Two golden retrievers are hugging their way into hearts around the globe.
Kylo was less than a year old when law student and "Star Wars" fan Kieran Lehane welcomed a puppy named Vader into their home in Perth, Australia, in 2018.
“It was this immediate connection,” Lehane, 29, told TODAY. “Vader immediately connected with Kylo as his sort of big brother, constantly snuggling up into him.”
Kylo, who is just 9 months older, embraced life with his new companion. The mellow dog never stressed about the puppy’s constant affection, even when it involved teething on his tail or wanting to play all the time.
The bond between the unrelated “brothers” kept growing.
Because Vader acted “very clingy” toward Kylo, Lehane decided to see if he could teach the intelligent dogs to hug. Kylo, the larger of the two, seemed receptive to any touch from his pal, so most of the training involved his smaller, darker counterpart.
Lehane knew studies show the overwhelming benefits of using positive reinforcement training — and the problems caused by using punishment and physical harm.
Plus, he couldn’t imagine doing anything to hurt his beloved pets.
So he used positive training methods by rewarding desired behavior with a high-value treat: cooked chicken.
Vader — an ardent fan of chicken and any cooked meat — already knew basic obedience and to offer a “paw” on cue to shake hands. (If you haven't taught your dog this trick yet, try holding a treat in your fist and letting your dog smell it. Eventually when your dog paws at the treat, say “paw” and offer the treat to start teaching the cue.)
“I basically did it step-by-step, very slowly,” Lehane said. “I would use a ‘paw’ and then move my hand a little bit higher. And then I ended up putting my hand on an object like a chair. Then every time I did ‘chair,’ I’d put my hand on the chair and then move it quickly so Vader would put his hand on the chair.”
Eventually, he started working on Vader’s training next to Kylo. Every time Vader put a paw on Kylo, Lehane would say “BFF” and reward them both with a bit of tasty chicken.
“I could see he worked out ‘If I hug Kylo, then it would be worth it.’ So I would just say ‘BFF,’ and every time, he would do it. It eventually got better and better,” Lehane said. “Kylo’s just chill so he would sit there and get a treat, too.”
Often when they all go on adventures to parks or beaches, Vader doesn’t need to hear “BFF” to hug his bestie.
“He just does it automatically sometimes if they’re together,” Lehane said.
Social media fans from around the world frequently send messages to Lehane about ways his cuddly canines have brightened their day.
“In some of the captions I put in a message or even a reminder to tell someone to hug the people closest to you or send some love,” he said. “I would love to increase all the positivity and just the pure joy that Kylo and Vader and goldens and dogs tend to bring to people, especially during hard times.”
It might seem surprising that dogs famous for their love and light are named for "Star Wars" characters who cross over to the Dark Side of the Force — Adam Driver’s character Kylo Ren and his grandfather, the infamous Darth Vader — rather than being named for heroes. Fear not: Kylo and Vader aren’t secretly villains.
“I like the idea that they’re golden retrievers, which are the most kind, loving, beautiful dogs, and that juxtaposition of having these Dark Side names,” he said. “It’s just funny to me. They’re nothing like the actual characters.”
In honor of National Hugging Day on Jan. 21, Lehane plans to share a video montage of Vader jumping up to hug Kylo in pretty places. He hopes it inspires others to celebrate the bond between dogs, as well as pets and people.
“I love the kindness and love that you get from them,” he said. “And I just think it’s so cute to have two dogs that really genuinely have this connection.”