How to Love a Dog

Part of the definition of loving someone, whether that someone is a spouse, sibling, child or friend, is getting to know their likes and dislikes, their wants and needs. It also helps to learn about what makes them feel loved. I think the same applies to loving our dogs. Whether or not dogs truly feel love is a topic for another time, but there is no disputing that most of us truly love our dogs. Doesn’t that then imply that we should get to know what our dogs like and dislike, want and need? And why do I think this is important?

This year a popular dog food company decided to launch a marketing campaign declaring April 10th to be National Hug Your Dog Day. And on that day, all of us who know anything about dogs and dog behavior shared a collective moment of panic, and then began a marketing campaign of our own called Don’t Hug Your Dog Day. What really surprised me was the backlash we all received from the general public when we dog professionals suggested that dogs actually don’t like to be hugged. What I heard over and over again was, “My dog loves it when I hug her. You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Plastered all over the internet you will see “cute” pictures and videos of people, usually children, hugging and kissing dogs. What those of us experienced in reading dog body language see is not “cute,” it is a dog expressing various levels of discomfort and stress. From lip licking, to ears pinned back, large “whale” eyes, and dogs trying to look away or pull away; all of these stress signals are being ignored by the people who love their dogs the most. And heaven help the poor dog who escalates in his communication of distress by barking, growling, snapping, or nipping at the individual. It sure wouldn’t be cute then, would it?

Hugging is a human/primate behavior used to demonstrate affection, but is not a behavior natural to dogs. In fact, when a dog puts his chin or leg over the shoulders of another dog it is considered to be a challenge or a threat. And kissing in the dog world is limited to puppies and very submissive dogs greeting other dogs that they know well. So why do people insist that their dogs enjoy being hugged and kissed? Because usually they are under the misconception that because we like to be hugged and kissed, and their dogs tolerate that sort of inappropriate behavior from them, that their dogs must like it. And is it any wonder that so many people, especially children, are bitten by dogs every year?

There are two things I would recommend to prevent this common misunderstanding from becoming a tragedy. First we must prepare our dogs for all the hugging and kissing that will come their way from uninformed humans. I teach my dogs to enjoy cuddles, hugs and kisses by pairing these annoying human behaviors with tasty treats that my dogs enjoy. I practice first with myself and family members, then with other people my dogs know, and eventually with strangers. But through the whole process I carefully watch my dogs’ body language for any signs of stress.

Secondly, as hard as it might be, I would recommend to parents that they discourage their children from hugging and kissing dogs. Teach them more doggy appropriate ways to show affection. For example most dogs really appreciate a good chest scratch or ear rub. Pats on the head are another behavior many dogs are forced to tolerate, so I would discourage this also. Many children are bitten, especially in the face, because they are trying to hug or kiss someone else’s dog just like they do to their dog at home. Unfortunately, the neighbor’s dog or grandma’s dog may not be so tolerant.

So when you or your child feel the need to show your dog just how much you love them, try a game of fetch or a long walk and save the hugging and kissing for human family members. Your dog will thank you for it!

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