We live in a world where most of us feel some pressure from time to time. Australians work long hours compared to many other countries, our cities are becoming more congested, and with modern technology it can be hard to hide from the world and get some peaceful downtime. A good old hug can therefore be the perfect remedy for a stressful day, and whilst friends and family are obvious targets, should we also include our furry family members? Even though we might stimulate some of our feel-good chemicals by giving our dogs a big hug, are they going to get the same benefit?
Good for us, or just a kind gesture?
Let’s firstly look at what happens to us when we engage in a hug. We all acknowledge hugs as being comforting, but research has shown that hugs offer a range of physiological benefits that can positively impact mood and health regardless of whether you’re giving or getting the hug.
Hugs provide an immediate surge in oxytocin levels (a neurotransmitter sometimes referred to as the "love hormone"), which benefits numerous mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Oxytocin acts on the brain’s emotional centre to promote feelings of trust, contentment, bonding, and intimacy, and it makes us feel more relaxed by decreasing tension and reducing cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and too much of it can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression and irritability. Hugs therefore can help protect against these serious health issues.
Hugs can provide instant benefits
Other feel-good responses hugging can cause are increases in the levels of serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for mood, and hugging increases our levels of it which means that your mood can be improved instantly with a hug. A hug can also increase levels of dopamine which acts on the emotional response and reward circuit in the brain – low levels of which can contribute to feelings of depression.
The evidence is therefore compelling that hugs are indeed good for us, but what about man’s best friend whose brain is different from ours? Should we hesitate before lunging at our four-legged buddies for a feel-good hug? As we don’t really know what’s going on in the minds of our dogs, an important consideration is the physical impact of a hug.
The pros and cons of hugging dogs
Hugging and kissing are human behaviours, and whilst we may think our dogs and cats are puckering up for a kiss when we lean in close to them, they’re probably doing it because of conditioning and obedience rather than preference. Leaning in to hug or kiss them thereby invading their space, may be threatening to some dogs, and it’s something we need to understand and respect… Not all people like being hugged either. Over time with proper training however, dogs might be taught to tolerate a hug and if it’s linked to something the dog likes, hugs could potentially become a positive reinforcer. An occasional hug may be become an effective way to remind them that all is okay.
Chances are that a dog is going to get hugged at some point
The other benefit of getting a dog to perceive hugs positively is that it may help to reduce their anxiety when other people try to hug them. In addition to interactions with children, dogs may find themselves in other situations such as grooming and handling where people try to hug them, therefore it can be beneficial for the dog to get used them.
Some dogs appear to enjoy being hugged which probably has to do with the dog’s personality, as well as the trust and depth of relationship the dog has with the person hugging it. If there is a loving and trusting relationship, then hugging may help to strengthen the bonds and provide comfort to the dog.
Hug with caution
Some dogs prefer to be petted than hugged and most enjoy a rub on the chest or behind the ear. When giving a dog a scratch behind the ear, approach the ear closest to you so that you don’t need to reach over their head, as it can be stressful to some dogs. When done gently and respectfully, puppies can usually be conditioned to having all parts of their bodies touched without a stress response, but if they don’t experience petting as youngsters, they may be apprehensive about being touched as adults.
Signs of a stressed dog
It’s relatively easy to tell whether your dog likes or dislikes hugs once you know the signs. If your dog exhibits any of the following when being hugged, then he or she may be feeling uncomfortable, anxious, or stressed:
- Head being turned away from you
- Raising of a paw
- Eyes fully or partially closed
- Whale eyes (white portion of the eyes near the rim showing)
- Lowered or slicked-back ears
- Licking of the dog’s lips or your face
- Baring of teeth
- Shaking after the hug
Even though social media is full of images of dogs being hugged and recommendations that we hug our pets, we need to treat them respectfully as individuals and remember that just because a dog in a picture may appear to be comfortable with it, we can’t assume that another dog will be too. Hugs are best kept for humans rather than dogs and it will usually be better for you to show your affection for your dog with petting, kind words, and the occasional treat. That doesn’t mean that all dogs should never be hugged, rather, a common-sense should be used to ensure that a hug isn’t causing discomfort to a dog.
Vets4Pets offer puppy preschool classes to help youngsters become well-mannered and well-adjusted family members, and we can refer you to behaviourists who specialise in dog behaviour if you have a dog with behavioural issues. If you’d like general advice on safe and effective ways to interact with and handle your dog, be sure to check with our team next time you visit.