Dogs generally do not enjoy overly friendly attention such as hugging. Everywhere I go I see people, more often than not children, hugging dogs! Some dogs may seek out attention wishing to snuggle up with their owners on the sofa etc.. and this is absolutely fine, however many dogs do not enjoy hugging! (I am talking about the type of hugging where a person's arms are linked around the neck or body of the dog.) It may appear like a caring comforting gesture to us but it is not something dogs would normally experience within the dog world. If you look for the signs on the ladder of aggression (see staying safe part 2) you will see many dogs licking their lips, yawning, blinking and turning their heads away when they are being hugged. These are the first signals a dog performs in any given situation to communicate that they are feeling uncomfortable. The type of physical restraint caused by hugging a dog around their neck or body will cause some fearful dogs to react very quickly and aggressively in order to free themselves straight away. It is therefore particularly unwise to hug a dog that is not your own or to let a child hug a dog. In these situations the child’s head is often close to the mouth of the dog (particularly in the case of children of toddler age) putting them at risk of a serious bite to this vulnerable area should something go wrong.
You may well say "but my kids do this with my dog all the time and he is fine with it!". It may be that your dog tolerates the interaction however it is unlikely that they particularly enjoy it. Imagine you dog is having a bad day, perhaps your dog has had to cope with a lot of strangers in the house, has been bothered by the dog next door or been chased round the garden all afternoon by your noisy nephew. There may be a point at which your dog feels they have reached their limit with what they can cope with on that day, they have reached what you or I might call 'breaking point' or what we as behaviourists call the dog's 'threshold'. When your child then goes to hug the dog it is suddenly all to much and they snap. To owners the attack appears out of character and totally unpredictable however these type of attacks are avoidable. I always advise that hugging interactions are avoided between children and dogs 100% of the time. There are plenty of other fun ways your child can interact with their dog and it is simply just not worth the risk of a bite to your child. Putting dogs into a situation where we know they are uncomfortable is always ill advised. The dog is not misbehaving when they react with aggression in this way they are actually behaving normally, the same way as you or I might behave if we felt threatened. There are very very few truly aggressive dogs and it is time we started recognising that aggression is a normal behaviour in dogs and we should expect aggression to occur in any dog including our own if they feel threatened.
Risky Interactions with dogs. Note the proximity of the child's head to the dog's head in the image on the left and again the proximity of the woman's face to the dog's mouth in the image on the right.
Tamsin Peachey is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist living in Hurley, Atherstone. Tamsin is passionate about dog safety and debunking the current myths surrounding animal behaviour training.