2019-04-12 / Pets

Hug Your Friends, Not a Dog

By Phyllis Beasley, CPDT-KA Owner/Lead Trainer, Praise Dog! Training


This is a clear example of a dog enjoying a hug. His mouth is open, almost smiling, his eyes are soft and he appears to be leaning into the interaction. This is a clear example of a dog enjoying a hug. His mouth is open, almost smiling, his eyes are soft and he appears to be leaning into the interaction. With my training business, I sometimes hear from people who are desperate to remedy their dog’s aggressive behavior. Often this behavior has already resulted in a bite to a person, or the owner recognizes the dog’s behavior may soon escalate to biting.

Sometimes I hear “he just bit without warning!” Owners should be concerned if they are afraid their dog may bite—in 2018, according to the Insurance Information Institute, there were 17,297 dog bite insurance claims and the CDC reported nearly 350,000 people were treated at hospital emergency rooms for dog-related injuries in 2017. These statistics don’t even account for the number of bites that go unreported or are not serious enough for emergency room treatment.


Fli clearly does not enjoy the hug from Eli Gordon, but tolerates it because he has been conditioned to hugs from his boy Eli. Fli clearly does not enjoy the hug from Eli Gordon, but tolerates it because he has been conditioned to hugs from his boy Eli. Dog bites can be prevented and National Dog Bite Prevention Week, April 7 through 14, is a good time to talk about how we can change our interactions with dogs to prevent bites.

It is a bit ironic that April 10, right in the middle of National Dog Bite Prevention Week, was National Hug Your Dog Day. Hugging strange dogs, and sometimes even hugging your own dog (especially in the case of children hugging dogs), is one action that can trigger a dog to bite.

Even if the dog practices self-restraint and does not bite, it is very likely he did not enjoy the hug.

Polite canine body language when interacting with other dogs is indirect. A polite dog will greet another dog without looking directly at the other dog. He may turn his head or walk in a curved manner toward the other dog. Now, think about the way we hug dogs. We put our faces directly in front of theirs, sometimes we lean over them, and we hold them tightly, preventing them from moving away— very scary and strange behavior to a dog.


Another example of dogs clearly enjoying a hug from a child. This is Amaya Smith with her grandfather’s Airedale Terriers, Manley and Misty. Another example of dogs clearly enjoying a hug from a child. This is Amaya Smith with her grandfather’s Airedale Terriers, Manley and Misty. Yes, there are some dogs who enjoy the intense interaction of a hug, particularly a hug from their owners. Many more of our dogs will just tolerate these hugs. Unless the dog is a registered therapy dog and is under the supervision of its handler, you should never hug a strange dog. While our own dogs may tolerate a hug, a dog who does not know you or your child may interpret the hug as threatening behavior and your face, or your child’s face, is dangerously close to his teeth.

There are other things we can change about our behavior and our actions to prevent dog bites. In the past, when I have participated in bite prevention programs, I would advise asking the owner for permission to pet the dog, then let the dog sniff your hand, then pet under the dog’s chin.


Cuddle time on the swing. Greg Hartley and his Brittany Spaniel Whisper enjoy some affection that is mutually enjoyable. Whisper is not being physically restrained in this position and could easily jump down. Her legs and ears are in a relaxed position and she is returning the direct facial interaction. Cuddle time on the swing. Greg Hartley and his Brittany Spaniel Whisper enjoy some affection that is mutually enjoyable. Whisper is not being physically restrained in this position and could easily jump down. Her legs and ears are in a relaxed position and she is returning the direct facial interaction. Now, after training for 21 years, attending many conferences and workshops on dog behavior and studying countless books on aggression, my best advice to prevent dog bites when interacting with dogs is to not pet unless the dog gives you permission.

How does a dog give you permission? A dog that welcomes interactions from strangers will approach you and make physical contact with you first. He may sniff you, lean on you, or push his head against your hand or leg. This is a dog clearly telling you he would like to be petted.


This is a dog at a pet adoption event who is most likely overwhelmed by being petted by strangers. She is in close quarters and people are leaning over her to pet her. Leaning over a dog can be threatening or intimating to dogs. This dog, Alice, has her ears back, mouth closed and would probably move away if she had the option. This is a dog at a pet adoption event who is most likely overwhelmed by being petted by strangers. She is in close quarters and people are leaning over her to pet her. Leaning over a dog can be threatening or intimating to dogs. This dog, Alice, has her ears back, mouth closed and would probably move away if she had the option. If the dog you want to greet does this, my second piece of advice is to stroke the dog under his chin or along the side of his face or body for three seconds only, then stop. If the dog is comfortable with the interaction, he will continue to make physical contact. He is telling you he welcomes the interaction and wants more.

Another common mistake I see well-intentioned people and owners make is to attempt to interact with hesitant or fearful dogs by offering them a treat out of their hands. Many fearful dogs may want the treat badly enough to take it out of the stranger’s hand, then after the treat is eaten they panic when they realize how close they are to the scary person and bite. Pairing scary strangers with treats is good, but the treat should be rolled to the dog, not presented in your hand.


This is a dog trying to avoid the interaction with the child. The dog is leaning away, turn his head away, lip licking (a sign of anxiousness in dogs), his ears are back and the whites of his eyes are showing. If this child is allowed to continue this interaction, she might be bitten. This is a dog trying to avoid the interaction with the child. The dog is leaning away, turn his head away, lip licking (a sign of anxiousness in dogs), his ears are back and the whites of his eyes are showing. If this child is allowed to continue this interaction, she might be bitten. Understanding what dogs are telling us is critical to bite prevention, as well as successful training. There are several good resources for understanding canine body language and for preventing bites with children or adults. Doggone Safe, www.doggonesafe.com, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing dog bites through education. On this site, you can find information, photographs and videos on understanding canine body language. Another good website for pictures and videos on canine body language is Eileenanddogs, www.eileenanddogs.com.



After many years Amy Kuenzie’s dog River Dog has learned to tolerate hugs. His body is relaxed but he is not an active participant in the hug. After many years Amy Kuenzie’s dog River Dog has learned to tolerate hugs. His body is relaxed but he is not an active participant in the hug.

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