It’s furry, sweet and loyal – so why wouldn’t you treat your dog like a family member? And to most, that means plenty of hugs and affection. However, researchers are now revealing that by hugging our dogs we are not be acting is our pet’s best interest. In fact, we are now being told not to cuddle our dogs.
There is no denying that pets, in particular, dogs have found their way into countless homes and hearts. Indeed, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) has researched pet statistics as part of its 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey. This survey found that almost half (48 percent) of American homes have dogs.
The APPA also found that the millennial generation dominates dog ownership, accounting for 35 percent of owners. Not only this, but they spend much more than previous generations of pet owners. Evidently, they splash the cash on pet products and pampering.
Moreover, 78 percent of dog owners are spoiling their pooch with Christmas and birthday presents. And 23 percent of millennial owners have thrown a party for their pet. What’s more, 17.5 million dog owners have adapted their holidays around their pets. They choose to stay in dog-friendly hotels so their four-legged pal isn’t left out of the family holiday.
No longer are family pets just seen as a possession. Instead, we are now viewing them as a member of the family, and important ones for that matter. According to APPA, 71 percent of dog owners believe they bring families closer together.
Additionally, 81 percent of dog owners believe that their pet brings them more happiness. At the same time, 66 percent believe pets lower their stress levels. And they’re not wrong in these beliefs. A recent study concluded that pets can have a positive impact on our mental and physical health. Dog owners who relied on their pet for their social needs were less lonely, less depressed and generally happier.
Naturally, few dog owners, then, would deny that they are happier when they are cuddling up with their loyal, furry friend. Yet research may show that your dog is not as happy with this arrangement as you are. In fact, scientists are suggesting that dogs don’t want our well-meaning hugs.
Experts from The Kennel Club have voiced their opinions on the matter. They believe that behaving as though our pets were children is inappropriate, because, unlike kids, dogs do not like being hugged. The Kennel Club’s Caroline Kisko explains, “Dogs are often considered part of the family; however, they are not human and may, therefore, react differently to certain interactions such as hugging.”
Experts from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home also agree with this opinion. Senior canine behaviorist Claire Matthews stated, “A hug might be a normal social greeting for humans but it isn’t for a dog. Subtle stress signals can be missed when you’re hugging your pet and this could lead to a negative reaction, so it’s about recognizing when your dog is uncomfortable.”
Dr. Stanley Coren has even gone so far as to study dogs and their reactions to hugging. His expertise comes from being a canine behavior expert and a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Coren believes that dogs exhibit signs of stress when embraced by their owners, and wanted to investigate further.
He looked at 250 pictures of dogs being hugged and their reactions to draw his conclusions. Eight out of ten of these pets showed signs of stress which suggest a dislike or fear of hugs. These signs include: flattened or pressed back ears, whites of their eyes showing, head turning away to avoid eye contact, excessive licking, yawning or raising one paw.
In the images studied by Dr. Coren, 81.6 percent of them showed a least one of these signs of stress. But only 7.6 percent showed a dog at ease. And he couldn’t see clearly enough in the remaining 10.8 percent how the dogs felt.
But what is it about hugging that causes dogs to display stress signals? Dr. Coren explains in an article for Psychology Today, that “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.”
He then adds, “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.”
So Dr. Coren’s advice is, “Save your hugs for your two-footed family members and lovers.” Additionally, he explains, “It is clearly better from the dog’s point of view if you express your fondness for your pet with a pat, a kind word, and maybe a treat.”
But before you get too disappointed and stop hugging your dog altogether, it is important to note that this research does have its limits. Dr. Coren himself has pointed out that he was basing his results solely on “casual observations.” Not only this but the study has not been peer reviewed, so other scientists have not examined the results without bias.
Peer reviewers may argue, in fact, that since choosing the dog’s pictures was done at random from online sources, Dr. Coren had little context to draw on. For example, he does not know the environment the dog was pictured in or how it felt before the shot.
The data, therefore, is far from providing conclusive evidence regarding how dogs feel about hugging. Evan MacLean, the co-director of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center, does, however, believe, “This is interesting preliminary data which might serve as a good starting point for a formal study.”
Coren’s data, has understandably received some criticism, including from Mashable UK’s “25 dogs who clearly love hugs” article. Despite this, Coren is glad his data, while only preliminary, is getting so much media attention. He believes he has drawn attention to the dangers of triggering stresses.
You may now be asking, ‘Can I hug my dog or not then?’ Unfortunately, we don’t have a definitive answer. However, MacLean states, “I would advise against hugging dogs, at least in the conventional human form of hugging. This is essentially primate behavior (for example, we see similar embraces in nonhuman apes, but not something that dogs do with one another naturally.” MacLean then adds, “However, there are lots of ways to have close body contact with dogs that don’t require wrapping your arms around them in a confining manner.”