The news this week was full of a story about how research carried out by a retired psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, Stanley Coren, has found that the majority of dogs don’t like receiving hugs from humans. The professor made these claims in an article published in the Psychology Today magazine. (Here is the link to the article itself if you want to have a read. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201604/the-data-says-dont-hug-the-dog ) So, facts first, what did the research say? Well upon closer inspection I found that this is the first issue, as despite the way the press have been reporting it, it isn’t actually a research project. Well not one that has been validated or peer reviewed anyway and there is no published data available in terms of the methodology or statistics.
The part of the article which has generated the stories in the press is this direct quote from the article, “…in times of stress or threat the first line of defense that a dog uses is not his teeth, but rather his ability to run away. Behaviourists believe that depriving a dog of that course of action by immobilizing him with a hug can increase his stress level…”
Hmm….so now I’m not knocking the professor’s article, he has written over a dozen books on canine behaviour so I would assume he is somewhat of an expert in his field, but I do have some concerns around his apparent data collection technique for this piece of work. As he explains in the article he used random Google image and Flickr pictures of humans hugging dogs to rate on a scale of 1 to 3 how distressed the dog looked, using standard observable signs of distress in dogs, e.g. when a dog turns their head away or closes their eyes. Now my dog Max, a four year old Lhasa Apso, closes his eyes when you rub a certain bit on his ear just right, is this him in distress? No quite the opposite, this is Max in a version of doggy heaven.
Therefore, my concern with the data collection method is that because the images were all selected at random, in order to ensure no bias, this also meant that they were used with no additional details known about the dogs, or the circumstances within which the picture was taken. The professor is viewing these pictures in no real context. He doesn’t know about each dogs personal likes and dislikes; how well the dog knows the human that is hugging them in the picture; the circumstances of the hug e.g. whether they have just been at the vets and so may be slightly disgruntled, or had a long run at the beach and so may be tired etc etc, basically no knowledge of contributing factors that could also determine why the dog is making these “observable signs of distress”. Or even whether for these specific dogs these are signs of distress at all. Perhaps the dog shut its eyes because the camera flashed. Maybe it’s the camera they don’t like rather than the hug.
I have to say my gut instinct is to take this article, even acknowledging that it is just that, an article, rather than a fully fledged research study, with a very large pinch of salt. Am I saying I believe you should hug dogs? No, I think it’s relative and dependant on a number of factors. The biggest of these is the relationship the dog has with that person. We all know dogs are man’s best friend so why shouldn’t a dog get a hug from their best friend? This doesn’t mean however that it’s appropriate to hug any cute dog I see in the dog park. So while I may like to, I show these dogs, that I don’t know too well, some common courtesy and I restrain myself. After all, personally I love a hug from my husband, my parents, my closest friends and of course from my dog. I wouldn’t however like a hug from my neighbours, the postman or the lollipop lady I say hello (or rather Bonjour) to every day. They are all very nice people but I don’t want a hug from them, in fact this would cause me to show observable signs of distress, so surely the same goes for dogs?
Another factor to consider is do they ever initiate hugs? Like humans, dogs each have their own personalities (anyone who believes otherwise has obviously never had a pet dog) so while one human may love hugs I know plenty of others who would be horrified at hugging anyone other than their own partner, and dogs are the same. Just because one dog likes it doesn’t mean another will feel the same and vice versa, so let the dog lead the way. If they want a hug they will show you.
My dog Max is exceptionally cuddly. In fact he has no boundaries whatsoever and anyone who visits us can almost guarantee that they will be cuddling Max around 10 minutes after entering our house, regardless of whether they wish to or not. He barks at them for the first 5 minutes to ensure they know who’s boss. Him, clearly! And then seeing that they aren’t a burglar and that there is high potential he may be able to persuade them to rub his belly he will position himself on their lap and snuggle his way in until he can rest his head on their shoulder and they have no option but to give him a cuddle. Job done, Max 1 Human 0 🙂
This is clearly Max leading the situation. Our guests have very little say in this matter, hey he lives here you don’t! But if he didn’t want to hug you he would also make this quite clear. If a dog is ever even slightly squirming to get away, let it go, it’s common sense!
That’s what I would take from this whole article, use common sense. Don’t put a dog in a situation you wouldn’t like to be in yourself but also don’t let this put you off giving your favourite furry friend a hug. Oh and when you see something in the press remember, there’s often more to a story than just the headline that sells papers.
All pictures used are of Max and for nothing other than to showcase his cuteness 🙂