Hugs are hard
Most humans enjoy a good hug. Most dogs don’t.
At some point, you may have heard or read that wrapping your arms around dogs can be perceived by them as a threat. Dogs might tolerate it, but most dogs don’t enjoy it. This has certainly been the case for my own dogs.
My old-man Labrador ducks and shrinks away as if someone is pouring molten lava on him. The border collie used to huff, roll his eyes, and say, “Gross! Don’t touch me. Can’t you see I’m working here?” The younger Labrador fell squarely into the “tolerates, but doesn’t enjoy” hugs category.
But, sometimes after a bad day (or smack dab in the middle of a good day), you just want to hug your dog. Depending on the dog, our primate-based gesture of affection produces a reaction that ranges from barely tolerable to outright aversive. Just as rolling in dead squirrel is not for us, hugs just aren’t most dogs’ cup of tea. What to do?
To be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought for most of my dogs’ lives. I knew they didn’t enjoy hugs, so I simply avoided giving my dogs bear hugs and instead petted them the way they preferred to be petted (old man Lab: under the chin, girl Lab: behind the ears, border collie: are you freakin’ kidding me—just TUG already!)
One day when I was able to hug a sea lion (during a training session), I realized I didn’t have that same opportunity with my dogs at home. WHY THE HECK NOT? It’s a trained behavior! I am a trainer. How hard could this be? Plus, the dogs’ breaths were far less fishy.
So when I got home, I set out to train the border collie (the dog voted least likely to enjoy hugging) to hug me on cue. I decided to use the same chin-targeting technique the sea lion trainers had used systematically in order to teach my Blink to enjoy hugs. In short order, I had a border collie I could hug. Win-win!
I had previously taught Blink the concept of extended targeting (touching his nose or a paw to something and holding it there until he heard a marker). For his hug behavior, I simply transferred that concept to a chin target instead of nose or paw target.
Here were my steps.
NOTE: I used a verbal marker rather than a clicker for this particular behavior. I knew I’d have to be clicking near Blink’s ears eventually when I wrapped my arms around him in a hug. Blink has extraordinarily sensitive hearing! I didn’t want to end up clicking in or near his ear, so I chose the verbal marker for this behavior.
- Practiced nose-to-hand targets, approximating my hand higher and higher so the dog had to reach way up to touch it.
- Positioned my hand target so the dog had to climb up with his two front paws in my lap and place his chin on my left shoulder to touch the hand target.
- Gradually faded out the hand target to just a quick tap on my left shoulder to prompt him to place his chin on my shoulder.
- Once the “chin on left shoulder” behavior was reinforced a few times, I was able to remove the hand target prompt altogether so that the behavior became just a chin target.
- When the dog understood the “chin on left shoulder” behavior solidly, I added the cue “hug.”
- Once the dog understood the goal behavior and the hug cue quite well, I began to add duration. We did longer and longer approximations of him resting his chin on my shoulder. The hug cue now meant “place your chin on my left shoulder and hold it there until I mark you.”
- I wanted to establish duration for the chin-to-shoulder behavior first to give me time to wrap my arms around my dog in a hug. With several seconds of duration solidly in place, I added in the step of wrapping arms around him.
- I reinforced several times for him holding still as I wrapped one arm around him.
- We progressed to me also wrapping the other arm around him while he continued to target my left shoulder with his chin.
- I had always been sitting in a chair previously, but began kneeling on the ground, and then standing (crouching down some so he could reach me). For Blink, these other positions came easily. He transferred the “hug” cue from me in a seated position to me kneeling on the ground very readily.
Of all the things I’ve trained my dogs to do, the “hug” behavior is one of my very favorite. It produces an oxytocin rush for me, lowers my stress level, and is quite reinforcing for me. It’s a cute trick that can transfer to other people (provided they have the right reinforcers available!). Blink seems to truly enjoy the hug, and performs it with great enthusiasm each time. Let’s face it, it’s just FUN to hug your dog!