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You don’t have to look very far to find a picture (or many pictures) of a young child hugging a dog. Unfortunately, what most people just can’t help smiling about, fawning over and clicking the “Like” button for is usually, at the very least, uncomfortable for the dog. And sadly, in many cases, it is a child hugging or attempting to hug a dog that results in a dog bite, or worse. So what’s going on here? Could something so cute really be such a bad idea?
Turns out that hugging is not a preferred method for canines to show social bonding, or what we might call “affection”. Complicating matters, our well socialized dogs often behave in ways that misrepresent their true discomfort with hugs. Even the most avid dog lovers are often unfamiliar with the more subtle canine stress indicators that dogs use to tell us they are uncomfortable. The untrained human eye generally misses the dog body language messages saying, “Please stop that.” Also, many dogs have learned to tolerate hugs – meaning they don’t growl, bite and in some cases don’t even try to pull away much once they figure out that the human just isn’t going to let go.
Owners may notice that dogs often respond by licking, sometimes even licking the face of the human doing the hugging. These licks are then misinterpreted as “kisses,” supposedly demonstrating that the dog is enjoying the hug. On the contrary, these “kisses” are typically a signal from the dog that they are feeling stressed. Many times this licking has a learned component whereby the dog learns that a slightly grossed out human will stop the unwanted hug if the dogs licks the offenders face. They are licking to say “back off please,” or to escape, not to encourage more hugging.
Reasonably astute, adult dog-owners, usually achieve a delicately balanced exchange where the dog tolerates our crazy need for the occasional snuggle. After all, they do get a lot in return for putting up with our need to hug them. And I do believe that there are some dogs who come to enjoy snuggling (usually when it’s cold out!) Trouble can be found though where children are concerned. The trouble occurs for many reasons. High on the list of these reasons are relationship and communication skills.
Your relationship with Fido is probably very strong but that doesn’t mean it is the same for your child – or any other child. You and Fido regularly engage in a whole array of bonding and relationship-building “gives” and “takes”. You feed Fido. You walk Fido. Fido barks to tell you someone is out there. Fido greets you enthusiastically when you get home. You both get joy from a lovely game of fetch. You are buddies who depend upon each other. You have established trust through many, many positive interactions. Your young child (or young niece, neighbor, etc.) does not have this relationship history. Nor should they! Toddlers and young children are just beginning to develop the ability to communicate with their own species in their own language. Ever had a misunderstanding with your toddler? Yeah, they’re not ready for complex inter-species diplomacy yet!
When it comes to communication, you and Fido probably have each other figured out pretty well. Maybe you even like to hug your little Fido, and never realized he’s just not that into it. Still, you’re very unlikely to try hugging him at an inappropriate time. Like when he is sleeping, eating, or playing with a favorite toy. Again, you and Fido have worked out a complex communication system where you observe one another and respond to each other in kind. As an adult, you are also not likely to try and walk up and hug any random dog you see because you get the differences and complexities that exist among lots of different dogs. Toddlers don’t have this ability yet. They get toddler ideas, and do toddler things as the notion strikes them. It’s wonderful really. Except, not when Fido is totally offended by the toddler’s idea. Not when there is no underlying relationship of mutual trust and respect.
When young children hug dogs they are at risk. Period. If not in that moment, then in a future moment. Or maybe even with a different, unfamiliar dog. It can and should be assumed and understood that most dogs don’t like hugs, even if they tolerate them sometimes. When children and adults do not recognize the early warnings such as look-aways, tongue-flicks, paw raises, leaning away, and face licking, the dog is forced to escalate to less subtle warnings such as a bite to the face. And that’s usually what these bites are. They are a warning. The dog is holding back, not wanting to injure. They just want to get their point across since no one heard them the first, second and third times they politely said, “Stop hugging me please.”
So before you post that picture, or even decide to take that “adorable” photo of the child hugging the dog, consider whether it is worth it. Is it worth the price to your child, or to your dog? Is it worth the price to all the other dogs and kids who may want to replicate that photo on their own and end up in a situation where a child has stitches and a dog loses its home? Would a side by side photo be just as cute and a lot more loving?