I have some bad news: Your dog doesn't like being hugged, even though you love to hug them.
That isn't definitive, nor is it every single dog (#NotEveryDog) — Louboutina, for instance, is seemingly all about hugs.
But chances are, your dog isn't. And that's just scratching the surface of the many misconceptions we often ascribe to our canine family members. What other commonly held beliefs about dogs are wrong? And what does it mean for our relationships with the dogs in our lives?
To learn more, I spoke with Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher and author of "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know" and "Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell."
Here's what I found out.
- 1. Dogs probably don't like being hugged.
- "A lot of dog professionals would agree that hugging a dog is nonideal," Horowitz told me in an interview earlier this year. "I've never seen a dog who when you hug them, they stand up and wag their tail and they're so excited. They do something else: They deal with it."
It's hard to hear, I know. I certainly sympathize.
My dog, Goodwin, seen below, surveying Brooklyn, sleeps in the same bed as me. He goes on vacation with my wife and me. He gets Christmas presents. He's a member of the family.
And that means he gets hugged. If I'm being honest, he gets hugged every single day. And though it seems as if he's OK with it — happy to be hugged, even! — it's entirely possible he's not such a fan.
"The reason we say they don't like being hugged is because of what they look like when you're hugging them," Horowitz told me. "They pin their ears back, they lick their lips — sort of air-licking — or they yawn, which is another stress behavior. Or they move to get away. Or they show this kind of whale-eye posture — you can see the whites of their eyes. They show behavior that's like 'this is uncomfortable.'"
2. Dogs "see" the world primarily through scent, not sight.
The adorable snout on your pup isn't just for petting — dogs "see" the world with their nose first.
"We assume that nonhuman animals' perception would be kind of like ours but simpler," Horowitz said.
But that isn't the case. Instead, dogs see the world through smells.
"They might look at someone with their eyes — as you approach, they look at you," Horowitz said. "But then once they've noticed that there's something with their eyes, they use smell to tell that it's you. So they sort of reverse that very familiar use of ours."
That's crucial to understanding how dogs see the world.
You might smell something delicious and look around to locate the source of that delicious smell. "Ah, it's pasta sauce slowly coming together on a stove!"
For dogs, the opposite is true. Or, as Horowitz put it, "We smell something, and then when we see it, we're like, 'Oh yeah, that's it. That's what it was. It was cinnamon buns.' And dogs, when they see you, they're like, 'OK, that's something to explore. I'm gonna smell it. Oh yeah, that's Ben.'"
3. That guilty look isn't an expression of guilt — it's fear.
All the logic lines up: Your dog was left alone and did something they weren't supposed to do, that they knew better than to do, and when they're called on it their face says it all. Perhaps you're already saying "No! Bad dog! Bad dog!" or some variation thereof.
Horowitz's 2009 study, "Disambiguating the 'guilty look': salient prompts to a familiar dog behavior," focuses on how people interpret dog emotions through the scope of human emotion.
More simply: People tend to misattribute dog emotions to human emotions. The "guilty" look is a prime example of this.
"I look at a dog showing the guilty look, and it feels guilty to me. It does!" Horowitz said earlier this year. "We're kind of wired to see it this way, so it's nobody's fault.
"It seems unlikely that they have the same types of thinking about thinking that we do, because of their really different brains, but in most ways, dogs brains are more similar to ours than dissimilar."
That first bit is especially important — "thinking about thinking," known as executive function — because it means dogs aren't likely to reflect on their actions and decide they've done something wrong.
"When you adopted your dog, and suddenly you're living with a dog, within a week we have opinions about the dog's personality, what they're like and what they're thinking. It's a way to try to predict what's gonna happen next with an organism that we don't really know," Horowitz said. "So we use the language of human explanation, and we just put it on the dog."
4. Dogs don't need to be "dominated."
When we're not ascribing human attributes to dogs, we're equating them with wolves. And though the modern-day mutt is a relative of wolves, it's a distant one.
"It's tricky," Horowitz said. "You can look at wolf behavior to try to get some insight into dog behavior sometimes. They share a common ancestor. They've only diverged very recently in evolutionary time. So you can look at them, but then also wolves have evolved independently of dogs for the last, whatever, 15,000 to 30,000 years, and so their behavior might not be the same as that ancestor that they share."
There are a few instances where that divergent evolution points to obviously different results — for instance, the concept of dominance hierarchy, which encourages dog owners to establish dominance as a means of obedience.
"Since dogs no longer have a territory that they need to defend and food that they need to acquire, the hierarchy explanation or description no longer works for dogs," Horowitz said. "Even in the wild it's not the case — it looks like that's the case if you have a bunch of adolescent male wolves that are in a small enclosure and are captive, they form a dominance hierarchy."
Like many other animals, wolves tend to form normal family units.
"There are ones who take the lead and those who follow, but it's not like this dominance hierarchy at all," Horowitz said. "That makes no sense to apply to dogs, yet it has been quite prevalent in some trainers' approach historically, over the last 50 years. So I totally discourage its use."
Something to keep in mind: Your dog may not like wearing the AT-AT Halloween costume you bought them (or any other clothing).
On the flipside of a shared ancestry with wolves, it's possible the modern dog perceives wearing a piece of clothing as being scolded.
"I think about that when I think about dressing a dog in a raincoat and what that might feel like for the dog," Horowitz said. "I'm reminded of the wolf behavior where one wolf when they're kind of punishing or scolding another wolf, they'll kind of stand over the other wolf, literally stand over them, taking a physically superior posture and making them be inferior. And they sort of press down on the back of the dog who's underneath them. And I wonder if wearing a tight piece of clothing would be like, 'Oh, there's some kind of dominant animal around me, scolding.'"
But that's conjecture, intentionally used to prove a point. It's crucial to understand that when it comes to our perception of dogs and how similar (or not) they are to wolves, our knowledge is limited.
"That's very much in the realm of 'I wonder,'" Horowitz said. "I wonder if that helps explain why you see a lot of dogs freeze in place when you put a coat on them. I think it's useful to invoke wolves, but you have to be careful about it."
"We have a science where we can test this, and we want to know. So why don't we test it?"
Many of our misconceptions about dogs are based on our perception of the world around us. That makes sense — your perception is your reality (whoa, man). Horowitz is trying to break out of that and see the world as a dog might.
"I just want us to realize there are two ways of looking at it," she said.
"Lots of things we think our dogs like, lots of statements we make about our dog's mental life, are like this: 'Oh, they really like their sweater. They love this sweater that I made for them.' 'They like this Halloween costume that I'm putting on them.' 'They're holding a grudge against me because I stayed out late.' 'She peed in the hallway because I was out yesterday and she's holding a grudge.'"
More often than not, there are more logical explanations. Maybe you weren't there to take out your dog for their nightly walk, and they had to go badly, so they did.
"All these types of things are the same category of anthropomorphisms," Horowitz said. "Just unexamined thoughts that we have about what it might be like to be that dog."