“Dogs Don’t Like to be Hugged” – Unless They Do

30 April 2016 8 Comments

There’s a bit of a furore on t’internet. Apparently “Science says” dogs don’t like to be hugged, and the face-twitter-sphere is awash with the repercussions.

I like “science”. I like the way it informs and changes over time.Ted Hugged1

So where did this “science” come from? It was widely reported in the Telegraph and the New York Times, so it must be true – but where did their “science reporters” get it from?

They lifted it from the University of Columbia’s respected Dr Stanley Coren’s Psychology Today article entitled, “The Data Says ‘Don’t Hug The Dog!’”

In the article Dr Coren explains that someone walked up to his dog and hugged it – and he could see the dog didn’t like it. He goes on to say that (I’m paraphrasing now) everybody knows that dogs don’t like to be hugged, but that there was no data to support it.

“Dogs don’t like to be hugged” is a hypothesis, so Dr Coren set up an experiment to test it. He looked at 250 random pictures (the article doesn’t say how he randomised them, but just taking the first 250 hits on google images from a search of “hug dog” would probably do). He then took out some that might not be just “hugging” such as big dogs that were lifted off their feet.

Then he looked at the dogs in the pictures for signs of unease. These are widely recognised, so let’s assume he used universally accepted ones. And he found that 81.6% of the pictured dogs showed at least one sign that it wasn’t totally happy. So far so good.

He then concluded that, because 81.6% is a large majority, dogs don’t like being hugged. He justifies the conclusion by saying that it is because dogs are cursorial, they don’t like to be confined.  Others jumped in to agree.

Oops.

Dr Coren should know better (and so should the Others and the “science journalists”).

Nice word, “cursorial” – it means that dogs hunt or are hunted by running long distances. It sounds nicely scientific too, doesn’t it? Adds weight to the conclusion. Dogs don’t like to be hugged because they are cursorial. Except…  hugging is neither a prey nor predatory action (unless you are a bear or possibly a boa or other constrictor). It is a social one – and dogs ARE social creatures.

However, that blooper pales into insignificance beside his biggest problem. Sample bias. You see when you are investigating a hypothesis and perform an experiment, to project the result to the whole population you have to take a random sample (ideally “all of” but often just a big representative number) of the population. So to get to the conclusion that “dogs don’t like to be hugged” you have to take a random sample of all dogs.

And Dr Coren didn’t.

Dr Coren took a random sample of, “Dogs being hugged having their pictures taken for posting on the internet.” Not the same at all. Having your picture taken is an artificial situation. It could involve posing or repeatedly being held still enough to get a good picture (if you are a dog).

What Dr Coren’s study revealed was that, “from a sample of 250 dogs being hugged and having their picture taken for posting on the internet 81.6% showed one or more signs of unease.” That is a long way from showing, “Dogs don’t like to be hugged.”

Forget, “Dogs don’t like to be hugged” and forget, “cursorial”, because neither are doing us any favours.

Hugging is an overtly social action. People do it – you don’t need to be a child psychologist to recognise that children love to do it to their parents, peers and even toys. Adults also express their affection by hugging. But do dogs?

Errr… bit of a problem. Lack of arms has kind of held them back from developing “hugging” as an expression of affection. Dogs don’t hug other dogs. But do they like being hugged by people?

I guess the answer is the same as if you asked me the same question. Do I like being hugged by other people?

I’m a repressed northerner. I don’t do hugging. I don’t do the French-style peck on the cheek as a form of greeting either. So if I’d been walking with Dr Coren (as his dog was) and a complete stranger walked up to me and hugged me, they’d be lucky to get away without a smack in the mouth. At the very least I’d back away, showing signs of unease.

But there are circumstances in which I do like to be hugged. My little face lights up when my grandchildren hug me, and I like a cuddle on the sofa with Sue watching TV.

Do I like to be hugged for too long, or too intensely? No. Do I like to feel that I can break away from the hug that lasts too long for comfort? Yes.

So what do we have?

  • Dogs don’t hug each other, so they have to learn that it is a demonstration of affection from a human. That takes repetition and gentle introduction – better learnt as a puppy.
  • If they enjoy hugging at all (and they don’t have to), they probably enjoy hugging from someone dear to them more than someone less familiar.
  • The way in which they are hugged will make it more or less enjoyable.
  • They must be able to feel they can back away if it gets too intense.

Dr Coren does come up with one important aspect of our relationship with dogs. His study showed dogs indicating signs of unease in 81.6% of his sample. Dogs communicate through body language, and it is difficult for us to see their expression if we are hugging them. They will tell us when they have had enough, or if they don’t like what they are doing, by their expression.

It dismays me that 81.6% of people in the sample couldn’t see their dogs weren’t happy. For goodness sake, pay attention, because if you don’t, that’s when they get scared and might give you a smack in the mouth. After all, I would.

And one final thing. Children don’t read dog body language well, so making sure they are well supervised around dogs, know they must not approach strange dogs, and are absolutely never left alone with a dog, is an absolute must.

If you don’t understand dog body language and expression, or can’t be bothered to pay attention to what they are telling you – don’t hug your dog. If you do, and you can see he likes it – go ahead.

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8 Comments »

  • Kate Ayrey said:

    Brilliantly put, as always! As a Cheshire girl, coming to Switzerland for a three peck greeting took a while to get used to. All my dogs love* to be hugged!
    *for love, perhaps tolerate would be better!

  • Lisa said:

    Brilliant David. I own a 4 yo Lab and a 19 wo mini EBT. both actively seek human cuddles. Learned behaviour? Maybe. Maturely it is down to the individual dog’s preferences?

  • Eveln askis said:

    Excellent article but I disagree about two points.

    Firstly Coren selected ONLY THOSE POTOS where the dog was facing the camera (ie where he could see the dog’s face. Now tis means that he is pretty effectively rejecting all the photos when the dog is enjoying the smooching.

    Dogs can tolerate hugging without actively enjoying it, and it seems to me that these are the ones that Coren selected as the ‘unstressed’ dog.
    He has chosen certain indications as “stress’ which does not seem right to me. He seems to have chosen well recognised submissive behaviour, which rather then being stress is just a social greeting signal.

    “Appeasement behaviours are often associated with friendly greetings . . . The differences between pacifying, friendly, fearful or submissive behaviour are, generally, small and quantitative”( Abrantes, 1997, p. 184). . . . Examples . . . ears back” ‘
    ‘Canine Behavior a Photo Illustrated handbook’ Barbara Handelman

    Ears back is a common friendly greeting signal — dogs will actively la back their ears we they solicit attention affection and touching. Half-closed eyes are also a common signal we soliciting social grooming.
    The dogs will lick the dogs they want attention from. Dog will lick a persons face, neck of arm to solicit petting. If the person avoids this lick it might be misinterpretted by people (who want to prove a point) that the dog is stressed.
    As for lifting a paw — What? My dogs like to hold hands wit me — yes when they are stressed, because for them holding hands is reassuring.
    And showing the whites of the eyes though it CA be a indication of stress. It is not necessarily so. It depends on the relative size of the eye-ball and the eye-opening (lids). Some dogs show the whites of their eyes merely when they look side-ways without turning their head. Other dog will dip their heads as they look at you i a attempt to coerce a extra treat out of you,

    When I looked at the photos on Google, I saw mostly dogs there were either happy and loving it, or otherwise just simply not caring all that much. I would suspect that this was the 81.6% that Coren called stressed — the others had their ears forward and their eyes hard and staring and looked to me very likely to bite if not released pretty soon.

  • David Ryan (author) said:

    Yes, don’t disagree, but wanted to keep it simple 🙂

  • Devon Thomas Treadwell said:

    A photograph is only a moment in time. I could show you an image of teeth-baring dogs that look like they’re about to rip each other’s face off, but it’s only a fraction of a second during rambunctious play between two dog friends.

    To make an accurate interpretation of a dog’s emotional state, you need more than a single frame. You would need to observe over several seconds at least. Sample bias indeed.

  • Belinda Walsh said:

    Nice analysis David. With acknowledgement to the other comments I think you picked out the key issues very clearly. Good to see science turning its attention to dog behaviour – and as you say, it can always be reviewed, replicated and revised!

  • Harriet said:

    I feel important point is NEVER go and hug a strange dog, respect its space and don’t even touch or attempt to touch it without owner’s permission (and especially don’t allow a child to do so). Some dogs are the canine equivalent of repressed Northerners and don’t like it from strangers while they may be happy with it from known and trusted people.

  • Sheila Thompson said:

    Hugging a dog that you don’t know is foolhardy to say the least and as Harriet says, NEVER do it!

    To me, hugging your own dog and whether or not the dog is stressed by it, is all a matter of respecting boundaries and intention. We expect (teach) dogs to respect our boundaries (by not jumping up for instance) but do we actually respect theirs? How many dog owners actually notice their dogs’ body language and are guided by it in their mutual interactions? Just like people, some dogs enjoy being hugged, others don’t – a matter of their personal preference (sometimes influenced by past experiences), and in my opinion their preferences regarding their personal boundaries should be respected by their human family.

    As others have said, a rubbish study with rubbish results.

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