Hug Me, I'm French

Do you like to be hugged? Do you come from a touchy feely family thats comfortable with shows of physical affection or one where its culturally not the norm to engage in them? Or is it sometimes gender or situationally related- if you were male you might hug another male on a sport field after a successful outcome but not perhaps in a regular social setting or you're more likely to hug your brother but not your best friend. Or you're female and little unsure about the enthusiastic hug you just received from a male acquaintence you just met. Or were you brought up without a lot of hugging and then introduced to it via a significant other or a move to a city or culture where there were different concepts of personal space and etiquette- and subsequently grew to be comfortable with it. Obviously in the human world there's quite a range.

So how about in the canine world? I've seen this subject be one of lively debate in response to the statement "Dogs don't like to be Hugged". What's the reasoning behind this? In Patricia McConell's book 'The Other End of the Leash" she explains that many of our intended movements and their intended meanings, easily understood by humans, have meanings that are diametrically different for dogs. For example the humanly friendly gestures of extended hand-arm and of hugging have the opposite meaning of potential threat to dogs. In Turid Rugaas' book On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals she describes the many responses that a dog might provide as clues to their discomfort with this like yawning or looking away.

To understand why a dog might feel threatened by this it helps to have an understanding of how it is processing this situation or what is going on its mind when this happens. Temple Grandin, who has writen books and research papers on how animals think- likens their thinking process to those of people with autism. Being autisitic herself she understands that fear is the main emotion shared by autistics and animals. "Objects that make sudden movements are the most fear-provoking. In the wild, sudden movement is feared because predators make sudden movements." Add to that the restraint of an embrace or its similarity to a dominant gesture or prelude to an aggressive one- and you can see the root of what may cause a dog to percieve this negatively.

Patricia McConell however does qualify this by saying that a positive response to hugging can be learned. In fact behaviorists generally believe that anything can be learned by classical or operant conditioning. Whenever Eti and I return from a walk we have a ritual of paw wiping and a little play and affection which would include some form of embrace or hug from me followed by a meal. So his whole entire life he has only had a positive association with hugging which I would imagine is very similar in other households where the act is meditated with affection or loving intent. Is a dog, apart from learning by positive association, able to understand or recognize this intent? According to Marc Bekoff a distinguished Biologist whose field of research is animal behavior, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds), and behavioral ecology, is convinced that our companions do have this ability and says "We also hug them, love them, and welcome them into our homes as family members which pleases them immensely because they're such social beings". He says they have a great capacity for trust and they "tell us they trust us by their actions, their willingness to allow us to do just about anything to them."

"Don't hug dogs" would therefore be something you might want to teach children as a general rule of safety or you might not want to hug a dog you don't know or just met but to say "Don't hug your dog" a dog that you have built a trusting relationship with would be poor advice that doesn't properly recognise the bond that can occur between a dog and its owner and the need to continually nourish it. Nor does it credit the ability of a dog to transcend his base fears and replace it with trust and the ability to understand that a hug is intended as a gesture of love and affection from his beloved guardian.

An interesting outcome of the hugging dicussion on the forum is that many Frenchie owners declared, myself included, that their French Bulldogs go one step further- not only do they show little to no aversion to hugging but enjoy even demand to be cuddled, coddled, and cradled like babies and they had pictures to prove it. How can this be? How can the combination of an aggresive bull baiting bulldog combined with a murderous ratting terrier exhibit such infantile behavior. Most probably genetics - and by genetics I mean the kind thats been largely in operation from the 19th century to today - the kind that involves significant human interference.

The roots of the French Bulldog began with the intent of English Bulldog Breeders to redefine the breed from an aggressive one, which was no longer desired with the decline in interest in Bull Baiting, to a more docile 'family dog' and a smaller one at that as breeders were also trying to create a miniature bulldog. When the breed surfaced in France combined with the local Terriers it was at the dawn of the "Show Dog" Era and also the beginning of a demand for small companion dogs and lapdogs. The breeding programs were without doubt all selecting for appearance and good temper. Not only would this positive selection for "good temper" have an effect on genetics, so would selecting for appearance . A preference for physical characteristics like larger heads and puppy like features can also have according to Raymond and Lorna Coppinger an impact on behavior. In this article by Temple Grandin she describes this Neoteny or preference for juvenile characteristics as one of many reasons how behavioral genetics can be altered. The article sums up all the possibilites - experience, environment, learnt behavior, selection for certain traits -they all impact an animal's temperament. So where a Frenchie may not only be agreeable but actually enjoy lot of physical handling, a working dog like the Siberian Husky or a herding breed like a German Shepherd, who tend to be more flighty, may not feel quite the same way.

My experience with Eti is that he loves physical interaction and I encourage it not just with myself but with others and in doing so he is socially confident with everyone that he meets and its a trait I not only like but find important living in a crowded urban setting where he deals on a daily basis with the physical advances of strangers, friends, neighbours and their children. But like the humans described at the start of this post, not all Frenchies are the same there's a range and its important to be able to read your dogs language and what he's telling you, understand that your body posture and body language plays a role- you should be low to the ground not standing or hovering over him and that the situation should have positive associations - food, toys, playing , smiles and laughter.


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