I never met a dog I didn’t want to hug. The feeling, alas, is likely not mutual. In a giant bummer of an article published recently in Psychology Today, Stanley Coren — who studies canine behavior at the University of British Columbia — makes a sadly strong case against the dog hug, arguing that although humans love embracing their canine pals, the physical contact stresses dogs out.
If you know what to look for, their annoyance becomes obvious. Lesson one: Coren writes that a dog’s most common outward signal of stress or anxiety is when he “turns his head away from whatever is bothering or worrying him, sometimes also closing his eyes, at least partially.” Lesson two: Just like humans, dogs have whites of the eye — it’s just that you never see it unless the animal is stressed. And lesson three: An anxious or stressed-out dog’s ears will be “lowered or slicked against the side of his head,” Coren writes.
In the Psychology Today piece, Coren describes a recent data collection exercise of his, in which he combed through Flickr and did a Google image search for terms like “hug dog” or “love dog,” and found 250 photos of people hugging their dogs. He and some colleagues then analyzed these photos by rating the dog’s body language, looking for those signs of dog-anxiety. Nearly 82 percent of the dogs in the selected photos showed at least one sign of stress. To reiterate: Dogs hate hugs.
An embrace between humans signals communication and warmth and intimacy, but dogs, of course, are not humans. Coren explains why the restriction of an embrace may annoy or frighten a dog:
Dogs are technically cursorial animals, which is a term that indicates that they are designed for swift running. That implies that 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. 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.
To let your dog know you love him, a pat on the head or a nice belly rub or a treat will suffice. And if you need a new photo opp idea, maybe take a note from Coren’s UBC bio, and politely stand next to your dog. No hugs necessary.