You are probably thinking to yourself “of course I should hug my dog today, what a silly question.” But surprisingly, maybe it really isn’t such a good idea after all.
As a trainer I often deal with miscommunications between people and their dogs. Think of how many miscommunications we have with our own species and it is easy to see how communicating with another species is problematical. Dogs are masters at reading body language. But words are a different thing entirely. In fact, an interesting experiment is to pick a behavior that you think your dog knows very well, perhaps a sit. When your dog isn’t expecting the cue, try it in a very different tone and voice than your normal one without using any body language. Chances are pretty good that your dog will not sit. Your dog probably doesn’t know the word “sit” as well as you think but responds instead to the whole picture which includes your tone, your body language and even your surroundings.
I said “Come”…or Did I?
One of the most common miscommunications is a dog who does not reliably come when called. There are many reasons for this, but one that isn’t often considered is what we ourselves are saying in body language to our dog. Sometimes when we call our dogs our words are saying one thing and our body is saying another. We are often facing them and leaning forward which is precisely the polite thing to do with our own species. In dog language, however, we are telling them to stop. Leaning forward and staring hard at a dog is really indicating to them to stay there and not come towards us. A much more successful body position is turning your body sideways and running a few steps away from them. It is a subtle difference but can have an amazing impact on your dog.
Another frequent misunderstanding between species takes place when we hug or dogs. Look at the photo above. Does that dog look like he is really enjoying this? Again, hugging is not something you see dogs do often. I can’t remember a time that I actually saw a dog throw its arms or legs around another dog in a way that could be seen as loving. I have seen them throw a head or leg over another dog’s shoulder, but this has more to do with status than affection. When we hug our dogs we are essentially trying to convey to them our love and adoration. Within our species this is clearly understood as a sign of affection and caring. It does not translate across species. Dogs are often keenly uncomfortable and pull away from us, which makes us hold on even more tightly. This can escalate to the point where the dog just wants desperately to get away at all costs. Children especially are prone to doing this. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t hug our dogs, but it may actually involve some counter-conditioning before they begin to enjoy it as much as we do. So try offering a nice little morsel of food each time you hug them in the beginning. Eventually they will associate hugging with good things coming their way and start to look forward to hugs.
Speak Their Language
Becoming aware of differences in communication between species can help us not only in being able to train more easily, but also in being able to live more companionably with each other. I truly think that dogs strive to understand us and our language. We should give them the same courtesy. It is the polite thing to do.
So next time you go to hug your dog, imagine someone taking a photo of that moment. Would it appear that he was trying to get away from you? Is he actively pushing you away? Is he merely tolerating your embrace?