If you are a dog person, these flashy headlines plastered all over the internet recently must have caused you some serious anguish: “Your Dog Hates Hugs”, “Why dogs don’t like to be hugged”, “The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog””
I mean, who doesn’t want to come home at the end of the day to see the excitement in their dog’s eyes and wagging tails, and just cuddle up with those furry bundles of joy on the couch? So if science tells you that your dog hates hugs, it surely puts a dampener on the whole affair. The question is, should you stop hugging your furry friend? If scientific evidence suggests that dogs do not enjoy being hugged (or even worse, that they find the experience uncomfortable and/or threatening), the reasonable thing to do for your pet’s well-being would be to refrain from hugging them. “But not my Lulu!” you protest. “She loves hugs!” Yes, that might very well be the case. Then why is ‘data’ saying your dog (and your neighbor’s dog, and all the other canine friends) hates being hugged? Not so fast! The ‘data’ in this case come from the casual observations of one person. Yes, it is not a peer-reviewed study conducted by scientists under well-monitored conditions; it was not a study that was replicated by other groups. The study was performed by Dr. Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and dog behavior expert by analyzing a sample of 250 photos of humans hugging dogs that he found via Google Image Search and Flickr. Based on facial expressions, posture etc., Coren concluded that in 81.6 percent of the photos, the dogs showed at least one sign of discomfort, stress or anxiety. What should be noted apart from the casual experiment of the study is that there are multiple potential variables that were not likely controlled for, and could have interfered with the results. For instance, it is hard to verify whether the responses of all dogs upon being hugged would be similar to the pictures of dogs Coren obtained from Google Image Search. People often post pictures of their pets that they think are amusing (and where the dog might be making the funny face because they are stressed or uncomfortable). This would lead to an over-representation of pictures (samples for the study) in which dogs seem to hate hugs. That would be like an alien visiting earth for the first time landing in Antarctica (or near a Donald Trump rally) and concluding there is no intelligent life on this planet. Coren himself has suggested his observations shouldn’t be considered a verdict against hugging dogs since “this is a set of casual observations.”
However, it should also be noted that dogs are cursorial animals that use their ability to run away as a first line of defense. Dr. Coren noted, “Behaviorists believe that depriving a dog of that course of action by immobilizing him with a hug can increase his stress level and, if the dog’s anxiety becomes significantly intense, he may bite.”
Your dog might indeed enjoy being embraced, but not all dogs do. Another dog behaviorist Patricia McConnell had mentioned a few years ago some body language and facial expression signs whether a dog is receptive to hugging or not. If a dog is leaning into the human and wagging its tail, it may be enjoying the hug. However, signs such as turning the head away, licking the person’s face repeatedly, yawning and tensing up are indication that the dog is not happy.
So, bottom line? Next time you hug your dog, make sure s/he does not express any visible signs of discomfort. If they enjoy it, embrace your furry friend. For now, a set of casual observations that weren’t part of a peer-reviewed study need not come between you and your dog!30