backfire with a bite.
Don’t Send the Wrong Message by Hugging Your Dog
Also, be mindful of the dog’s state of mind when you move in for a hug.
The dog with a fireworks phobia may be more stressed rather than comforted by a cuddle on July Fourth. If the dog genuinely takes comfort in an embrace, then fine, but it may be more appropriate to let them hide away until the noise goes away.
If you persist in hugging during a fireworks display, you might accidentally teach the wrong lesson: Even if a dog likes hugs, they may look on this as a reward for fearful behavior.
This accidentally reinforces the wrong message — that they’re right to be afraid.
Hugging and a Dog’s Heart Rate
Does your dog like hugs and cuddles?
If so, great! Don’t change a thing. You know the dog, and they know you.
You probably subconsciously read their body language and understand when they want the attention.
A great study from the 1970s sums things up nicely: Erik Zimen, an expert on wolf behavior, turned his attention to dogs. In a neat project, Zimen scored the physical appearance of dogs (such as ear position, tail and lips) when the dogs were being hugged. He also measured the dogs’ respiratory and heart rates.
What happens when we’re fearful? Our heart rate shoots up. And when anxious? We breathe more quickly in preparation to run away.
So if dogs don’t like being hugged, those dropped ears and whites of the eyes should be backed up by a racing heart rate and fast respiration.
Zimen found what we instinctively knew all along:
- When you know the dog and the dog knows you, their heart and respiratory rate go down as they relax into your embrace.
- As for a hug from a stranger: The dog initially shows a stress heart rate, but they soon start to relax and the heart and respiratory rate fall down.
Think about it: If a stranger came barreling up to you in the street and wrapped you in a suffocating embrace, you’d be pretty freaked out, too.
Likewise, it can be the same for a dog when an unfamiliar child cuddles them too tight.
Here are some more tips for children to stay safe around dogs:
Hugging Your Dog? Use Common Sense.
In short, judge hugs on an individual basis.
When you know the dog and they know you, especially when they’re pleasantly tired, then a hug is a lovely thing.
However, if you don’t know the dog or your pet is focused on food or wanting a walk rather than love, then think twice before trying to hug the dog or cuddle them.
- “AVMA Behavior Expert Demonstrates Top Ways to Keep Children and Community Members Free From Dog Bites.” American Veterinary Medical Association. April 6, 2017. https://www.avma.org/News/PressRoom/Pages/National-Dog-Bite-Prevention-Week-2017.aspx.
- Coren, Stanley, PhD, DSc, FRSC. “The Data Says ‘Don’t Hug the Dog.’” Psychology Today. April 13, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/canine-corner/201604/the-data-says-dont-hug-the-dog.
- Buzhardt, Lynn, DVM. “Signs Your Dogs Is Stressed and How to Relieve It.” VCA Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/signs-your-dog-is-stressed-and-how-to-relieve-it.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Dec. 6, 2018.
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