10 April is "Hug Your Dog Day" in the U.S. It’s lovely to have your News Feed filled with romantic images of affectionate dogs cuddling their owners while we are all in lockdown with our dogs. Or is it?!
Dogs are not natural huggers. Some dogs might have grown to tolerate it, or even to genuinely enjoy it, but this is usually the result of accidental operant conditioning and/or careful and intentional training. For example, if an owner frequently hugs their dog prior to feeding them, the dog may become conditioned to tolerate the hug for what it perceives to be a reward, in this case, dinner. It is not necessarily the hug itself which is initially enjoyable for the dog.
Many dogs find it stressful or scary to have their personal space invaded, even if it is by someone they value and trust. If there are unknown health conditions, like joint pain or an ear infection, it may even be physically painful for a dog to endure a hug. The tragic result could be a severe dog bite sustained by the hugger, often misinterpreted as aggression leading to potential rehoming, abandonment or euthanasia.
So next time a cute image of a dog and human embracing pops up in your news feed, think twice about hitting that like button, and consider sharing some alternative activities to show your dog affection. Here are our top 6!
While many dogs don’t like to have their personal space crowded by overbearing humans, some quite enjoy other types of physical affection if they are carried out correctly. Belly rubs, chest scratches, and tickles behind the ears are often popular. If the dog is not yours, always ask permission from the owner before approaching a dog. Make yourself small and inviting by crouching down on your haunches and turning sideways in relation to the dog. You can try to call them to you. If they do not want to approach you, then respect their personal space. If they are happy to approach you, then wait for them to come within arms reach and avoid reaching or grabbing for them. When you can reach the dog, avoid touching the dogs head and mouth area. Rather approach from underneath the do'g chin and interact with the dog’s body from the neck down. Dogs don’t typically like to be approached head-on, or touched from above their head, or by rough patting on the top of their head.
It’s no secret that exercise is extremely good for mental and physical health. Under normal circumstances, treat your dog to regular walks, hikes, jogs, swimming, etc. There are a few animal physiotherapy practices which give swimming lessons for dogs, and many dog training schools also teach dog agility. Under lockdown, enroll in one of the many online courses to teach your dog k9 yoga, treadmill games, agility foundations and home exercises programmes. These are all great bonding activities with fabulous health benefits.
Life is short. Play with your dog. In addition to the well-known games like fetch and tug, there are so many simple and advanced games which challenge both mind and body for dog and owner alike, providing hours of fun and affection in a language your dog appreciates. Google searches will reveal hundreds of ideas. Here’s one: Hide & Seek – fill your pockets with treats, hide in different areas of your house and call your dog, and when they find you, feed them a treat. This will also improve your recalls for your next visit to the park!
Nothing says ‘I love you’ more than TLC. While these might not be your dog’s favourite activities, frequent home health checks to scan for potential health concerns, routine vet visits for deworming and vaccinations, regular grooming to prevent painful matting, overgrown toenails, and uncomfortable skin conditions, and a great quality, balanced diet, are all critical necessities in an affectionate relationship with your pet. Keeping your pets free from pain and discomfort is the ultimate metaphorical hug.
Rest is just as important to any beings physical and mental wellbeing as exercise. Dogs spend a significant portion of their lives sleeping and this is a physiological necessity for them. There is no shame in being cliched. Let the sleeping dog lie. It's easy during lockdown to find plenty of time to chill at home, but even after lockdown has been lifted, remember that dogs benefit from quiet down time at home. This is when they process information that they have learned during training. And who knows, while they're chilling on the couch next to you, they may be more tolerant of a little cuddle.
Learning together is a functional and fun way to be affectionate. Find a good, positive reinforcement dog school to attend when lockdown is finally lifted. In the meantime, sign up for online courses to learn new tricks, online obedience or scent work classes, etc. There are many options available. You’ll be amazed at how much this improves your bond with your dog, with the added benefit of making everyday life much easier for you.