Dog lovers around the Internet are having a crisis: Science has proven that dogs hate hugs.
Just kidding, that didn’t exactly happen. But you’d think it had based on numerous headlines like “Your Dog Hates Hugs,” “Science Says Dogs Don't Like Hugs” and “You Need To Stop Hugging Your Dog, Study Finds.” These reports all reference a Psychology Today article on April 13, titled “The Data Says ‘Don't Hug the Dog!'“
But “the data” in this case came from one man, psychology professor and dog behavior expert Stanley Coren, analyzing a sample of 250 photos of humans hugging dogs that he found via Google Image Search and Flickr. In 81.6 percent of the photos, Coren concluded the dogs showed at least one sign of discomfort, stress or anxiety.
Coren is certainly not promoting that effort as the be-all and end-all on hugging dogs.
“This is a set of casual observations,” Coren told The Washington Post, adding that his findings weren’t part of a peer-reviewed study.
As the Post’s Rachel Feltman pointed out, there are plenty of potential variables in his data that weren't considered. For instance, we don’t know if the photos that pop up on Google Image Search are representative of how all dogs respond to hugs. It’s possible that people are more inclined to post a photo online if the dog is making what they perceive as a funny face. It's possible that staging a hug for a photo makes the process more awkward and the dog less amenable.
That being said, Coren’s overall message — that dogs typically don’t enjoy hugs as much as humans assume they do — is in line with generally accepted wisdom from dog behaviorists. Coren wrote:
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.
“Dogs, like people, have a particular way of greeting, none of which involves having a foreleg over the shoulder,” dog behaviorist Patricia McConnell told the Mother Nature Network.
While some dogs may indeed enjoy hugs, many experience the act as more or less threatening, McConnell said. But owners aren’t always adept at reading dog body language and facial expressions.
A few years back, McConnell offered a helpful checklist of signs that a dog does or does not enjoy a hug. Signs of enjoyment include leaning into the person and wagging the tail. Signs of unhappiness include turning the head away, repeatedly licking the person’s face, yawning and tensing up.
In other words, it’s true that your dog may not like being embraced as much as you think. But Coren’s recent research has not definitively “proven” that dogs hate hugs.