Hello, my name is Megan, and yes, I hug my dog.
It may seem like a silly statement, but we are at a time when people do not want to admit this and don’t dare post a picture of themselves in an embrace with their dog. And if they do, they will likely be attacked and ridiculed for doing so.
Before I write too much more, I must start with two disclaimers. First off, I had no idea this was going to be such a hot topic this month. I presented this subject at an APDT Conference a few years ago and have been meaning to do a blog post on it ever since. There was an article published this month that reminded me of it. I had no idea this story was going to happen and we would see as much discussion as we are seeing now. There are many flaws in the study referenced, but I primarily have concerns with us assuming a dog’s emotional state by seeing a quick snapshot. I have many pictures of my dogs looking terrified, stressed, tired or happy in situations where they were not. This is the same for humans. We just had a family get together and all laughed at a photo of my brother-in-law that looked like he was having the worst time of his life. We need to stop making these assumptions from a picture that just captures an instant.
Secondly, and I will repeat this numerous times throughout here, I am not condoning hugging or not respecting the space of a dog, especially strange dogs. I do not want anyone doing anything that would cause unnecessary stress for a dog or risk them getting bit by a dog. We do need to educate the public on the proper handling of dogs, but at the same time, let’s work to prepare our dogs for all of the inappropriate things that many people do.
I currently share my home with four wonderful dogs who all enjoy receiving hugs from me. How do I know this? Because they will actively seek them from me. They will come in close for a snuggle, lean in and stay close for an embrace. I do not force it, end it when they move away and never do this with a strange dog. Not one of my dogs enjoyed a hug at first or wanted to be embraced. I worked with them to enjoy it for two reasons: because I love hugs with them and because I wanted to ensure they were comfortable interacting with people. It has now become a special bonding moment between us and I cherish each hug I share with my dogs.
I carefully managed this process to ensure Guinniss was comfortable. I could have just avoided it entirely and decided it may be too stressful for him and that he just shouldn’t be handled. I could blame and get angry at anyone who may want to approach him and say hello. But, how fair is that to Guinniss? What would that have meant instead? It would have led to a life full of stress as he would have never learned that people mean good things for him and to enjoy interacting with them. I would have had to keep him sheltered from many things that he loves to do. And the worst part is that if I did not teach him to enjoy handling, I would actually be putting people at a high risk of getting bitten by him. Why? Because you betcha that at some point in Guinniss’s life, someone would need to handle him. The vet would need to be able to handle him. And what if something happened to me? He would need to be okay with interactions from a stranger.
And we’ve been tested. I had a young girl rush up to him and give him a big bear hug. I never thought this could happen and it caught me completely off guard. I remember just looking down at him, trying to keep my voice calm and steady and providing him with verbal praise. How fortunate was I that I had spent the time preparing him for this? I politely asked the girl to stand up, gave her some treats to give him and took the time to explain how to properly greet a dog, and also chat with her about how much she loves dogs. We have become a society that are so judgemental and hard on each other. I did not fault her and did not want to embarrass her for wanting to show affection. I actually saw someone comment this past week about how she didn’t care how many people she offended as she told them how to properly interact with a dog at a pet show. She saw it as education. We need to be kinder to everyone and realize people are not being jerks by wanting to show affection to dogs.
We are making great progress, and in an ideal world, it would be wonderful if everyone knew how to properly approach and greet a dog. However, we still have a very long road ahead. But, let’s not take this to such an extreme that we say to never hug our dogs! We love our time with our dogs and need to learn how to ensure our dogs are comfortable and enjoying our affection as well. So, what are some key points to help us achieve this?
- Never hug a strange dog. Better yet, never approach a dog and just start handling it. Approach it by curving towards it, watch for any calming signals, lower yourself down sideways and see if the dog wants to approach. Let it seek affection from you first. If it does not approach, that is fine and is the dog’s choice. Accept this and move on your way.
- Teach your children to respect the dog’s space and do not allow them to lie, sit or stand on your dog. Even if your dog is comfortable with this, you are teaching them that’s how they interact with dogs and they are likely to do this to a strange dog. Demonstrate how to properly interact with your dog to ensure your dog is comfortable and to keep your child safe. Work with a trainer on this and take a look at this excellent infographic for more information.
- Work on teaching your dog to calmly accept touch and that handling is a good thing. This will help them interact well with people and make vet and grooming visits much less stressful and enjoyable for all!
- Love your dog. Show them affection that they are comfortable with. If they move away, let them. Watch for calming signals and work to ensure they are comfortable and enjoying it. Do not be afraid to hug your dog, but take the time to ensure they enjoy it as well.
We are sending the wrong message out when we say do not hug your dog. It is unfair of us to attack people online who have pictures of themselves or their children embracing their dog. We cannot just assume the dog is stressed by a snapshot of the interaction. We do need to better educate everyone on how to properly interact and greet dogs, but our responsibility as trainers and dog owners it to also prepare our dogs for handling and make them comfortable with it. Our urbanK9 and Reactive urbanK9 training programs both focus on handling to ensure our dogs are successful in our human world. We also offer a Handling Clinic that runs over the Fall/Winter seasons to help teach you how to properly handle your dog and prepare them for it. If you ever have questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!