It seems like there’s always some new weird pet adventure or problem being explored on the Internet. Stories of late have featured people scaring cats with cucumbers and carrying them in specially-designed backpacks (only one of these things is a good idea…I’ll leave it to you to guess). Most recently, we’re being told not to hug dogs.
This story developed out of a blog post on Psychology Today, got picked up by NPR and other news media outlets, and has since gone viral. Many dog owners are outraged. Presumably, so are their dogs. The post seems to liken the hugs to almost a kind of emotional abuse, wherein the dog’s stress level is raised significantly by the act of being hugged.
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The author behind the post (and now most severely disliked person on the Internet among dog-lovers) is Dr. Stanley Coren, a well-published psychologist with a bevy of books under his belt. He came to the conclusion that dogs don’t like being hugged and that it in fact raises their stress levels by examining a random sampling of 250 pictures of people hugging their dogs from Google Image Search and Flickr. In 81.6% of the photos, Coren states, the dogs show signs of distress such as half-moon eyes, looking away, licking their lips and other disturbing indicators of their stress levels being raised.
This is because dogs are cursorial animals, Coren explains, and their first mode of defense is to run. Not bite, not fight, but run. When they feel trapped, as they often do when a human is hugging them, they don’t feel like they can turn to that first response and instead may go to more aggressive behaviors, such as barking or biting. Since the dogs often trust the human hugging them, however, they instead just tolerate the affection even though it stresses them out.
This prompted, of course, many an indignant reaction from dog owners and dog lovers across the World Wide Web. This response seemed particularly representative and well-written; instead of just lashing out at Coren, the author of the post works through her feelings about how she may be stressing her dogs out.
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Still, in 7.6% of the pictures the dogs did appear to be happy with the hugging. As Dr. Marc Bekoff contends in his post in response to Dr. Coren’s original post, hugging dogs is okay if the situation is approached with great care. The bottom line, he says, is that if there is any doubt about how a dog is going to respond, don’t hug them.
Inasmuch as we often treat our pets as people and elevate their statuses in our lives, it’s important that we recognize that, as animals, they will have different conditions of affectionand appreciation than we will. Hugs raise oxytocin levels in humans, while they often stress out dogs. We need to be respectful of that. Dog expert Colleen Safford explains how to embrace your dog without doing so literally in this excellent essay.