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The Science Behind Hugging Your Dog but Does it Really Matter to Your Lab

Believe it or not but how to hug your dog has been the subject of a real scientific study and guess what the outcome was: Not all dogs like being hugged.

Now if you think the outcome is too much like kicking down an open door if have to agree with you, however the study discovered some data interesting enough to share here with you.

Enjoy Watching the videos

Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care | Psychology Today

A rule of thumb before hugging a dog is to pay very close attention to individual differences, your relationship with the dog, and the situation at hand

Yesterday I received a bunch of emails about an essay by Psychology Today writer Dr. Stanley Coren called “The Data Says ‘Don’t Hug the Dog!'” A short piece in the New York Times titled “Should You Hug Your Dog?” also reported on this essay. I was asked what I thought about the data, and frankly, I was somewhat surprised by his over-arching conclusion (for more on this topic please see this essay and comments for all).

I read through Dr. Coren’s essay and also the comments for his and the New York Times essay and want to offer my two-cents. While the data seem to agree with Dr. Coren’s conclusion, namely, “The clear recommendation to come out of this research is to save your hugs for your two-footed family members and lovers. 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,” we need much more information before prescriptively saying “Don’t hug the dog.” yellow-labrador-retriever-rubbing-faces-with-woman

The bottom line for me is that hugging a dog is okay when the human gives very careful consideration to who the dog is, their relationship with the individual, and context. For example, is the dog nervous? Is there food around? It is essential to pay close attention to the overall context in which the hugging is taking place. Every single dog with whom I had the privilege of sharing my home loved hugs from me and some of my friends. However, two of them didn’t like hugs from anyone but me when there was a lot of noise; one didn’t like anyone close to him when there was food around; and one, who was terrified of thunderstorms, didn’t like hugs from anyone at all in the midst of thunder and lightning or shortly thereafter. I needed to know each dog as an individual and respect their differences. And, I always told visitors and others about their individual personalities so that everyone could get along just fine.

So, a safe rule of thumb to follow, in my humble opinion, is to pay close attention to what you know about the individual dog and what she or he is telling you. And, if you’re unsure, don’t hug the dog! Better safe than sorry. Just like people, some dogs love it, some sort of like it, and some may not like the close contact at all. This follows in line with the fact that dogs are not all unconditional lovers nor sponges for hugs, and we need to respect these differences when interacting with them.

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All in all, I thank Dr. Coren for writing his essay because it’s so interesting that we know so little about what dogs are thinking and feeling when interacting with humans in different situations. It also raises questions about what people need to know about the animals with whom they chose to share their homes.

Choosing to live with another animal is a huge decision that requires deep thought before becoming the guardian for another sentient being. I will write more about this in a future essay, focusing on Dr. Jessica Pierce’s forthcoming book, Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. Indeed, I think it would be a great idea for potential dog guardians/owners to have to take a short course on dog behavior (or on the behavior and needs of the particular species with whom they plan to share their home). It is essential to get things right when trying to understand just whom dogs are and why they do the things they do (please see, for example, “On Comparisons Between Dogs and Wolves: What We Really Know”).

It also would be a great experience for youngsters who will be living with the dog and who, at some time later in life, may choose to share their lives with a dog. It would be a win-win for all: those dogs who like hugs can receive and savor them, and those who don’t will be left alone and be just as happy.


Note: In the spirit of generating more research on this most important topic, I received this interesting note from biologist Paul Paquet. As a fun project, Erik Zimen [an expert on wolf and dog behavior] and I considered the question of “hugging,” “petting” and “inguinal stroking” in the 1970s. Our study controlled for the age, sex, breed of dogs, as well as familiarity of the dogs (labelled as context) with the persons doing the hugging and petting. We also controlled for the age and sex of the human huggers. We measured the response of the dogs using heart rate and respirations (blood pressure was too difficult to measure). We also recorded behavioral responses of the dogs, including body position, ears, tails, and lips. Our general findings were clear—dogs familiar with their “hugger” responded very positively to hugging, petting, and inguinal stroking. Dogs unfamiliar with their “hugger” were initially cautious but gradually relaxed. Breed differences were evident but not adequately predictive of how the dogs would react. Interestingly, behavioural responses that we interpreted as discomfort did not correspond well to the physiological measures of stress.

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The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog!” | Psychology Today

I had brought my dogs to be part of a “Doggy De-Stress Day” on the campus of a local university. These are becoming more common for many colleges in North America and usually take place during midterm exam or final exam periods. The way it works is that dogs (often therapy dogs, but sometimes just well-behaved pets) are brought to campus and students get a chance to pet and interact with the dogs. The rationale here is that during exam periods stress levels run high in the student population, and there is ample evidence that shows that dogs can reduce stress levels. (Click here for more about that). So this seems like a simple method of making students feel a bit less hassled before and between their tests.

At one point during the event a diminutive woman came over to my Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever puppy and gave him a hug. At the time, he was about six months old, and, like most puppies, relatively tolerant of any form of interaction. Nonetheless, in response to the girl’s hug he turned his head to break off eye contact, his ears slicked down, and gave a small stress yawn. I leaned over and said to her: “You really shouldn’t hug a dog. They don’t like it and it raises their stress level.”

The girl looked at me with an expression of disbelief and said, “I’m studying developmental psychology and there’s lots of evidence which says that hugging is important and pleasant. When a mother hugs her child the child gets a surge of the hormone oxytocin and so does the mother, and that hormone is associated with loving and bonding. There is evidence that says that if parents don’t hug and touch their child a lot, that child can grow up to be emotionally stunted. So how can you tell me that hugging isn’t good for dogs, especially for a puppy?”

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The real answer to her question is, of course, that dogs are not human children. 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. For that reason, certain websites, which try to educate children and parents in order to reduce the incidence of dog bites (such as Doggone Safe), make a point about teaching children that they should not hug dogs. Furthermore, a few years back when a children’s book entitled “Smooch Your Pooch” recommended that kids hug and kiss their dog anytime and anywhere, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) felt that it was necessary for them to release an official statement that strongly advised parents to avoid purchasing the book, since “this information can cause children to be bitten.”

Given how widely accepted the idea is that hugging is not something that dogs like, and that hugging a dog may be associated with increasing the likelihood of a dog bite, I was surprised that a search of the scientific literature produced very little experimental evidence to support that belief. I did find two articles that showed that getting bitten on the face was much more likely if you were hugging or kissing a dog. However, the authors of both studies seemed to suggest that the proximity of the person’s face to the dog’s mouth was the most important factor, rather than something like the hug itself. For that reason, I decided to collect some data on this issue.

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The signs of stress and anxiety in dogs are well established, and are easily observable, at least by trained individuals. Obviously at the high-end of stress, we have dogs who bare their teeth. But, there are subtler indicators. The most common sign of anxiety is when the dog turns his head away from whatever is bothering or worrying him, sometimes also closing his eyes, at least partially. Alternatively, dogs will often show what is commonly called a “half-moon eye” or “whale eye” which is where you can see the white portion of the eyes at the corner or the rim. One common visible sign of stress or anxiety is when the dog’s ears are lowered or slicked against the side of his head. Lip licking or licking a person’s face can also be signs of anxiety, as can yawning or raising one paw. These signs and other similar ones should be easy to detect in stressed dogs. All that I needed then to conduct the research was a source of photographic material showing people hugging their dogs. retriever-being-hugged-by-woman

Fortunately for me, the Internet abounds with photographs of people and their pets. If you put the search terms “hug dog” or “love dog” into something like Google Image Search, or Flickr, you will get a virtually infinite scroll of pictures of people and their children hugging their pet dogs. I decided to look at a random sample of 250 such pictures. I used a variety of criteria to try to keep the data as clean and precise as possible. I only used photos where the dog’s face was clearly visible. I also eliminated situations where one might expect the dog’s stress level to rise because of factors other than being hugged (such as when someone lifts a large dog off the ground while hugging them). Each picture received one of three possible scores:

I can summarize the data quite simply by saying that the results indicated that the Internet contains many pictures of happy people hugging what appear to be unhappy dogs. In all, 81.6% of the photographs researchers scored showed dogs who were giving off at least one sign of discomfort, stress, or anxiety. Only 7.6% of the photographs could rate as showing dogs that were comfortable with being hugged. The remaining 10.8% of the dogs either were showing neutral or ambiguous responses to this form of physical contact.

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I suppose that one aspect of the data that struck me as interesting comes from the fact that the photographs that I used were obviously posts by individuals who wanted to show how much they cared for and shared a bond with their pet. This means that the people who were doing the Internet posting probably chose photos in which they felt that both the person and the dog looked happiest. Nonetheless, around 82% of the photographs show unhappy dogs receiving hugs from their owners or children. This seems consistent with other research which suggests that people, especially children, seem to have difficulty reading signs of stress and anxiety based upon their dogs’ facial expressions. (Click here for more about that.) Much more relevant for the current question is the fact that this data clearly shows that while a few dogs may like being hugged, more than four out of five dogs find this human expression of affection to be unpleasant and/or anxiety arousing.

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Hug an Old Dog Today | Psychology Today

I absolutely love puppies. Whenever I see one, I feel a kind of magnetic attraction pulling me toward it, making me want to touch it and cuddle it.  I want to smell Puppy Breath. But I have to confess that my heart really goes out to old dogs.According to the veterinary literature, dogs are considered geriatric when they turn 7 (5 for some larger breeds of dog, 9 for some smaller breeds). My little Maya is eight, which means she is now, officially, a senior citizen. (Does this mean we get discounts on dog food?) She is still active, and when she’s out running with me, she looks sleek and beautiful. But I notice that she sleeps a lot more these days. She is getting all kinds of lumps under her skin (called lipomas) and various skin tags are growing on her eyebrows and chin. The fur beneath her eyes is streaked with white.

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Within the population of companion animals, the elderly is the fastest growing category with over 35% of all pets in the U.S. now considered, by their vets, geriatric. There are about 78 million companion dogs in U.S. households and 94 million cats, which means roughly 27 million geriatric dogs and 33 million geriatric cats. These numbers are likely to grow, as veterinary medicine offers an ever wider range of treatments, from organ transplants to hip replacements, and as better lifelong care increases pet life expectancies. In step with the changing pet demographic is a growing appreciation for the final stages of our companion animals’ lives: there are geriatric specialists, old-dog and old-cat foods, products designed help older animals maintain functionality, books devoted to caring for old pets, advice from trainers about how to deal with age-related behavioral changes, and old dog and old cat rescue organizations.

Despite increasing attention to the needs of old companion animals, for many, being old is a dark and unpleasant stage of life. There remains a deep prejudice against the old. Many elderly animals are euthanized simply because of their age, or because their human owners don’t have the patience or resources to adapt to their changing needs. Many more languish in shelters, where adoption rates for seniors are very low. Old animals too often suffer from untreated disease and pain, either because owners don’t recognize their changing needs or because they cannot or will not pay for adequate veterinary care.

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Aging can be hard on animals, and on their human companions. But the challenges of aging can invite us to know and love new dimensions of our animals, as we become particularly attuned to their evolving needs. It is a time for us to give back some of the unconditional love, patience, and tolerance that our pets offer us throughout their lives.

I have enjoyed the time with each of our dogs as they aged, and I think in the future when it’s time for a new dog we will adopt an older dog from our local shelter.

I loved my friend, Zelda. I wanted two dogs… Scott and Zelda. I only got one. She died at 11. Pancreatic Cancer and diabetes. And I was and am, devastated. She was peaceful, cool,and sympathetic. I remember that when I would sneeze, Zelda would come to me and press her body against me… wondering just what the hell was going on. One day, I was with Zelda off leash. She took off toward a two year old little girl waking with her parents. All I could say was “my dog won’t hurt her.” And Zelda didn’t. She stopped short of the girl… and sat down. Her tail wagged… and then she licked the little girl’s face. And the girl was delighted… laughing… and spinning… and loving Zelda. jZelda just sat there, waiting for the child again. When the parents saw what happened… they both dropped to the ground, laid on their backs… and Zelda love them all. Licking faces… laying on her side… and generally loving the family. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

My next adoption is definitely going to be an elderly dog. They need homes so badly and it seems extra sad for them to live out their final days in a stressful and unfamiliar environment.

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