There’s no better way to connect with your dog than a loving snuggle. Both dogs and humans share a primal need for touch, whether it’s spooning while we sleep, or being comforted during a storm. Petting our furry best friends actually has health benefits for both parties; physically connecting with your dog releases the “happy hormone” oxytocin in humans as well as dogs. But beyond the science that drives our need to cuddle, we snuggle up with one another because it just feels good. By understanding the power of cuddling, and how to do it in a way that’s beneficial to your canine companion, you’ll be able to share the love with your best friend. Here’s how to cuddle a dog the right way:
Why Cuddle a Dog?
Touch is one of the most important ways to let our dogs know how much they mean to us. A well-timed pet can convey praise, comfort, reassurance and, of course, love. Cuddling with your dog might seem like just a pleasant way to connect for a few minutes, but there are a number ways your touch can positively impact your dog’s state of mind. For example, a dog that’s nervous at the vet office might benefit from a calming shoulder massage. A dog that’s depressed after a loved one leaves for a trip or goes back to college will find comfort in some extra cuddle time. And don’t forget about the power of a well-timed pat for a job well done; a chest scratch after a speedy recall is a fantastic way to tell your dog “nice work!”
Cuddle time can do double duty as a chance to perform simple health and wellness checks on your dog. If you slow down while you’re petting and really focus on connecting with your dog, you’re more likely to pick up on changes to her topography, like lumps, bald patches, abrasions and ticks. Gentle petting can also be a gateway to helping dogs learn to accept handling of “iffy” areas, like ears and paws. If your dog enjoys frequent ears massages, she’ll be less likely to balk when it comes time to administer ear medication.
Finding the Right Way to Cuddle
Many of us assume that there are literally no holds barred when it comes to cuddling a dog, but they beg to differ. Every dog has a different take on what type of touch works for him or her. Some want all petting all the time and won’t allow you to stop once you’ve made first contact. Some dogs are situational about the type of cuddling they want, meaning they’re all for a cozy snuggle at the end of the day when they’re tired, but during waking hours they’d rather you throw the ball for them, thank you.
Others have specific “please pet here” and “avoid this area” spots on their body, and when you touch them they move around until you land on the preferred patch of fur. And there’s not only location to worry about; you also can add the speed, intensity and duration of the touch into the list of potential likes and dislikes.
Engage in ‘Mindful’ Cuddling
There’s a powerful magic that happens between human and animal when both parties are fully engaged in snuggling, and dogs aren’t the only beneficiaries. Connecting with our dogs is an easy way to reduce our own stress, anxiety and depression, whether our furry best friend has a therapy certification or not. Spending time cuddling with your dog can mitigate even the worst day at the office.
Engaging in “mindful” snuggle time takes the bond you share with your dog to an even deeper level. This type of petting borders on meditation, with your total focus shifted to your dog as you massage her. Slow down your breathing as you pet your dog, watch her responses as you touch her, and work through the different parts of her body at a leisurely pace, taking note of what she likes and doesn’t like. Vary the intensity of your pets, using a combination of deep tissue massage, gentle scratches and light strokes. When you finish a mindful snuggle, you’ll probably find that you’re as relaxed as your dog.
Focus on Your Dog’s Body Language
So how can you really tell if your dog loves the way you’re snuggling with her?
Our dogs let us know what works and what doesn’t through body language, and we can confirm if our dogs truly enjoy our cuddling style by watching how she reacts to it. The biggest “tell”? When you stop doing it she asks for more. Most dogs who want the petting party to continue will do something obvious, like nose-bump your hand, lean into your body or use a paw to gently tap you. A dog that’s enjoying a cuddle might settle into a down position and shut her eyes, or give a sigh of satisfaction.
Keep in mind that every dog has a cuddle-tolerance scale. Some are happiest when they’re draped across their person like a blanket, while others prefer to keep their distance, with just a single paw making contact with their person. Forcing a reluctant snuggler into a too-close clench is sure to make your dog start to resent your touch. If you notice that your dog moves just out of reach when you lean in for a cuddle, reconsider your technique.
If you notice that your dog leans away when you try to make contact, or doesn’t ask for more petting, you might be coming on a little too strong. And rethink those crushing hugs: research shows that most dogs aren’t a fan of them.
If your dog is ducking away from you more than you’d like (and noticing this requires an honest assessment), try backing off for a week or so. Rather than offering pats, snuggles and hugs, wait for her to request them from you. You’ll find that the more you let your dog make the decisions about cuddle time, the more often she’ll ask for it.
Victoria Schade is a dog trainer, author & speaker who has contributed to The Washington Post, Martha Stewart, and other publications.