DEAR DIDI: Our young granddaughter is six years old and she LOVES dogs. Her favorite thing to do is hug them! She just wraps her arms around every dog she meets and looks so happy. My son and I disagree on whether this behavior should be curbed or not. One of us believes it is important to let her express love and kindness to animals and one of us is fearful that she is crossing lines and being too familiar with dogs that are not a part of her family. We love your column and would appreciate your opinion on this matter. -Loving Grandpa
DEAR LOVING GRANDPA: I think it is wonderful that your granddaughter is being taught to love animals! Humans that love animals demonstrate higher levels of compassion for others and are therefore a valuable member of society. However, like many things in life, extremes in either direction are not healthy. For example, humans that have a complete disregard for animals have been shown to have higher incidences of antisocial personality disorders. The other extreme would be people that LOVE animals so much that they may have obsessive compulsive tendencies or even some hoarding issues.
I would submit that you and your son are both correct. Let’s show our children that loving someone comes with responsibilities. They should not smother the object of their love with tons of physical affection. It means we respect their comfort zones. If we truly love them we do what makes them happy. Your granddaughter may enjoy the hugs very much but it is likely that the dogs are not enjoying it so much. Many dogs will tolerate hugs but most do not enjoy them in the way that us humans seem to. Actually, there are a lot of humans that don’t really want hugs unless they are in the mood or the hug is coming from someone they have a closer relationship with. Dogs are the same way.
Julie Hecht, a canine behavioral researcher, and Dr. Brian Hare, professor of cognitive neuroscience, actually studied this concept. They both work at Duke University and studied hundreds of videos of people hugging dogs. The results showed that most dogs do not enjoy hugs even if they tolerated them. How do we know? Canine body language can be very different than our own body language. Dogs turn their heads away from the human that is doing the hugging. Show the whites of their eyes, yawn or pin their ears down to their heads. These are all signs that your canine companions are not really enjoying our display of affection.
Furthermore, when we hug dogs our faces are right down by theirs, which can be perceived by the dog as being confrontational. It is also very dangerous for your granddaughter should the dog have a negative reaction and feel trapped. The dog might struggle or lash out, potentially causing damage to her face. In my opinion, children should be taught to admire animals and treat them with respect. She should ask if she can pet a dog first. Then she should be taught how to properly introduce herself to that dog. Finally, show her how to gently and kindly stroke the dog’s neck, back or side. These are things that the dogs are more likely to enjoy. When we love someone, we show it by doing what that person/animal enjoys instead of forcing them to submit to what we enjoy.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. For a free consultation with Dierdra or to ask your dog behavior question, email www.CaliforniaCanineUnleashed.com.