Our dogs provide us with so much: love, companionship, entertainment, and affection—just to name a few. We want our dogs to know how much they mean to us and we often find ourselves overcome with our desire to show them. We buy them toys, give them tasty snacks (and share our dinner), take them on adventures, and give them lots and lots of pets. For some dog parents, these physical demonstrations include hugs.

"When we give a friend or loved one a hug, we are expressing our love for them. When we get hugs, we feel supported. There are humans that don't like hugs, but in general, hugging is a common human behavior and I think we hug dogs because we love them and we want to express that," says Lauren Novack, KPA-CTP, ACDBC, and MS candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis.

Even though your dog loves you, hugs may not be your dog's (or your neighbor's dog's) thing. And when (and how) you hug your dog makes all the difference.

woman hugging dog
Credit: Jasmina007 / Getty

What About the Love Hormone?

In the field of developmental psychology, it's well understood that humans hugging other humans, like in the case of a mother hugging her child, increases the hormone called oxytocin. Associated with feelings of love and attachment in humans, oxytocin has been called the "love hormone" and the "social bond" hormone. Studies have shown that when a dog and a human interact in a positive way, oxytocin levels increase in both

However, there are also studies that demonstrate that, for a dog, interacting with a favorite human may increase oxytocin levels, but a hug (which your dog might actually interpret as a restraint) from that same person may actually cause fear, stress, and tonic immobility. And when a dog feels significant fear and stress, they are more likely to bite.

To Hug or Not To Hug

The answer to the question of hugging starts with understanding what we mean when we say "hug." 

"Yes, your dog may leap into your lap and kiss your face, cuddle against your neck, and beg you to rub her belly," Patricia McConnell, PhD, and professor emeritus says in her blog The Other End of the Leash. "But that's not 'hugging.' In my experience, many dogs don't enjoy having a human move one or two arms around their shoulders and squeeze. That's the hug we are talking about."

While some great doggos might be trained specifically to enjoy hugs (like in the case of some therapy dogs), most dogs do not like human arms around their upper bodies. This may be due to the instinctive nature of dogs to fight, fret, flee, or freeze when they feel threatened. Plus, in dog-dog communication, paws and jaws placed around the neck can elicit different, nuanced behavioral responses across situations. Disliking hugs may even be because of a certain dog's genetic history, social history, previous learning experiences, and/or current environment.

"Do some dogs like hugs? Maybe, but they're the exception," Novack says. "When dogs don't like something and politely ask for space over and over again to no avail, they're likely to escalate their communication to growling or biting. I don't want dogs to be stressed, and I don't want humans to get bitten. For most dogs, hugs are stressful."

What to Do (and Don’t Do) Instead

  • Never hug an unfamiliar dog.

The vast majority of the time, dogs do not enjoy hugs from unfamiliar humans. Just as you would find it inappropriate for a stranger to surprise you with a hug, so would a dog. 

  • Avoid hugging your dog when there's a lot going on.

Loud noises, crowds, and lots of moving stimuli nearby create scenarios unsuitable for hugging a dog, no matter if the dog is your fur baby or not. 

  • Never encourage a child to hug a dog.

Although it's cute to see dogs and kids interact, those photo-worthy moments of your child hugging your dog are very unsafe (just don't do it!). Children should always be monitored around dogs, even the family dog. Statistically, children are more likely to be bitten and often this is a result of a child hugging a dog. The Family Dog offers excellent resources to teach children appropriate ways to interact with dogs and prevent bites. "It's especially important to teach children both to ask permission before interacting with a dog and to pet dogs with one hand instead of hugging them," Novack says.

  • Never approach a dog from behind.

Dogs don't like to be surprised, and being approached and touched from behind can cause a dog to become fearful and reactive.

  • Always pay close attention to body language.

Pay close attention to your canine's body language. Notice the signs (even the subtle ones) of fear and stress. These are all indicators the dog is not enjoying the interaction. "So many issues that happen between our species are due to humans generally misunderstanding what dogs are communicating. It's all in their body language. Backing up, walking away, turning their head, licking their lips, and giving you a few licks before walking away are all signs that they aren't comfortable and are asking you to please stop," Novack says. Check out iSpeakDog to learn more about recognizing and understanding canine body language.

  • Wait and ask for permission.

Dogs prefer to approach us when they want attention. Wait for your dog to solicit pets on their own. Then, a good tip is to pause between pets. Pet for a few seconds, then stop. A dog that wants more attention will remain by you during those pauses. Understand your own dog's preferences and be respectful of them.

When in Doubt, Show Them Love in Other Ways

Some dogs are just never going to be fans of hugging. That's OK! A responsible dog owner will recognize that every dog has different needs, including their need for affection. 

Instead of hugging your dog (or any dog), you can show affection by giving them treats and toys, playing with them, taking them for fun walks and hikes, talking to them in a soft, happy tone of voice, and if they like it, petting.