“The Data Says ‘Don’t Hug the Dog!'” is the title of an article published on Psychology Today a couple of weeks ago. Psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren analyzed random photos of humans hugging dogs and found that a large percentage of the pictures showed dogs exhibiting signs of stress and anxiety while being hugged. The Internet didn’t take kindly to this news; many eyebrows were raised, and many more hearts were broken.
Dr. Coren’s Puppy
Dr. Coren had the idea for his research when he brought his dog to campus for “Doggy De-Stress Day” as the university’s effort to lessen stress among students through interaction with well-behaved dogs. Evidence shows that this is especially effective during examination season when stress levels rise above the roof. There was one woman who approached Coren’s Nova Scotia Retriever puppy to give him a hug. Coren noticed the puppy giving off stress signals when he was hugged. “He turned his head to break off eye contact, his ears slicked down, and gave a small stress yawn,” the psychologist wrote. He called out the woman and said she really shouldn’t hug dogs as it stresses them out. The lady responded in disbelief, arguing that as a student of developmental psychology, she studies the importance and benefits of a hug, especially between parent and child.
While the benefits of hugging a child cannot be stressed enough, Dr. Coren emphasizes that dogs are not human children to which this rule applies. He describes dogs to be “cursorial animals”, which means that dogs are biologically built for swift running. When their ability to run is dampened, it gives them a heightened amount of anxiety, which is what happens when most dogs are being hugged. In some cases, the stress level gets too high that they tend to bite the hugger.
Dr. Coren discovered that although behaviorists instruct humans not to hug dogs, there are not that much available literature on the Internet to support this claim, so he decided to conduct his own study. He randomly selected 250 photos of dogs being hugged from online photo repositories such as Flickr and Google Images. He limited his selection to photos with the face of the dog clearly visible. He eliminated photos that showed signs of situations that may have raised a dog’s stress level aside from being hugged, such as one where a dog was being lifted off the ground. Among the 250 photos, he was able to yield the following results:
- 81.6% showed at least one sign of stress such as submissive eye closure, half moon eyes, lip licking, head turned away, raised paws, and ears down.
- 10.8% showed neutral or ambiguous responses to being hugged.
- 7.6% showed dogs comfortable while being hugged.
Coren believes that these photos were uploaded to the Internet as the owners believed that it showed best the kind of relationship they had with their dog. This says something about how little people understand dog’s feelings and behavior.
The Internet Reacts
Dr. Coren recommends switching to other gestures when showing affection to dogs – “a pat, a kind word, and maybe a treat”. Some readers appreciated his research and expressed that it helped them better understand their dogs. However, his recommendation, and his study in general, didn’t sit well with some readers. One reader replied, “My dog will still get hugs from me! I need it and he is happy!” Interestingly, one other reader gave a lesson on subject-verb agreement, pertaining to the title of the article. Oh, Internet!