Don’t stop hugging your dog.

Two views on a recent science news item.

Last Wednesday, dear friend Dan Gomez sent me an email that was headed Going to be controversial. It simply contained a link to a recent ScienceAlert item: You need to stop hugging your dog, study finds. I have to admit that my response was a rather rude one! Here’s how that article opened:

With their sweet faces, soft fur, and huge dumb grins, dogs were basically born to be hugged. As a species, they evolved over thousands of years with one clear path – to garner our attention and affection, and profit from all the benefits awarded to ‘Man’s best friend’. But along the way, they’ve had to make some serious trade-offs.

A family dog will never be the leader of the pack. It will be closed in, told when and where to pee, and now, preliminary data from a new study suggests that in return for room and board, our dogs suffer through our hugs.

I know, I know, it’s tough to hear, but bear with us, because it’s not all terrible news. Maybe your dog is cool with hugs. Maybe it finds your hugs annoying, but affection is affection, so it’ll take what it can get. Or maybe it freaking hates hugs and you’re stressing the crap out of it. All dogs are different, you just need to know how to read them.

Anyway, I was delighted to see the Care2 blogsite put out a slightly different assessment. I have great pleasure in republishing that Care2 article in full.

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No, We Don’t Really Need to Stop Hugging Our Dogs

3175758.largeBy: Laura Goldman, April 28, 2016

About Laura

On the feel-good scale of one to 10, tenderly wrapping your arms around your dog and giving your pooch a gentle squeeze rates a solid 10, am I right?

But for dogs, the feeling apparently isn’t mutual, at least according to research by dog-training expert Dr. Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia.

Coren examined 250 images on Google and Flickr of people hugging dogs. In his blog “The Data Says ‘Don’t Hug the Dog!’” on Psychology Today, he noted that 81.6 percent of the dogs showed some symptoms of stress, anxiety or discomfort.

“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,” Coren wrote.

The reason dogs dislike hugs, Coren explained, is because when they are threatened or otherwise under stress, their natural instinct is to run away, so being wrapped in our arms prevents them from doing what comes naturally. This can raise their stress levels.

“Save your hugs for your two-footed family members and lovers,” Coren wrote. “It is clearly better from the dog’s point of view if you express your fondness for your pet with a pat, a kind word and maybe a treat.”

I think it’s important to note that Coren’s study was not peer reviewed (i.e., it has not been approved by other scientists as being legit), nor was it published in any scientific journal, but only on PsychologyToday.com. “This is a set of casual observations,” Coren told the Washington Post in regard to all the recent media attention to his findings.

With this in mind, I decided to conduct my own non-peer-reviewed study for Care2.com. (I’ve been writing professionally about dogs for years and have had them as pets for most of my life, so that makes me kinda-sorta an expert, in my humble opinion.)

For my research, instead of passively Googling photos, I actively hugged two very willing study participants: my dogs, Leroy and Ella.

Leroy (that’s him getting hugged in my profile picture) seemed to enjoy the hug; he wagged his tail and the corners of his mouth curled up in what could be interpreted as a smile. Although Ella, who is a nervous dog, tensed her body at first, she relaxed after a few seconds and calmly rested her chin on my shoulder.

My conclusion: Dogs don’t hate hugs. While I wouldn’t recommend walking up to a strange dog and giving him a big ol’ bear hug, I don’t think there’s any need to stop hugging our own dogs based on Coren’s casual observations.

Neither does Corey Cohen, a companion animal behavior therapist. He told the New York Times the dogs in the photos Coren studied may have appeared anxious because they didn’t like having their pictures taken, or perhaps they were being forced to pose.

“My dogs love being hugged,” Cohen said, probably speaking on behalf of many of us dog owners. “I can definitely tell. Their facial expression changes: ‘Oh, give me more!’”

How to Tell if Your Dog Enjoys Hugs

If you’re not quite sure whether your dog likes to be hugged, here are some of the signs that he’s not into it, according to Coren and Erica Lieberman, a New York City dog trainer and behavior consultant.

  • Your dog turns his head away as you hug him.
  • He closes or half-closes his eyes. “Alternatively, dogs will often show what is commonly called a ‘half-moon eye’ or ‘whale eye,’ which is where you can see the white portion of the eyes at the corner or the rim,” Coren wrote.
  • He lowers his ears.
  • He licks his lips.
  • He yawns.
  • Lieberman told the New York Times that people should look for what she called “cutoff signals” when hugging their dogs. If dogs “shake off” after the hug, just as they shake off water after a bath, it means they didn’t enjoy it.

If your dog shows none of these warning signals, I say go ahead – hug it out.

Photo credit: Stephen Depolo

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 I shall be hoping that Dan Gomez gets to read today’s post!

6 thoughts on “Don’t stop hugging your dog.

  1. As my dog is only a little 13 pounder, I don’t hug her much anyway. However, I pet her and have a lot of physical contact with her. She sits on my lap often when I read or listen to music. I know that dogs press against us because that results in an oxytocin release which is very healthy – for them and us. I always thought that was their way of hugging. I have read that hugging is a natural act for us humans (bipeds) both physically and psychologically because it fits the way we are built. Clearly, since dogs don’t stand on their front two legs it isn’t as natural for them. I think Ms Goldman has some excellent observations at the end of her piece on whether the dog likes it or not.

  2. Dogs need it, too. Every morning I go visit and walk our friends dogs. They’re in Sweden for 2 years, so I (and their maid) keep them in touch with the world. Each of them jump up on my lap and go the full hug. It’s wonderful.

    1. John, it’s very difficult to beat a full hug from a dog or two. I say that without in any way diminishing the hugs that Jeannie and I share. We have a number of dogs that most pointedly seek out hugs from us; Brandy being the latest! Brandy has now been with us for three weeks and is far from becoming used to dozens of hugs each day. Going to try and capture on camera his enthusiasm for physical contact with us. As you say, it’s wonderful. Have a good weekend.

  3. It was only in recent years that behavioural scientists/psychologists announced that dogs actually dream – which is something I think has been pretty obvious to most people for thousands of years. Psychology is fast becoming another ‘dismal science’ for me, I’m afraid.

    1. Marg, I’m all for good science, and by that I mean peer-reviewed scientific findings, but Coren’s reports smack more of self-promotion than anything else. Yes, of course dogs dream! Best wishes to you.

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