Is It Bad To Hug Your Dog? This Study Says One Thing, My Heart Says Another
According to some old, bald, mustachioed man with a PhD writing for Psychology Today, it’s bad for dogs to hug them. This is based on what “Canine Corner” columnist Stanley Coren calls “new data,” but as far as I can tell, this data was compiled from his personal impressions of 250 photos of dogs being hugged by their owners that he found on Google images. My dog Lucca, who was just enjoying a hug from me mere moments ago, is suspicious of this story from the jump, but I told her to keep an open mind.
Now, Coren does point out that his research was informed by existing studies from behavioralists which suggests that because a dog’s first line of defense is to run away from a perceived threat, hugging a dog therefore immobilizes him or her, thus increasing their stress levels. He also points to a recommendation made by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) telling parents not to allow their children to hug dogs, as it can increase their chances of getting bitten. All of this adds up to what Coren calls “the widely accepted the idea is that hugging is not something that dogs like,” before he goes on to admit that “a search of the scientific literature produced very little experimental evidence to support that belief.” So he decided to produce some evidence himself, by assessing the emotional energy and body language of dogs being hugged by their owners — not in person, however, but in photos that he found of randos on the internet.
Is this how most studies are conducted in the digital age? Have I been a part of some behavioral study without even realizing it?!
I’m being snarky, I know, but in fairness to Coren, he did put some thorough guidelines in place for the photos selected to be a part of his research. First, he outlined some of the behavioral indicators typical of stressed out dogs that he would be looking for in the photos — avoiding eye contact, slicked back or lowered ears, licking their lips and something called “whale eye” or “half moon eye” which is basically doggy side-eye, where the whites of the eye are visible.
Next, he made sure to only select photos of dogs being hugged by humans where the dog’s face was fully visible and there was nothing in the photograph aside from the hug that might have been stressing them out – like, you know, a lightening storm in the background or a squirrel named Chad within biting distance.
From there, he went through his 250 selected photos and determined the following:
I can summarize the data quite simply by saying that the results indicated that the Internet contains many pictures of happy people hugging what appear to be unhappy dogs. In all, 81.6% of the photographs researchers scored showed dogs who were giving off at least one sign of discomfort, stress, or anxiety. Only 7.6% of the photographs could rate as showing dogs that were comfortable with being hugged. The remaining 10.8% of the dogs either were showing neutral or ambiguous responses to this form of physical contact. …
…this data clearly shows that while a few dogs may like being hugged, more than four out of five dogs find this human expression of affection to be unpleasant and/or anxiety arousing.
One quick note: Coren refers to “researchers,” but nowhere in the piece does he indicate who, besides him, actually looked at these photos. In fact, he makes it pretty clear that he collected this “data” alone. And frankly, I do not consider it particularly convincing. I may not have a PhD, but I do consider myself an expert on one subject in particular — my dog Lucca and her array of emotions and needs.
Maybe I’m a crazy dog lady, but AS a crazy dog lady, I fully believe that dogs develop particular behaviors to communicate specifically with their owners. While most/all dogs share certain behavioral commonalities, they each have their own peccadillos. For example, after nearly 10 years of companionship, I can tell the difference between Lucca’s various stares. When she needs more kibble in her bowl, she’ll sit down a few feet away from me and STARE.
She’ll do this until I finally notice, realize which stare she’s using, check her bowl and SURE ENOUGH, empty. When she wants to play, she’ll sit down in front of me, stare, and at a certain point utter a funny frustrated little growl and stomp her paw. When she wants to go out because she needs to pee, she’ll sit down in front of me, stare, and then paw at my arm.
Lucca, as far as I can tell, does not at all mind being hugged. She loves to sit on my lap when we’re outside on the fire escape, with one of my arms wrapped around her securely. But you know what what makes her want to remove herself from my hug and jump off my lap? When a car or motorcycle with a rumbly engine drives by. THAT stresses her out.
And one more thing that often makes her act in ways Coren says are indicators of being stressed out by hugs? HAVING HER PHOTO TAKEN, especially in selfie mode. She won’t make eye contact, her ears pull back and she often turns her head away.
Mind you, this doesn’t stop me from taking a few regardless (clearly), but again, this is behavior I’ve come to understand by virtue of being her owner/mom/sister/BFF. I wonder how many of the dogs in the photos Coren analyzed were photographed in selfie mode, which has become almost more common thanks to smartphones and selfie sticks, and feel similarly stressed out by the camera in front of them. Just sayin’…