Some animal studies are lame, like the one that found horses prefer bananas over carrots. Some are inane, like the one that discovered coyotes would indeed kill pet cats they encountered outside. And still others are not studies at all, but rather one man’s opinion after surfing the internet long enough to look at 250 different random photos.
The man in this case is a guy named Stanley Coren, Ph.D., who happens to be a former University of British Columbia psychology professor and author of a few dog-related books. So yeah, he has some credibility behind his name. But the credibility of his “study,” which was basically a blog post on Psychology Today, is a different matter.
What The ‘Study’ Entailed
The guy randomly searched for and then looked at 250 photos of people hugging dogs on Google and Flickr. His research complete, he put forth the conclusion that dogs hate hugs. In summarizing the data, Coren said the internet is stocked with tons of photos of “happy people” giving hugs to “what appear to be unhappy dogs.”
What Makes The Dogs ‘Appear To Be Unhappy?’
Coren said 81.6 percent of the photos he looked at featured hugged pooches showing signs of distress. Signs of distress in dogs can (but did not necessarily) include:
- Baring their teeth
- Lashing out
- Turning away from what’s bothering them
- Closing their eyes, at least partially
- Opening their eyes wide enough to show the whites in a half-moon shape
- Lowering their ears against their head
- Licking their lips
- Raising a paw
Biting you is another way a dog can show displeasure, he said. And guess what else Coren disclosed? Most facial dog bites in children occur right after the children had been hugging the dog! Now, it wouldn’t have anything at all to do with the fact that the child’s face might be about two centimeters from the dog’s mouth. It must have been that god-forsaken hug!
Not The Hug, But The Photo Session?
Just like forcing your face next to a dog’s mouth could result in a facial dog bite, forcing your dog to sit posed for a camera while a potentially unfamiliar person snaps a pic could result in a dog being distressed.
My favorite family portrait was taken by a photographer we had never met before. It includes two of my dogs, one of which has his eyes open wide enough as if they’re about to explode. For the record, no one is hugging him. His head also looks 30 times larger than the entire rest of the family put together, but we’re not sure if that was just a weird camera angle or is yet another sign of complete distress?
Coren also mentioned how dogs are “cursorial animals,” or those designed for rapid running. If you put them in a place they feel trapped, like a hug, they’re likely to get stressed out. Does that mean if you put them in a place they feel trapped, like in front of a stranger targeting them with a camera, they’re also likely to get stressed out?
Dog Owners and Others Bite Back
Many dog owners heartily disagreed with Coren’s assumption, including those who spoke out online in response to a fun Dogs Hate Hugs infographic. Former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., disagreed enough with the conclusion to write his own Psychology Today blog post. Bekoff basically said all dogs are different. Some may be love sponges who adore being hugged, while others may respond with that facial biting stuff.
He said to make sure you know the dog before you hug, and skip it if you’re unsure of how the dog will react. But he also said much more research and information would be required before someone proclaim “Dogs hate hugs” across the board.
That brings us to the last question. Why? Why on earth do we need more research on dog hugging? Perhaps for the same reason someone poured thousands of dollars into a study to find out that coyotes kill cats. Or that horses, deep in their hearts, are yearning for bananas when we so unthinkingly hand them a carrot.