After a rough day, you might approach your loving dog and give it a big hug or cuddle – but do they get as much out of it as you do? According to the American Kennel Club, no. Dogs don’t generally like hugs, but they do like you, so most of the time they tolerate it.
German Shepherds rank in the herding group and come with an innate desire to protect their pack (your family) and be close to you. They will always be close, maybe nudging you like a herding instinct. What happens in their mind when you hug them or snuggle up with your arms wrapped around them?
Let’s start with an exercise
Call your dog to you. Now get ready to hug. Set up the camera so it will capture the dog’s face and not yours. Put the timer on and hug away. Save that picture as you read this article. You’ll be able to see if your pet is stressed or soothed by hugs.
Let’s look into why hugging is such a pressure point for your pet.
Anatomy of a hug
As close as we are to our dogs, we tend to personify human emotions and traits to them incorrectly.
For example, a dog doesn’t give you kisses. A dog is licking your face for food, salt, or in the hopes you will regurgitate some of that dinner you just ate (hey, it worked when they were puppies with their dog mom!)
Humans love hugs and snuggling. They serve as a necessary emotional and psychological function. It makes us feel good. Hugs release oxytocin. This is also called “the love hormone.” It also reduces stress with just one little hug from our favorite person or pet.
Dogs are different animals, literally. They are governed by instincts of fight or flight. They run from what scares them or makes them uncomfortable. They bite when they can’t move. While you’re getting a flood of oxytocin while hugging your dog, his or her stress levels could be surging.
A study done by Psychology Today reviewing 250 random pictures of dogs being hugged showed the following results:
- 81.6% showed dogs in some state of stress or discomfort
- 10.8% showed dogs indifferent to hugs
- 7.6% showed dogs were comfortable being hugged (not that they LIKED it, but that they were not stressed by it happening)
This might be a good time to review that picture we took and others you’ve posted on social media touting the bond you have with your dog. You’ll definitely look at pictures differently after this lesson.
Dog Signs of Stress While Hugging
There are certain things to look for in your dog’s behavior while you hug. The picture is important because when we hug them, we can’t generally see their faces at all. We’re too busy with all the feel-good human emotions that come from that hug.
Here are signs of stress to look for:
- Head is turned away from you
- Eyes are closed (submissive behavior)
- Licking its lips
- Ears pointed down
Just because a dog is excited, doesn’t mean he or she is happy. Panting, whining, and restlessness are stress signs as much as excitement signs.
But Why Don’t Dogs Like Cuddles?
Think of it from your dog’s perspective and natural instincts. They are pack animals. They love being around their pack, but there is always an Alpha. There are so many battles for dominance in the pack.
When you (or a stranger) approach a dog, think of body language. Another animal comes at you quickly, arms out, making a lot of noise with words that don’t resonate, and then holds you down. This is an act of dominance in the mind of a dog. Their instincts of fight or flight kick in and when they can’t move they are even more stressed.
What Can I Do to Make My Dog Feel the Happiness I Get from a Hug?
This takes us back to that “sweet spot” on your dog. Each canine is different. For some, it’s a good, deep scratch behind the ear that makes their eyes roll back in their head. Others like to be rubbed on the back or the hindquarters. (Bonus points if you get them doing the side-to-side sway that comes with a good bum rub.) Some prefer a belly rub.
The author of the study in Psychology Today, Dr. Stanley Cohen, summarized with this advice, “Save your hugs for your two-footed family members and lovers. It is clearly better from the dog’s point of view if you express your fondness for your pet with a pat, a kind word, and maybe a treat.”
What is the Equivalent of a Hug to a Dog?
You have to do hugging, cuddling, snuggling, snuggle buggle mcguggles – whatever you call it – on the dog’s terms. Most of the cuddling that happens with a dog’s approval happens at night in bed.
MORE: Should you let your dog sleep in bed with you?
If you are lying down, a much less dominant position in the eyes of a dog, and the dog comes up to snuggle then it’s okay to have that bonding moment. Again, rub the places you know your dog loves.
Dogs will also always be close (sometimes too close, like when you are going to the bathroom) as they want to be around their pack.
They might lie on your feet to show signs of ownership (and your feet are a great source of the family scent, which is critical to dogs).
An adoring dog might lean up next to you to show signs of security and trust. A leaning dog is a trusting dog. No bones about it.
Take this quick AKC test to see what your dog’s Love Language is
Other Things You Do That Annoy Your Dog
Our dogs are very tolerant of human behavior they don’t understand. There are some things you do each day that could annoy the crap out of your dog.
A pat on the head
When our dog, or a new dog, approaches us, the closest part of their body is their head. Humans have long been fans of patting a dog on the head, and if dogs could talk they might say this one thing they hate.
They do show you when they don’t like it. They might duck as you reach down. They might pull back. They might tense up. These are all signs the dog doesn’t want to be patted on the head.
Every dog owner knows their pet’s “sweet spot”, so reach for that instead. Maybe it’s an ear rub or a bum scratch. As others approach your dog, ask them not to pat it on the head. Instead, they should wait for the dog to show interest in them before any contact is made.
You talk a lot but don’t say much
How many times have you quieted your dog for barking at seemingly nothing? That’s how dogs feel about us sometimes. We’re always talking – on the phone, on a virtual call, to each other, to the television.
Dogs are generally trained to recognize words like sit, stay, down, off and leave it. So, when you are blabbing on to grandma during a virtual visit with the kids, the dog is just confused and annoyed, wondering what you want him or her to do.
Make sure the words you do use with your dog are clear. “Down” should mean one thing, like down off the couch. It can’t mean “sit down” as well as “down off the couch.” Instead, opt to use “down” as a lying position with “off” being “get off the couch/counter/kitchen table/bed.” (We know dogs get into some unique “OFF!” places.)
Leave the costumes to the kids
Your dog is going to immediately tell you if he or she doesn’t like the outfit or costume you put on them. They will cower down, refuse to move, or run off into another room.
If you need to have the dog trained to wear a coat or boots due to extreme winter weather, do it in stages with lots of praise for the dog for adapting to the clothing.
Even Guide Dogs have to go through rigorous training to wear the required vest. It’s just not natural for a dog to wear clothing.
Training Your Child to Approach a New Dog
The dogs in our home are a lot more tolerant of our quirks than the dogs we pass on the daily walk. It’s important for adults and children to know how to correctly approach a new dog, but kids are more likely to let the excitement override the essential safety measures. They are also more likely to get bitten.
More than 150,000 dog bites happen each year to children 14 and younger, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here’s how we can collectively keep that number down by teaching our children these basic approaches to a dog they don’t know.
- Ask the owner “Can I say hello to your dog?” Walk away if the answer is “No.” Don’t press the topic.
- Now let the dog decide. Don’t shove a hand in the dog’s face (as we’ve all been told to do). Wait for the dog to approach.
- Hold your hand in a fist in front of your body. Let the dog smell you.
- No hugging or patting on the head of a dog, even if it approaches your child.
- Ask the owner where the dog likes being petted. This helps the owner not feel left out of the interaction. How many times have we asked “What’s your dog’s name?” but given no attention to the human’s name?
- Pet away!
Teach your child about stray dogs. None of the above rules apply. The AKC recommends teaching children the technique of “Be a Tree” where they stand tall, hands locked in front of their face and elbows. Running from a stray dog could turn into a dangerous game of chase.
Final Thoughts to Wrap Your Arms Around
The best way to snuggle with a dog is on his or her terms. Enjoy the times a dog wants to snuggle, being completely vulnerable and immobile with your arms wrapped around them. Do not force a hug or snuggle. Bond with the dog in ways you know they love, like a sniffing game where they have to find a treat, throw the ball, or give a simple belly rub.
German Shepherds also need a lot of brushing since they shed so much, so turn your daily brushing into a bonding moment. You’ll be happy there’s less hair to clean up and the dog will be happy just to be so close to you.
About German Shepherds: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/dog-breeds/german-shepherd-dog-fact
Psychology Today research on hugging dogs: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201604/the-data-says-dont-hug-the-dog
Children & Dog bItes: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201102/why-children-suffer-the-greatest-risk-dog-bites
CDC Dog bites: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5226a1.htm
How to greet a new dog: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/advice/how-to-safely-greet-a-strange-dog/
How you annoy your dog: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/5-things-youre-doing-to-annoy-your-dog/
AKC Dog Dogs Like Hugs? https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/do-dogs-really-dislike-hugs/