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.
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.
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.