Hugging our dog: from ‘his’ point of view

Irresistible eyes, soft coat to caress, hypnotic movement of the tail: don’t you just want to squeeze and hug them? A cuddle is just a stone’s throw away for every dog owner, but is it a good idea?

A hug between humans, just like between primates, is a sign of affection, mutual affinity and trust: so hugs have the same meaning for dogs, right? Dr Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary doctor and expert in pet behaviour, helps us to clarify what could potentially be a hazardous stereotypical belief.

The science behind a canine embrace

When we hug our dog, we grasp a part of the body that is full of communicative meaning for the quadruped – its withers (the ridge between its shoulders blades).

Dogs place their nose or paws on the withers area of another hound to indicate their intention to be hierarchically superior to it. It is a deliberate, intimidating behaviour used to advise the other dog that it has to yield in this particular situation.

This action is nothing whatsoever to do with affection or desire for contact, quite the contrary!

Many dogs will tolerate a cuddle but, if we closely observe them, we may notice some signs of stress or discomfort: such as looking away, trying to distance their nose from our face, licking their nose or panting. In this situation, our four-legged friend sees us as his peer who, instead of stopping, continues the intimidating behaviour!

If the situation becomes unmanageable for the dog – for example, when he is in an unfamiliar place or is too close to other animals or people – he may exhibit aggressive behaviour such as a growl or, in the worst case scenario, a bite.

The ‘perfect’ cuddles for our dog

If we want really to cuddle our dog so he also enjoys the experience, we should pay attention to some specific elements. First of all, we should not put our arms around him from above but instead, should stay at his level, caressing him under his snout. We should also avoid “pinching him” with our fingers because to him this action might feel like little bites, which although, on some occasions, may induce him to play, it may also annoy him if he’s not inclined to play at that precise moment in time.

An additional tip would be to use the back of our hand, rather than the palm, to caress our dog: in this way he will associate our touch with an affectionate lick. Furthermore, to avoid taking our pup by surprise, we should initially caress him in more “neutral areas”, such as his hips or thorax (chest area) to assess whether he welcomes the contact at that particular time; when we are sure of his receptiveness to our advances, we will be able to touch his neck and head without risk of misunderstanding.