ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Hugging Your Dog

I'm confused about hugs for dogs... there have been references to Turid Rugaas' statement that dogs don't like to be hugged, and that we shouldn't hug them.

What Turid Rugaas has "observed," Patricia McConnell and others have studied and theorized about. In "The Other End of the Leash." (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!) McConnell explains it this way:

We, as primates, have arms with which to hug one another, and hugging is found in all primate species (ape, chimp, etc.) as an expression of love, endearment, support, or as a gesture of mutual fear or sadness. So humans naturally think of hugging as an expression of positive or supportive emotions.

Canines, on the other hand, being quadrupeds, do not have free "arms" and thus have evolved to have no understanding of a "hug." However, the closest gestures or body language that dogs have to a hug would be either mounting or placing a paw or head on top of another dog's neck or back. Aside from true sexual mounting, (which is indeed a rare occurrence with most dogs since, in America at least, most pet owners have their pets spayed or neutered, and even a fertile bitch's estrus occurs only two times a year), the great majority of mounting is dominance-seeking behavior. Placing a head or paws on top of another dog are also often assertions of dominance, which, if not accept submissively by the other dog, can turn into ritualized aggression. There are other common canine expressions of dominance that resemble aspects of a human hug, such as leaning, where an assertive or dominating dog will lean on another dog to make it move.

(An important and frequent exception to all of the above, however, is when dogs, especially puppies, are playing or play fighting. In these cases, the gestures still ultimately mean the same, but you can think of "playing" as being "rehearsal" or "pretend practice" for later when a dog may need to understand and use these communicative gestures in a real situation.)

The point that McConnell discusses very well and clearly in her new book is that to a dog, a hug (arm OVER its back or neck, leaning on it, confining it, etc.) most closely resembles several gestures of dominance. So we might expect that a dog that is not used to being hugged, or a dog who gets a hug from a stranger (or from a child who may take it a bit too far) might interpret the gesture as one of dominance or aggression and react accordingly.

As Jerri mentioned, there is also the "leaning over" part, where when we come into close contact with a dog, or go to pet or feed it from a standing position, we tend to place part of our bodies over and above the dog's body, which again can be viewed as an attempt to dominate.

Here comes the HOWEVER.

Since dogs are amazingly adaptable and trainable creatures, once a dog trusts a human (or a well socialized dog trusts all or most humans in most situations), it may well allow and enjoy a hug or close body contact from a human--the same type of contact that coming from a rival dog would be a signal to prepare for fight or flight. So the behavioral analysis I described above does not mean that you should not hug your own dogs.

I like to think of it in this way: When I hug my dogs or grab them or pick them up, I am a play partner, just like another friendly dog or sibling would be. So, as in play fighting, my gestures are accepted as play and not as real dominance-seeking or as a prelude to aggression.

(I said, "I like to think of it in this way..." but from the dog's point of view, it may be more a matter of acquiescing and submitting to me, the "boss" or "alpha" of the household, and of the continued reinforcements that seduce the dog into compliance. Although less satisfying to my romantic human view of bonding with and being loved by my dog, this interpretation is more in line with a scientific analysis of the behavior, and simplifies the picture by making our human hugs--from the dog's point of view-- no different in essence than the analogous dog body language. Those who insist on viewing their dogs as furry humans may disregard the above and go on making believe--as I will!--that our dogs stand by us out of sheer love and loyalty.)

I can tell you, though, that most of my five dogs, who I regard as thoroughly civil and well-trained, will show signs of discomfort and anxiety if I throw an arm around them and hug them--without letting go--for more than a few seconds. All animals have a "safety zone" or "social distance" which they normally require and demand. (Imagine your boss at work giving you instructions while standing an inch away from your body with his mouth only inches from yours.) Dogs need this same courtesy of social distance, but we humans often intrude into the dog's zone of safety without a thought. Have you ever tried lying close to your dog on the floor or in bed and had it push against you with its paws and straighten its legs? I think you are seeing in this action an automatic reflex that is the dog's attempt to regain some space.

I believe that allowing close "affectionate" human contact is an adaptation that the domesticated dog has made over the thousands of years of its evolution with humankind, and my best guess is that it is "a work in progress" and a behavior that many breeds and many individual dogs are still not 100% comfortable with.

So my list of Hugging Rules goes like this:

  1. Never try to hug or make close contact with a strange dog or one that is not fully accepting and trusting of you. Be particularly aware of the propensity of young children to hug "any" dog. (It is no coincidence that the majority of dog bites reported involve a child!)
  2. With newly made canine friends, avoid petting on the back and neck and head, as so many humans seem to like to do, and start by petting them on their chest, their bellies, or under their chins, as awkward as this may seem from a human point of view.
  3. Even with your own dogs that are accepting of close human contact, limit your "hugging" to what your dog will tolerate, and always look for the subtle signals that the "love of your life" may be getting a bit uncomfortable... and respect the dog's "space" by being satisfied with a shorter hug or by letting the dog take the lead in initiating and controlling the nature and length of the contact.
  4. Most importantly, for all dogs, realize that their toleration for hugging and the social distance they require changes from moment to moment, situation to situation. A dog that may enjoy a ten second squeeze at one time may react with extreme agitation after a two second hug at a different time.

Eve is quite cuddly... She likes to spoon in bed with us at bedtime and she initiates petting and cuddling sessions by poking her nose under my hand and/or arm. She's a big leaner. As cute and soft as she is, it would be rather tragic if she didn't enjoy huggles.

I am sure Eve thoroughly enjoys huggles, and I don't think your experience with her is contradictory to what I last posted. As I said, if the dog trusts you and you respect the dog's willingness to participate and initiate affectionate contact, hugs work fine for both of you.

You also raise the opposite side of the coin. It sounds to me like this little lady has you pretty well conditioned and in a submissive role! (:-) Dog's train us as much as we train them. This sounds to me like a dog who for whatever reason craves contact from her humans and has arranged to get it.

The other stuff about the dog probably reacting to your dominant role and conditioning is the down and dirty reality of the situation from a scientific viewpoint. Since Clicker Training and most other intelligent methods of dog training are based on operant conditioning, that makes us all cousins to the Behaviorists, like Skinner himself, who point out that we can only see and judge results by behavior, and what goes on inside the dog's head is unknowable and irrelevant.

On the other hand, ethologists theorize about what is going on inside the dog's head, and point out that as humans, we often put a human bias or spin on the dog's behavior, to use the big A word, anthropomorphizing it.

In either case, the point is we do not really know what is going on inside any animal's head--not even what is going on inside another human's head, unless he or she tells us--and even then we don't know if we were told the truth, or if the individual has a distorted take on his or her own thoughts! Do we even know all the time what is going on inside our own heads!

Where oh where is reality?

But this is the philosophical and scientific level of analysis, kind of the atomic theory of dog behavior. It does not have to necessarily be inconsistent with the everyday reality we experience in which dogs show affection. For example, I am sure a team of today's best biologists and psychologists could explain exactly what qualities and mannerisms my wife exhibits that appeal to me, and define the chemical structure of the pheromones she secrets that I unconsciously smell and that excite particular brain centers to cause me to experience the genetically programmed neurological and hormonally-related sensation that I call "love." The fact that there are biological and evolutionary and molecular mechanisms at work does not diminish the love I feel! But underneath my reality, I do believe it all boils down to electrical charges.

How do you reconcile the fact that we see solid objects, but we know that they are really 99% empty space filled with tiny particles swirling around? How do you reconcile your belief in conditioning and training with the idea that your dog is capable of love and affection?

One idea used in physics is called the theory of "emergent properties." It is just a fancy scientific way of saying that "the whole is more than its parts." So if you take thousands of kind and "normal" people and put them together under the right circumstances, they will form a mob that will break windows and exercise little moral constraint. Yet no one person in that mob would ever behave like that alone! By changing the focus from individuals to the mob, we discover properties that "emerge" that are not present in the individuals that make up the mob.

And so a world filled with nothing but electrons, quarks, gluons, and electromagnetic forces can manifest itself at a macro level as the world we know--of flowers, people, buildings, trees... Emergent properties. Biologists use the same concept to explain how bee hives and ant colonies exhibit extremely sophisticated levels of organization and cooperative behavior, yet they are made up of individual workers, scavengers, queens--none of whom know about or supervise or organize the complex group behavior.

Just as when you kiss someone, you are not thinking about the sub-atomic particles in their lips (usually), so when you enjoy your dog's affection, you need not dwell on the idea that it is, as far as we can tell, biologically adaptive, genetically programmed, environmentally reinforced and conditioned behavior. That's all happening on a level we cannot see. And so, if the Behaviorists are right and the inner workings of things are irrelevant, that leaves us only to enjoy the emergent phenomenon that we call life.

So in the textbooks, dogs may not feel love, or think of a hug as a sign of unconditional love, but in your home it is obvious they do.

The Tinman wanted a heart, the Cowardly Lion courage, and the Scarecrow wanted a brain. In the end, it didn't matter what they had inside where no one could see. Outwardly, they turned out ultimately to be loving, courageous, and intelligent.

Barry McDonald
copyright 2002 Barry McDonald


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