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.
This week I received a bunch of emails about a recent 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 also reported on his essay. I was asked what I thought about the data, and frankly, I was somewhat surprised by his overarching conclusion. (For more, see this essay and its comments.)
I read Coren's essay and also the comments on it, and I want to offer my two cents: While the data seem to agree with Coren's conclusion—"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"—I believe that we need much more information before prescriptively saying, "Don't hug the dog."
Not all dogs are unconditional lovers, nor are they all sponges for hugs. When in doubt, don't hug.
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. It is essential to pay close attention to the overall context in which the hugging is taking place. For example, is the dog nervous? Is there food around? Every single dog with whom I have 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.
Becoming a student of dog behavior would be a win-win for all: It's essential to get things right and to tell the truth
I thank 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 choose to share their homes.
Choosing to live with another animal is a huge decision. Becoming the guardian for another sentient being requires deep thought. (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 or 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's essential to get things right when trying to understand just whom dogs are and why they do the things they do. Unfortunately, this isn't necessarily what happens even in books that are alleged to be of the academic sort (please see "On Comparisons Between Dogs and Wolves: What We Really Know" and links therein for more on how people can be seriously misled when beliefs and casual stories are substituted for facts). The truth matters.
It also would be a great experience for the 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.
The bottom line is that when you hug a dog it's on their terms, not yours.
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, and breed of dogs, as well as familiarity of the dogs (labeled 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, behavioral responses that we interpreted as discomfort did not correspond well to the physiological measures of stress.
This comment is very interesting:
I totally agree with Dr. Bekoff and the previous comments. It depends on the
dog!! Dr. Coren himself notes that his hypothesis (not fact) cannot be
supported by 18.4% of the photos he SELECTED from the Internet. I have not
been without at least one dog in decades, originally purebreds, now ones I
personally rescued. Sharing my home with them (cats too) continues to enrich
my life daily. As the other commenters have noted about their canine
friends--some of mine have loved and initiated hugs; others simply want to
snuggle and be petted. Coren recounts an incident about his six-month-old
duck toller pup exhibiting stress when hugged by a stranger. Actually, I am
fairly certain that dogs (and humans for that matter) do not want to be
embraced by a stranger. At least, that is my opinion; and, without serious
study by scientific standards, Dr. Coren's conclusion is just that--his
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson).