Some dogs love being picked up, held and hugged. But if hugging your dog elicits a negative reaction, such as snapping or growling, he may be a dominant animal. According to the ASPCA, some dogs may assert a dominant role in your relationship, and perceive hugging as a challenge. If that's the case, reconditioning your dog may open his mind to hugging and other previously unappreciated signs of affection.
Are Dogs Dominant?
In the wild, dogs live in a social hierarchy -- every pack has its alpha dog. If your pet asserts an alpha role in your relationship, he expects to govern the boundaries of your relationship, and that includes physical touching. When you hug a dog, you restrict his movement and establish physical control over him, which a dominant dog may resist. The ASPCA reports that dogs don't necessarily establish dominant or submissive roles with their humans, but according to the theory that they do, hugging could be a behavior that your dog perceives as a challenge.
Hugging as Trigger
When you engage a dominant dog with behavior he perceives as dominant, he interprets it as a challenge to his authority. Making prolonged eye contact or waking him, grooming, handling or restraining your dog all come across as dominant behaviors, which an alpha perceives as a threat. When you try to hug a dominant dog, it triggers an aggressive reaction such as growling, snapping or biting.
Training to Hug
Careful training can help overcome your dog's dominant behavior, opening the door to affectionate actions. For example, using "happy talk" and the promise of a treat, calm your dog as you engage in gentle behaviors such as petting or brushing, and work your way up to short, gentle hugs. The safest way to proceed is to first consult a veterinarian or dog trainer, who can help you identify your dog's aggressive triggers and create a training plan to wean him away from dominant aggression.
Reducing Dominant Behavior
By discouraging dominant behavior in general, you can make your dog less likely to react negatively when you engage him with a hug. For example, neutering your dog can reduce the hormones that may inspire his aggressive behavior. Avoid engaging him in games and behaviors that encourage confrontation and battles for dominance, such as tug-of-war games, wrestling or even sleeping in your bed. To dispel his notion of being the dominant creature, you have to both encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior. Once you get his aggression and hunger for dominance under control, he will have a more open mind about behaviors such as hugging.
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.