Observations on hugging dogs

Recent research from Stanley Coren, a world-renowned behavioural psychologist, has created an enormous amount of interest. Coren studied hundreds of photos of dogs being hugged and analysed their expressions to determine if they were stressed or not. He calculated that 81.6% of the dogs showed signs of stress and anxiety and concluded that owners should not treat their dogs like children by cuddling them as they do not like it and, in the worst cases, may react aggressively.

What is the man talking about I hear? My dog obviously didn’t read that research because he loves cuddles! Let’s take a step back and look at what is really going on here.

Dogs are not human. They are not even primates. Hugging and holding close are instinctual human actions that are designed to comfort and give security to our babies. Dogs, especially puppies, are so cute that our nurturing instincts are difficult to ignore and we swoop on them to give them affection. From the dog’s point of view, this is a very different thing. Dogs don’t hug one another, and they don’t hold pups to comfort them. If a bitch picks up one of her pups she’ll do it with her mouth and it will be done to get it out of trouble, return it to the nest or stop it doing something unacceptable. This represents something quite negative to the puppy. It is being shown that what it was doing is unacceptable and the consequence must be borne, certainly not enjoyed.

Being high up in the air is also very unnatural for a dog. It may suddenly find itself many body heights above the ground, precariously dangling its legs and being restricted by strong arms around its body.

On the other hand, dogs create strong and close bonds with their owners and learn to interpret their body language very effectively. If I stand up to leave a room, you can bet my dogs will know if I plan to go out of the house or if I’m just popping into another room for a few minutes.

Just like humans, they experience a reduction in blood pressure if they are stroked by someone they trust. Some people also swear by the Thunder Shirt. This is a tight-fitting jacket designed to give comfort to a stressed or anxious dog. This may appear at first sight to be the same as a hug but actually it is quite different. Wearing any form of jacket does not prevent a dog from moving around, running away or doing anything else it feels it would like to. It is a means of calming dogs without physical contact by giving constant gentle pressure in a similar way to swaddling a baby.

Dogs vary in character and, especially if they are comfortable in their homes, many will accept a hug as a demonstration of affection. They might even push against their owner to increase the amount of physical contact between them, which many enjoy so much. Many dogs learn to accept hugging as part of their relationship with their owners, knowing that they mean no harm and that the hugging gives pleasure to the hugger.

Dogs are pack animals and gain warmth and comfort from touch, just as we do but this is not the same as physical restraint, particularly if the dog has been picked up. I would be interested to know how many of the dogs in Coren’s study are doubly restricted by being hugged and also being up in the air.

So, when you next meet a little dog or puppy please don’t sweep it up into the air and press it your face and chest in a bear hug. At the worst it will be terrified and at the best resigned and probably uncomfortable.