Snuggling up with a dog or a puppy is a sure fire way to reduce your stress and cut anxiety. In fact, it’s been shown many times that petting your pooch is one of the best forms of stress relief, lowering blood pressure and increasing levels of the hormone oxytocin. But what is the impact of hugging having on the animal itself? Well, one researcher suggests that it might not be all wagging tails and happy dogs.
Canine expert and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Stanley Coren has analyzed 250 randomly selected photos of humans giving dogs a squeeze. By looking at their behavior in the picture, he determined that the vast number of pooches appeared to look uncomfortable, and were probably stressed by the situation. He recommends that owners simply pay more attention to the behavior being displayed by their dogs, and to stop smothering them if they are clearly uncomfortable.
The signs Coren were looking for in each dog ranged from baring its teeth and licking its lips, to simply avoiding eye contact and folding down its ears. According to Coren, this shows that the dog is anxious and are clear signs of distress, but that the dog is unlikely to lash out unless these indications are ignored. He states that this could be why children can often push dogs too far, simply because they can’t recognise these small nuances.
We do have to take a moment here, though, to state that while some animal charities have come out with similar advice that dogs tolerate but don't like hugs, the research carried out by Coren is not published in any paper as of yet, and so it's not peer-reviewed.
Owners should be aware of the distress signs, especially when children are interacting with dogs as they find it harder to recognize when the animal is distressed. Modified from a Humane Society of Greater Rochester photo/Psychologytoday
When analyzing the photos of dogs taken from the Internet, Coren looked for whether or not the animal had turned its head away, was displaying “half-moon eyes” in which the whites are visible, the ears were pressed against the side of the head, if it was licking its lips, or even displaying an anxiety yawn. He then classified each picture into one of three categories: if the pets were showing one or more of these signs, the dog looked relaxed and happy, or if its response was neutral or ambiguous. From this, he found that 81.6 percent of dogs were giving off at least one sign of discomfort, and only 7.6 percent of them seemed to be enjoying it.
He argues that dogs are “cursorial” animals, which means that their natural instinct is to run away from danger, and that by hugging them you are in effect trapping them and causing the dog stress. But dogs are individual animals, and while some might not like the overt affections of their humans, others can be very tactile indeed. It just requires that you read their body behavior and don’t smother them.