Dr Stanley Coren PH.D., F.R.S.C. recently published an article for Psychology Today called, “The Data Says, ‘Don’t Hug the Dog!'” and it stirred up some major controversy among pet owners! As to be expected! I am not sure there are many things more heartbreaking to a primate then to tell them their dog doesn’t like, or appreciate their hugs. Us grabby human types LOVE stroking that fuzzy, warm fur and planting our ooey gooey kisses all over their furry little faces.
How do I Feel about Hugs?
I am not going to lie – there are many, many things I do agree with Dr. Coren about! In his article, he speaks about strangers hugging strange dogs and how this can increase a dog’s stress level exponentially. I do believe this to be true! And, I also believe that if a stranger approached ME and hugged me, that I would also feel the very same way! Where I don’t agree with Dr. Coren, is that we should not be hugging our dogs at all.
As with most things in life, situations and individuals are not all the same. A hug from someone you love and trust at a time when you are open to receiving a hug can be wonderful and comforting. I personally believe, that dogs feel the same way. But how often you are open to a hug depends on how much you like to be touched, and your personal situation. As humans, most of us are quite good at reading others’ body language so we know when it’s ok to pursue physical contact.
On the other hand, most humans are not very good at reading a dog’s body language. Therefore hugs and kisses can be unwelcome and uncomfortable for some dogs.
Megan Armstrong CPDT-KSA, CBCC-KA recently wrote in her article, “Yes, I Hug my Dog”, the importance of preparing our dogs for inappropriate people and situations – because hey, life happens! If your dog doesn’t like hugs, and someone hugs your dog, you need to teach your dog how to deal with those situations appropriately. I agree with her! I don’t think sheltering our dogs from the way the world is is doing them any favours either.
Now, you are probably wondering why the heck a pet photographer is blabbing on to you about dog body language and doggie hugs! While, as a person that captures relationships between pets and people for a living, you bet your bottom dollar that understanding how to make a dog comfortable (or limit the amount and duration of their discomfort) during a hug or kiss is pretty darn important to me!
Photos of dogs and people looking painfully uncomfortable don’t sell! Photos of subjects far apart from each other don’t look good. And, having a dog bite a person’s face during a photo session is not great for business! Any pet photographer worth their weight SHOULD have at least a basic understanding of a dog’s body language, and of their signs of stress and discomfort. It’s a safety thing, and it’s just plain good business.
During our session I am constantly watching for signs that your dog needs a break. If you’ve had a session with me, you may or may not have noticed that I will break up a perfectly good embrace for a break. And depending on the dog – this can be frequent, or not at all. And I always involve treats. Food is scientifically proven to to change the way your dog feels in a negative or stressful situation. It is really important for them to be positively reinforced when they are doing something right, in a situation that feels wrong to them if you want that behavior to be repeated.
So, what is a pet parent to do? I think what I would love for everyone to come out of this article with is a realization of the importance of understanding how our dogs try to communicate with us (especially if you have children). If we know better what they are trying to tell us, we can respect their wishes and avoid potential problems. In Calgary, Megan Armstrong offers handling clinics through dogma training and pet services that can teach you how to properly handle and prepare your dog for life situations.
I also feel that in situations that we can control, that we should try our best to keep our dogs from feeling uncomfortable. This means when it’s not necessary, not allowing them to be grabbed and hugged by strangers. (Note: this does not mean ceasing all interaction with strangers! Positive interactions with strangers are very important and encouraged when socializing your dogs.) We seem to put unrealistic expectations on dogs when it comes to blindly accepting love and advances from people they don’t know, or don’t know well. We would not accept this for ourselves, so why do we force our pets to?
If you or your kids are in the role of “the stranger”, always ask the dog owner before approaching a new dog, and remember you can greet the dog without grabbing and hugging them. If you are turned down, try not to take offense or have hard feelings toward the them. Not every dog is a good candidate for meet and greets.
In circumstances where it’s necessary for dogs to be handled by strangers (such as a vet or groomer visit), we need to teach our dogs that handling can be ok through positive reinforcement. You can learn how to do this through training programs such as urbanK9 that focus on teaching your dog how to be successful in a human world. Check your area for similar positive reinforcement based training programs.
Now, please enjoy some of the lovely hugs I have captured in the last year or so between people and their pets! If you are pictured in one of these photos, please rejoice in knowing that in these particular situations your dogs were open to a hug – no matter how short or long that hug duration actually was!
What do you think about dogs and hugs? Leave your comments below!