Why Dogs Do Not Like to Be Hugged
A puppy sending ''stress signals''
Humans appear to love to hug anybody they love: we hug our spouses, we hug our kids, we ultimately hug anybody we ultimately care about. It comes natural therefore to want to extend our arms and hug our dogs as well. Many dogs take this well, they have been used to being hugged and smooched since puppies, however some dogs may not tolerate hugs or some dogs that have tolerated it well in the past, may one day express they no longer appreciate this form of affection.
Dogs may manifest their dislike about being hugged in various ways. Some signs may be quite subtle whereas others can be quite evident. A dog may express its uneasiness in being hugged by licking it lips, turning its head away or yawning. These are signs of stress, or better ''calming signals'' as coined by Turid Rugaas, an internationally known trainer and author of the bestselling book "On Talking Terms With Dogs".
It is unfortunate though that these signs of appeasement often go ignored. So what happens? The owner continues to hug the dog despite the dog is trying to convey he is uncomfortable, so next time, the dog may feel the need to upgrade to a ''growl''. This growl may be quite soft and low at first, but may increase with intensity if ignored. One day, if the dog's plea to not be hugged anymore goes to deaf ears, it may escalate to a snarl (a growl with a nice teeth display) or worse, a bite.
Dogs that bite without a warning are often dogs that have often been scolded for growling. If for instance, the owner believes that growling upon being hugged is unacceptable and decides to reprimand the dog for that, the dog may feel the need to go to its next line of defense which is the bite. A growl can therefore turn out being a life saver despite it is unpleasant to hear.
Patricia McConnell, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in her famous book ''On the other end of the leash'' likes to refer to our need for hugging as a primate instinct. Hugging indeed is a hard-wired behavior common in both primates and humans. The reason behind this is that humans and primates appreciate ventral to ventral (chest to chest) contact because it may bring back unconscious feelings of pleasure associated with nursing.
Dogs do not have this sort of positive association therefore they do not by nature appreciate this form of contact. Dogs may be conditioned to appreciate hugs though by associating it with good things such as tasty treats or pleasant scratches behind the ears. If a dog that has been used to being hugged out of the blue decides to growl, this may suggest something may be medically wrong. An ear infection may be starting or there may be something causing pain. A vet visit is in order to figure out what may be causing the problem.
Growling upon being hugged is generally not a rational thought response. Do not take it personally if this happens. It is rather an innate response triggered by the dog's self defense system. The dog may feel alarmed and he may go into a ''fight or flight mode'' but since a hug restraints him, he may more likely go into fight mode and react aggressively by giving a warning growl or a straightforward bite.
So should you avoid giving your dog hugs all together? You can work on de-sensitizing your dog by counterconditioning him. Start by touching him slightly near the neck area and giving treats. As each day goes by, practice taking baby steps on performing all the movements and contact needed to give a full hug. Give treats for every session and go very slowly. If you are persistent enough, your dog will start appreciating being hugged. Do not use this approach on a dog who has manifested aggressive/defensive behaviors upon being hugged;rather consult a dog trainer/behaviorist before trying anything on your own.
Patricia McConnell suggests adding instructions on how to condition puppies to accept or even enjoy hugging in puppy classes, since this primate behavior is so strong in all humans. This may ultimately bring up generations of dogs who love (or at least tolerate) to be hugged and perhaps reduce the incidence of dog bites related to our ''primate'' behaviors.
Never put your face too close an unknown dog or attempt to hug it or kiss it; many dogs dislike people invading their space and may become defensive, as dogs do not hug or kiss. Rather allow the dog approach you first, sniff you and then if the dog appears friendly and the owner allows it, your best bet is to give a pat on the chest.
Disclaimer: if your dog exhibits aggression at any time consult with a veterinarian to rule out any medical conditions and then follow up with a dog behaviorist. Make safety your top priority and don't attempt behavior modifications programs on your own.