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Sunday, May 8, 2016

'Don't hug your dog' - Is this true or false?

For many of us, physical contact with our pets is part of the enjoyment, and it seems strange to be told to back off in this way. So what's the background to this attention-grabbing headline?

The story started with a piece in Psychology Today by psychologist and animal behaviour specialist Stanley Coren. He did some simple research by analysing two hundred and fifty photos posted on the internet of people hugging dogs.

He assessed the facial expressions and body language of the dogs in the photos, looking for signs that the dogs were feeling stressed. He found that in over 80% of the photos, the dogs were showing at least one sign of discomfort, stress, or anxiety. His conclusion was that hugs should be reserved for other humans, and that dogs would be more likely to appreciated a pat on the head, a treat, or just a kind word.

As is often the case, the newspaper industry took the original story and amplified it, rather than looking at it critically. But so many pet owners love hugging their dogs from time to time, and the story seems to me to be so contentious that it deserved to be looked at in more detail.

In particular, the way that the data was gathered deserves to be scrutinised.If you think about the type of photo that people post on the Internet, it's often far from a relaxed situation. Many of the pictures are selfies, with the person holding their pet tightly while they try to catch the right pose for the camera. This means that the pet is under two stresses: first, being hugged, and second, being forced into a particular position to show up well in the photo. It's no wonder that they often seem anxious.

One of the odd aspects of animal behaviour that I've noticed over the years is that some animals don't seem to like having their photo taken. I can't explain this, but all I know is that some pets seem to do anything to avoid looking at the camera in a relaxed way.

They avert their gaze, they wriggle, and refuse to look relaxed and calm when a camera is pointing at them. Photographers use tricks like treats and squeaky toys to make pets look at the camera, but it seems as if some pets are stressed by the mere fact that their photo is being taken. So it seems likely that there is a built in bias towards pets looking stressed when their photos are being taken.

With those provisos, Professor Coren is making a very good point. Many dogs do not enjoy being hugged tightly. Many humans are not aware enough of dog body language, and they don't notice when their pets are not happy. There's a strong risk that if people continue to hug dogs that are not enjoying the situation, the dog may snap, and if somebody's bitten, the dog will be blamed. So for this reason, people should think carefully about how their dog is reacting to being hugged.

The signs of stress in dogs should be known and recognised by all dog owners. Unhappy dogs carry out a range of distinctive behaviours, and some of them are subtle. The most obvious sign is growling, or baring the teeth, but before dogs do that, they have other mannerisms, including tensing their body, licking their lips, yawning, flattening their ears, closing or narrowing their eyes, or adopting a fearful expression that shows the whites of their eyes. If a dog is doing any of these things when you're hugging them, it's time to back off and give them some space.

Children are particularly at risk, for three reasons. First, they are more trusting and less cautious than adults, often completely unaware that there is a risk of being bitten by a dog. Second, they have not yet learned about meaning of body language in dogs, so they may not even recognise a warning sign as obvious as a dog growling. And third, they are smaller than adults, so they make an easier target for a dog to bite.

Children below the age of 15 account for 60% of all dog bites on humans, with the 5 - 9 year old age group being particularly vulnerable. And boys are particularly at risk, making up two-thirds of the children being bitten. Studies have shown that children are particularly poor at understanding dog body language, getting it right only 17% of the time. This means that they're unlikely to spot the warning signs that a dog is anxious or fearful. So if a child is hugging a dog that's uncomfortable about the situation, the child won't realise it, and the dog's discomfort is more likely to progress to the stage when the dog may bite the child in an effort to escape.

It makes sense, then, for parents to do two things. First, discourage their children from hugging dogs. And second, teach their children about dog body language: there's an excellent website ( which provides low-cost educational materials for teachers and community organisations to help educate children about how to recognise negative emotional signals in the body language of dogs.

As for those many adult dog owners who enjoy an occasional close-up snuggle with their pets, well, it's up to you. If you are sure that your dog enjoys your embrace, carry on doing it. But do be aware that for some dogs, it isn't much fun. Dogs need personal space, just like humans.

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

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