Lately, there seems to be a lot of discussion around whether or not dogs enjoy cuddling. You will probably have seen numerous posts, many claiming that dogs either do or do not like cuddles and listing specific evolutionary reasons why. They all claim to know the answer, one way or the other, and yet many of them hold entirely conflicting points of view – so how do we know what to believe?
I think what becomes clear to those of us who have spent some time with a few different dogs, is that every dog is an individual – they all have their own preferences, and find comfort and security in different ways. Some dogs love nothing more than to be as close to us as possible and to be showered with cuddles, while others prefer to simply be in our presence while having their own space. Just as some dogs love ear tickles and others prefer a good belly rub, our dogs will all have their own feelings about cuddles. This means the best thing we can do for our dogs, is learn how to listen to what they’re telling us.
Most of the articles claiming that dogs don’t enjoy cuddles, mention the body language we see in many pictures of dogs being cuddled. And they’re not wrong – while lots of dogs DO enjoy a cuddle, it is not rare to see the subtle signs that a dog is uncomfortable being missed or ignored. It’s vital that we take the time to learn what our dog’s body language is telling us, so we can respond accordingly – no one wants their dog to become fearful of interacting with them and we certainly don’t want our dogs to feel they need to escalate their behaviour to growling or snapping in order to protect their personal space. We hug our dogs because it feels good but, just like with people, it isn’t fair to do this if the other participant is not happy!
So, what are some tell tale signs that our dogs are uncomfortable?
– A definite sign of a dog’s uncertainty and discomfort, you may notice your dog stay very still when someone moves in for a hug. Any movement – such as turning their head or wagging their tail (that’s right – wagging the tail doesn’t necessarily mean a dog is happy!) – will be stiff and slow. This also often includes clamping the mouth shut with tight lips.
It’s important to notice this change in body language, as it can be easily missed but is a very strong sign that our dogs are NOT happy. It is very easy for a dog who has frozen in this way to feel the need to escalate to growling and then to snapping or biting if their body language is ignored.
– This is when we see the whites in our dogs’ eyes, meaning their eyes are wide and tense. They may also be avoiding whatever they are worried about and therefore looking at it out of the side of their eye.
A classic example of whale eye can be seen alongside stillness – for example, if you’ve ever approached a dog who is lying down and doesn’t want to be disturbed or moved, you might notice them staying very still (even keeping their head down and completely still) but staring up at the individual approaching them with the whites of their eyes visible.
In most dogs, we don’t really see the whites of their eyes when they’re relaxed – however, it is more visible in certain breeds such as boxers, so it’s worth watching your dog when they are relaxed to make sure you know what’s normal for them, so you can spot this sign when it occurs.
– Avoidance can be small movements such as just looking away (picture the sleeping dog who is frozen still and has glanced up with the whites of their eyes visible, as I described above, and then imagine them looking away – to us humans, this might look like our dogs “pretending” not to notice or to still be asleep when, in fact, this is avoidance).
It could also be the simple act of moving away – whether walking off, leaning or ducking. It’s not fun to be mugged off by our beloved pets, but it’s one of the simplest and most benign ways that our dogs can say “no thank you,” so it’s really important that we respect this sign that our dogs don’t want us to keep approaching.
It’s easy to think that our dogs would always walk away if they didn’t like something, but this is not how animals tend to resolve potential conflicts with one another and so animals often don’t feel that simply walking off is an option. That means it’s really important that we let our dogs know this is an effective way to opt out of something by not following them or continuing to invade their space.
– Dogs yawning does not necessarily mean they are stressed – they may just be feeling tired or sleepy! However, seeing our dogs yawn “out of context,” when they seem otherwise alert, can be a sign of stress. Stress yawns often look more tense than normal yawns and they sometimes come with high-pitched vocalisations, too. You might see stress yawns after the fact – they are often a way of releasing the tension that has built up during a stressful experience, so if you’re notice your dog tends to yawn right after a hug, this might mean they’re not really enjoying those cuddles.
Shaking it off
– Similar to stress yawning, shaking is another way that dogs often release tension after a stressful event. If you see your dog shake after a cuddle, they were probably feeling uncomfortable!
– Just like yawning, panting can be an ordinary behaviour in our dogs! If they’ve just been running around or it’s particularly warm, panting is a completely normal behaviour in a relaxed dog. However, panting at an unusual time or while grimacing, is a sign of stress. Grimacing is when our dogs’ mouths are pulled back at the corners – you will see creases at the corner of their mouth, and their teeth may be more visible as the tension draws their lips up. Stress panting can often be accompanied by whale eye.
How do we know if our dogs are enjoying their cuddles?
So, now that we’ve learned some of the signs that our dogs might be feeling uncomfortable, how can we figure out if our dogs actually do really enjoy
cuddles and hugs? Here are some signs that your pups are relaxed and happy:
– If you open your arms and offer a hug at a distance, does your dog approach and walk into your arms? If you stop the hug and move away slightly, does your dog move towards you to continue the hug? These are great ways to check if your dog feels like a hug (even dogs who love hugs might not ALWAYS want one!) and to make sure they’re still enjoying themselves during a hug.
– If the dog is lying down, this could look like loose limbs, almond-shaped eyes and a relaxed head. If the dog is sitting or standing, this could be a loosely swishing tail, a relaxed pant with loose lips. Whether standing or lying down, wiggling body language such as turning around to get more of themselves close to you or rolling over are great signs that our dogs are enjoying this contact and feeling good.
This is not a comprehensive list, but covers many of the more common signs of stress in our dogs, particularly those seen in dogs who are not keen on cuddles. It’s always worth reading up on dog body language and practicing watching our dogs, or any other dogs we spend time with, to get used to spotting these signs – especially as they are often quite subtle. Learning what is “normal” for your dog by observing them when you know they are feeling relaxed and happy or doing something they enjoy, is a great way to make it easier to spot when they’re starting to feel uncomfortable. Ultimately, looking for that loose body language, giving our dogs the opportunity to approach us instead of moving into their space and checking if they want to continue the cuddle by stopping and giving them a chance to leave are all great ways to ensure our dogs are actively saying “yes, please!”
We all want our dogs to enjoy being with us and close to us, so making sure we are interacting with them in a way they are comfortable with is vital. This is also a wonderful way to develop trust and mutual respect between you and your dog. So go and enjoy your cuddles – if your dog wants to! But remember that not every dog enjoys them, and that’s okay! Watch your dog and figure out what makes them feel good, because there will be other ways that you can share the love and affection you have for one another.
If you want to learn more about your dogs body language and how to ‘talk dog’ why not join us at our puppy and dog training classes. Click here