White Lab looks perplexed as a boy and girl hug him.

Do Dogs Understand Hugs? What You Should Know

Every time I see a puppy or a dog at a shelter, I just want to put my arms around them and give them a big hug. I want to let them know that I care about them and everything will be alright. But do dogs really understand what a human hug is all about? Do they know that we just want to love and comfort them?

At a basic level, dogs do not really understand the meaning of human hugs. They may learn to tolerate our hugs or realize that hugs are good. But being hugged is not part of the canine social culture. In fact, it may feel threatening to them. Keep reading to learn about scientific studies and owner experience with hugging dogs.

Dogs’ Body Language Says “No” to Body Hugs

Hugging is Not a Form of Canine Affection

Dogs are social animals and can understand and respond to various forms of physical affection, including hugs. We often pet them, hold them on our laps, kiss, and hug them, because these are natural ways for us to show affection. Over time, your dog may learn these are all positive connections and important bonding moments with you.

But hugging is not a natural thing and dogs do not really understand hugs. Dogs do not understand it in the same way as we do. In fact, when a dog lays his legs or body over another dog, it is a move to be dominant and to pin down the other dog. Dogs often do this when fighting, whether it is just for play or actual fighting.

My dogs really enjoy being petted and often look up at me when I stop as if to ask for more. This, they understand, as it feels good, while hugs feel more restrictive than affectionate.

I don’t think they understand kissing anymore than they understand hugs, either. However, both of my dogs really like to lick my nose and mouth if I let them! But again, this may be less about affection and more about checking out what I just had for breakfast! And, as soon as I try to put my arms around them and hold them close, they usually wriggle around and pull away.

Study of Dogs’ Body Language While Being Hugged

According to a study by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., an animal psychologist, animals often feel threatened when hugged. Coren did a study using 250 photos of owners hugging their dogs. He ensured that each photo clearly showed the dog’s face and body, so he could interpret their body language. He discovered owners liked the hugs much more than their favorite furry friends!

The owners were all smiling and looking happy, but they were oblivious to the fact that their dogs were not! In 81% of the photos, Coren observed that the dogs displayed physical distress in one form or another, such as turning their head away or becoming more stiff.

Signs of Stress

White dog being hugged by girl looks stressed.
This dog looks a little stresed while being hugged.

Dogs show stress and anxiety in a variety of ways. If a dog is being hugged, here are some warning signs to watch for:

  • Pulling back and trying to get away
  • Wide open eyes
  • Ears are laid back
  • Turning their head away
  • Pushing back against you or putting a paw up
  • Growling or whining
  • Becoming stiff or lowering their tail
  • Yawning or licking their nose

Some behaviors, such as pulling back, putting a paw up, or growling, are fairly apparent signals that they want you to let them go! But other signs, such as yawning and licking the air or their nose, are less noticeable. These are often called displacement behaviors which indicate a negative feeling rather than a normal reaction. We could interpret them as being tired, relaxed, or excited. Yet, these are actually symptoms of a dog who is probably stressed.

Warnings and Precautions Especially Around Children

Dogs Are Not People

First, we need to remember that our dogs are not our children. As much as we love them and feel connected to them, they are canines who originally descended from gray wolves. And, they have sharp teeth!

Domesticated dogs have evolved considerably and have learned to live well with humans. They also have an amazing ability to understand us, become attached, and learn commands. But they also retain much of their instinctive behavior and could bite us if feeling threatened or highly anxious.

If a dog who bites you, a family member, or another pet in the household when overly stressed or anxious, it is another example of displacement behavior. Regardless of how bonded we may be with them, there is always a possibility of being bitten if a dog who is feeling threatened.

Children Love to Hug Dogs But Can Be at Risk of Getting Bitten!

Beagle growling at small boy who is kissing him.
Beagle growling as young boy kisses him.

Children are most at risk of being bitten because we teach them to love dogs and puppies. A child’s instinct is to hug something they are attached to, like a puppy. Puppies and children can be adorable when playing together. But children need to learn how to treat dogs and that they are not stuffed animals.

Puppies are adaptable and can put up with a lot. But adult dogs may become annoyed or frightened by children because they can be unpredictable. Therefore, trying to hug and kiss a dog could get them bitten in the face.

I raised Beagles when I was younger and always thought of them as the sweetest dogs in the world. But I will always remember when I took my first Beagle, Brandy, over to visit my neighbor who had a two-year-old. First, the little girl kept hugging Brandy and tugging at her ears and tail. Next, she tried to get on top of her to ride her like a horse. But, of course, Brandy would have none of it and dove under the sofa to escape.

We also intervened, and my neighbor’s mother tried to explain to her daughter how to appropriately play with a dog. But by that time, Brandy was terrified and would not come out of hiding.

Finally, I had to go home, so I tried to gently pull her out. But I was shocked when she growled and snapped at me. She had never done that before in the three years I had raised her from a pup! But the girl was very rough and had clearly provoked her. We were lucky Brandy did not bite her! Needless to say, we did not go back for a second visit.

How to Teach Your Dog to Understand, Tolerate, and Even Like Hugs

First, Desensitize Your Dog to Hugs

Even though dogs do not naturally like hugs, they can learn over time what they mean. Not only can they learn to tolerate them, but they may eventually like hugs after they understand it is a good thing coming from you. And it also depends on how you hug them.

Learning to tolerate hugs is critical if your dog is a therapy dog or will be around small children. The first step is to use desensitization and counterconditioning to get your dog used to a hug without fear or stress. The best way to do this is to touch your dog’s face or nose and then give him a treat.

Then eventually, you can put increase contact by putting your hand on him, then your arm, and finally, putting both arms around his neck. Again, be gentle and go very slowly with each step. He will eventually associate the touch with a reward. Please look at my post, How to Train Your Rescue Dog to Overcome Fears, for more information about this method.

Next, Teach Your Dog to Enjoy Hugs

Once you have desensitized your dog to being touched and lightly hugged, you can go further so he enjoys it. The key to this, however, is to use high-value treats such as Nudges Grillers from Amazon, which are made of real steak and recommended by dog trainers. You can also offer Full Moon Chicken Jerky treats as another healthy choice trainers recommend. If you don’t have these treats, you can offer bits of plain, boiled chicken or small pieces of cheese.

Next, praise your dog and speak to him in cheerful tones. Then give him a high-value treat and gently hug him. Just make sure the hug is loose and brief. Don’t hold him tight or for more than a few seconds. Only use a light touch with praise and treats as something to enjoy and look forward to. He will begin to understand that this is a form of affection and reward from you, his most important human.

Ways that Canines Show Affection to Each Other and Us

Large black dog cuddling with smaller white and brown terrier on a blue sofa.
Two sweet dogs cuddling up together on the sofa.

Even though dogs are not naturally fond of or understand the meaning of hugging, they like to be close. The term “dog pile” comes from how dogs in a pack will lay on top of one another for warmth and security. This is the primary reason dogs like to sit on our laps.

Your pup may show affection toward you in various ways, such as putting a paw on you, licking you, and snuggling close to you. And often, your dog will stare at you with those big round puppy eyes as he tries to connect with you. If you find your favorite pooch scrunched up close to you at night or sleeping on the floor with his head on your foot, this is the equivalent of a dog hug!

Final Thoughts

Tan and black dogs sleeping together on the couch.
My sweet pups cuddling together on the sofa.

Dogs do not understand or like hugging because the action feels like a restriction or an act of domination. However, dogs do like to be affectionate. Our pups enjoy cuddling with us, touching us with their paws, staring at us, licking us, or just sitting on the floor next to us as we read a book or watch the news.

Did you know that your dog probably dreams about you at night? If you want to learn more, click here for our free download, Dog Dreams.

You are your dog’s human pack family. Therefore, your dog will naturally want to be close to you, but in a way that he will understand and enjoy it!

Scroll to Top