Should I Cuddle My Dog? A Guide From A Professional Dog Trainer

January 23, 2023
January 23, 2023

This is a really popular question, and it’s something that a lot of dog owners ask me – because there’s a lot of conflicting information out there.

Our canine companion is usually a part of our life that we love, and humans tend to show affection with a cuddle, because for us humans, it’s great for giving that boost of the love hormone, Oxytocin. As those oxytocin levels go up, we tend to bond more deeply. And we pet parents definitely want to share that love with our furry best friend.

It’s just the way humans tend to express affection. Yet, is this the best way to communicate that affection or share that affection with our furry family members? Let’s discuss!

Should I Cuddle My Dog?

The answer is it depends on your dog if a dog cuddle is acceptable.

The vast majority of dogs I’ve ever interacted with, aren’t big cuddlers. And whilst dogs do tend to like physical contact, they’re much more likely to be uncomfortable when they’re in a tight, enclosed space.

Yet, some dogs do genuinely love a cuddle (they all have different personalities, just like us humans!). And some of this can be down to dog breeds, but more often than not it’s down to the individual furry friend.

And, in essence? You need to learn to read them, and be happy with the affection they want to give you, and focus on making it a positive interaction.

Should I Cuddle Hug Dog 2
This image is really interesting. Because usually a dog on their hip is a sign that they’re comfortable, but do you see how distinct that lean-away is? This one is a really obvious one where the dog isn’t comfortable.

Should We Cuddle A New Dog? Or Someone Else’s Dog?

This one is a hard no.

If you don’t know the dog, especially if you don’t ask permission, this is a great way to expose yourself to getting bitten – not to making a new friend! Whether you’re at a dog park, or visiting a neighbour – avoid this one.

What Are We Referring To When We Say “Cuddles”?

When I’m talking about cuddling here, I’m referring to envoloping your dog in your arms, and holding them close, or sometimes even a one armed ‘hug’.

What The Studies Say…

Recent studies have found that cuddling your dog has a bunch of positive results for humans (like this new research), much as stress relief and increased sociability. But this study was a one way study. There were three dogs used in this study were never tested for how the effects (such as the levels of cortisol) of being cuddled by these different people affected them. And unfortunately, that’s a big trend. We look at a lot of our interactions with dogs, as what benefit we humans can get – and not necessarily how it affects our pets.

Why Don’t Dogs Typically Like Cuddles?

The reason dogs don’t tend to like cuddles is a conflict of meaning.

For dogs, it’s a strange and domineering move. Think of it in terms of dog to dog behavior, if one dog leans all their weight into another dog – especially over the back of the neck – it’s a sign that the dog is going to want to fight, or is threatening the other dog.

It’s one of those things that is a conflicting signal between the species of humans and dogs that creates a tension. Much like direct eye contact!

Should I Cuddle Hug Dog 3
See how this labrador is pointedly looking away for the human in this hug? This is another strong sign that the dog isn’t comfortable. And see the tension on that lip? That lab’s just not into that at all.

How Do I Know If My Dog Does Like Cuddles?

Whilst the vast majority don’t like cuddles, some do! In my house, two aren’t cuddlers, and one, really, really is. So here’s dog body language to look out for;

Coonhoundholdingimage
( image inbound )

Relaxed

Loose body language here is going to be what you look for.

  • Happy pants
  • No lip tension
  • Relaxed ears
  • Leaning into it
  • Seeking it out

Then, of course, seeing things like them voluntarily becoming lap dogs? Sometimes the signs are really obvious!

How Do I Know If My Dog Doesn’t Like Cuddles?

Stress and displacement signals are really important here. All of the images in this post are pretty much a “Don’t like”? Usually because the dogs in stock images are shoved in with people they don’t know and then they’re getting cuddled and they’re like “Ah, uhm… nope”, so it’s really easy to highlight (for a change!). So, I’ve highlighted all the signs the dogs are giving that they’re not happy in these images.

But here’s a few ways too!

Lip licking can be an incredibly subtle sign of stress, as small as a tongue flick, and is a sign that our dogs are uncomfortable
Lip licking can be an incredibly subtle sign of stress, as small as a tongue flick, and is a sign that our dogs are uncomfortable

Lip Licking

A lip lick is an early one, it’s also a very subtle, almost invisible displacement. It’s an example of facial expressions that dogs give (like whale eye), where the tongue will lick of flick super subtly out of the mouth or onto the lips. This is a sign of nervousness, and shows another dog that they want space, they’re showing this discomfort, and that they want the other dog’s energy to go elsewhere.

Lip licking is a sign of nervousness and a sign to another dog or person that the dog is uncomfortable! And that, generally, they want a little space.

a big, exaggerated yawn can be a sign that your dog is stressed or tired, this one is situational
a big, exaggerated yawn can be a sign that your dog is stressed or tired, this one is situational, and if they’ve just woken up, or may genuinely be tired, but if not? Then yes, it could be a sign they don’t want your affection!

Yawning

This one is also one of the signs of stress, and whilst in young dogs it might be tiredness (or any dog, to be honest!), the context is very important, but an exaggerated yawn that’s not to do with tiredness directly. This behaviour is a signifier to other dogs, people or animals that they’re not into it!

Yawning is a classic stress signal, it’s a signal that says “I’m too tired to engage” and directs attention elsewhere

Coonhoundholdingimage
( image inbound )

Whale Eye

Whale eye is one of those things we see when our dogs show the whites of their eyes, it’s a strong sign of stress in our pets. So if you see this? Back off and give them more space

This is relative to your dog and where they’re naturally looking too, so for example, my hounds show a lot of the white of their eyes naturally, and if they’re looking sideways, even more so. So just bear that one in mind.

finding an itch and scratching that itch can be a sign of displacement, displacing attention away from the other dog or person
finding an itch and scratching that itch can be a sign of displacement, displacing attention away from the other dog or person

Scratching

A sudden itch that finding an itch is another “oh, I’m so busy right now” type of signal that should tell another dog (or person!) leave me alone for a minute, I just gotta deal with this itch.

This way your dog can disperse an oncoming dog, person or source of discomfort away from them and encourage them to go find a new place to put their attentions. It’s a really easy way to push someone away.

self grooming is a classic sign of displacement, pushing their attention off of interacting and into their own bubble
self grooming is a classic sign of displacement, pushing their attention off of interacting and into their own bubble

Grooming

Grooming themselves and seeing to their own hygiene, can be a quick sign of “leave me alone, I’m busy right now”. It’s a way of essentially, introverting! Bringing their attention back to themselves and consequently discouraging engagement.

Think of this one as the “Oh, I’m washing my hair” excuse for not going on that date.

spaniel Looking away to divert attention
Looking away is a really nice way of saying “I don’t want to be a part of this” It’s a low stress signal, and it’s where you should really listen

Looking away

This is your dog’s way of disengaging with you and the situation. This is the first way of saying that they don’t want to be in this environment and that the cuddle might be something they’re not looking for right now.

greyhound type dog Moving away
Leaning away from you and your affection is again can be subtle too.

Leaning away

If you can feel your dog pulling away? Then they’re not comfortable. Moving their body away is an attempt to leave the situation but to do it subtly. This one is very subtle, but it’s usually quite evident when you have all of your dogs weight leaning away from your body.

Aside from this, we should also be familiar with the ladder of aggression to ensure we’re not missing signals.

What Should I Do Instead Of Cuddling My Dog?

First, let your dog come to you. Your dog will come to you, they love you! But taking affection on their terms is really important. Because the more you allow this? The more they’ll actually give you. There are different ways, subtle ways that non-cuddly dogs seek that physical touch, whether that’s curled up at your side, a head on your lap, or laying on your feet, they’re all super subtle signs of a dog who is not necessarily a cuddle puppy. Remember, cuddle time doesn’t need to be intense!

Reward this with some gentle pets, and some gentle praise “Good boy/girl” or whatever you use, and if they elect to leave? That’s fine too. It might not be that they’re uncomfortable, it could also just be that they’re hot.

Another thing to note is that small dogs often get their desires neglected? And we pick them up and cuddle them – regardless of whether they like it. So, if you have a small dog, don’t be tempted to give them affection if they’re not looking for it.

Also, another way to really show you respect your dog’s space, is to give them a dog bed that’s wholly theirs.

It’s why I usually advocate that even if your dog sleeps in your bed, or on your sofa. Because then the bed your dog has? Is their safe space. It’s where you can recall your dog from their bed, but you absolutely do not go sit on it. This gives option to seek space if they want it.

Should I Cuddle Hug Dog 4
See the ears here? Firmly back, whilst the mouth is open, this wouldn’t be what I would call a “happy pant” it’s more of a tense pant, thedont isn’t totally loose, and the cheeks are tight. You can also see by the neck alignment that this golden is leaning away significantly.

What Happens If I Cuddle A dog Who Doesn’t Want To Be Cuddled?

A lot of the time, this is when “unexpected” aggressive behavior (I say “Unexpected” because a lot of the time the subtle signals are missed), and this can escalate into more severe behavioral problems (like growling if you come near them when they’re sleeping).

Associated Myths

1 – Being Affectionate With Your Dog Will Let Them Be The Alpha

Categorically not true. You can be affectionate with your dog (if your dog wants it!) without it negatively impacting your relationship. In fact? Usually respect and affection improve bonds, not interfere with them. Not to mention that “Alpha” is not something that applies to dogs as dogs are not pack animals, and they are not subject to a dominance style hierarchy.

2 – Dogs Shouldn’t Be Allowed On The Sofa/Bed

This literally impacts nothing, and the only reason to stop a dog from getting on your sofa or bed, is if you’re incredibly house proud, and/or they shouldn’t be jumping. Beyond that? It’s not going to make them be unruly.

3 – You Shouldn’t Sleep With Your Dog

I don’t know what this would change, other than the level of dog floof on my bed, but it doesn’t adversely affect your relationship, or their behaviour. And, again, it’s likely just going to be a good thing if you put any stock in the studies!

Should I Cuddle Hug Dog 1
This is a much more subtle way to let your dog cuddle, a head on your lap (especially with a large dog) is more than enough, and a strong show of affection from your dog and far more voluntary from their point of view! This one is a Rebarkable Approved!

Listen to your dog’s preferences

Hopefully, this post will guide you to know if this type of touch is something your dog loves, and you feel capable of not compromising feelings of trust between you and your dog for the sake of blood pressure. This one can be totally tough with young children, but try and make sure that you advocate for your dog – even with your own kids.

And remember! Close proximity is wonderful, but our dogs deserve to be happy and relaxed, and there are plenty of other ways to achieve the same mental health benefits without compromising our dog’s happiness.

And those of you with total cuddle bugs? I’m so happy you get to enjoy those snuggles!!

Author, Ali Smith

Ali Smith is the Positive Puppy Expert, dog trainer and is the founder of Rebarkable. She is passionate about helping puppy parents get things right, right from the start. To help create a puppy capable of being a confident and adaptable family member and keep puppies out of shelters.

Ali has won multiple awards for her dog training, and has had her blog (this blog!) rated as 2021 & 2022 worlds’ best pet blog!

 

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