Recently there has been a great debate over whether or not you should hug your dog. Dr Coren, a professor of psychology at The University of British Columbia, recently published this article in Psychology Today. Dr Coren used random photos of people hugging dogs from google and by reading the body language of the dogs in the photo, deduced that many of the dogs were showing signs of stress and anxiety. He therefore recommended that people shouldn’t hug their dogs. These results were then blown slightly out of proportion by the media which reported that “science proves that we shouldn’t hug our dogs”. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t exactly go down well with the general public and with many dog lovers.
The fact is that “science” did not prove that dogs hate being hugged. Dr Coren’s little experiment was not an officially published scientific paper. There is no published data for us to see for ourselves, we don’t know exactly how these “random” photos were chosen, the photos were only looked at analysed by one person (Dr Coren himself), another person may have read the dog’s body language differently. When a scientist publishes a study they have carried out, the paper is looked at and reviewed by other scientists before it is published for others to read. Although Dr Coren’s experiment is interesting, we cannot say that “science proves that we shouldn’t hug our dogs”.
When looking at a still photo it is difficult to know the situation and capturing one moment cannot always tell us generally how that dog was feeling at the time. I’m sure we’ve all happily taken a photo with our friends only to look at it (or worse, be tagged in it on Facebook), and find that we look different to how we thought we looked or how we felt at the time. The whites of the eyes we see in the dog photos may be the result of the dog simply looking in a certain direction. The dog may have just been given a treat, or someone may be holding a treat just out of shot to get the dog to look at the camera which may explain any apparent lip licking seen in the photo. It is therefore important to take these results with a pinch of salt. Some dogs do enjoy being held and find having pressure around them relaxing and calming – the theory behind products such as the Thundershirt. Many dogs have also been desensitised to being hugged over time – associating positive things with cuddles such as treats and attention since puppyhood.
Before you go all Elmyra “hug you and squeeze you into itty bitty pieces” Duff on your dog, there are some important things to bare in mind…
Dogs are not natural huggers. Hugging and wrapping our arms around others is very natural to us because we are primates. It is something we naturally do from birth and we get a lot of pleasure from it. For dogs this is not the case. When dogs find themselves in a situation where they feel worried and uncomfortable, generally their first strategy is to move out of the situation. When you hug your dog this traps them and stops them from being able to move away which, in itself, can be quite worrying for your dog. Just because your dog allows you to put your arms around it and have a cuddle, doesn’t necessarily mean that they enjoy it. Indeed, dogs really do tolerate a lot from us humans that they don’t particularly like – bath time springs to mind!
This dog appears to be relaxed and happy But this dog is clearly stressed by being hugged
It may be that plenty of dogs tolerate being hugged and some even probably do enjoy it but it really should be considered on a case by case basis. Watch your dog’s body language carefully when being hugged, if they are showing even subtle signs of being uncomfortable such as lip licking, stiff posture, ears back and down, head turned away etc. (see more about the language of dogs here), then perhaps it’s time to consider the idea that your dog doesn’t much like being hugged. Dogs may also be comfortable and happy to be hugged by their owner but not so happy to be hugged by someone else, particularly strange children. The vast majority of dogs do love being touched and stroked generally so maybe instead of wrapping your arms around your dog to give them some love, give them a rub behind the ears or some nice bum scratches and tell them what a good dog they are!