As the Beatles once sang, happiness is a warm dog… or something along those lines.
When you’re in the company of a dog, the urge to pat/scratch/hug them is a tough one to resist. It seems like the ultimate win-win — rubbing a pup’s belly is undoubtedly one of life’s top five most joyful experiences, and they appear to relish our physical affection. Or do they?
An expert in canine psychology has shared a theory that will bewilder many dog lovers: those loving embraces of yours could actually be stressing your furry friend out.
Writing for Psychology Today, the University of British Columbia’s Dr Stanley Coren explains that dogs are cursorial animals, meaning their first line of defence in the face of stress or a threat is the ability to run away. This becomes an issue when they’re physically prevented from doing so.
“Behaviourists believe that depriving a dog of that course of action by immobilising him with a hug can increase his stress level and, if the dog’s anxiety becomes significantly intense, he may bite,” Dr Coren writes.
Watch: Mia Freedman recently adopted a pup named Bella. Meet her here. (Post continues after video.)
You might be sitting there thinking, ‘But I hug my dog all the time and s/he’s never bitten me’. That might well be the case, but the signs of a dog’s anxiety aren’t always so obvious, especially to whoever is doing the hugging.
A dog that’s feeling stressed might turn their head away, close their eyes, yawn, and/or lower their ears so they’re against the side of their head, Dr Coren explains. Another indicator is the “half-moon eye”, where the white portion at the corner or rim of the dog’s eye is visible.
Perhaps most devastatingly, lip licking or licking a person’s face (or “kissing”, according to basically all of us) can also signal anxiety.
To illustrate his observations, Dr Coren decided to do a bit of research. He sourced 250 random photos of pet dogs being hugged by people on Google and Flickr, where the dog’s face was clearly visible and there weren’t any other obvious factors that could add to their stress.
He then scored the images against three criteria: the dog was showing one or more signs of stress; the dog appeared to be relaxed and at ease; and that the dog’s response was ambiguous or neutral.
According to his scores, dogs in 81.6 per cent of the photos exhibited at least one sign of discomfort or stress, while only 7.6 per cent depicted dogs that were clearly comfortable in a hugging situation.
Gah. Who else is doing a mental inventory of all the times they’ve wrapped their arms around a labrador… and is now feeling kinda terrible about it?
However, since Dr Coren’s article was published other animal behaviour experts have been quick to point out that these “findings”, while interesting, are not strictly scientific and shouldn’t be viewed as a solid conclusion.
“This is interesting preliminary data which might serve as a good starting point for a formal study,” Evan MacLean, co-director of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center, told the Washington Post.
“But it’s important to note that (to my knowledge) this is not a peer-reviewed empirical paper so I would caution against any firm conclusions before the work can go through this important part of the scientific process.”
He added that the signs of stress mentioned in Dr Coren’s article are accepted but not unequivocal — some dogs might naturally exhibit floppy ears or a poking-out tongue. (Post continues after gallery.)
Dr Coren himself iterated that his findings were “a set of casual observations”, and that his investigation into the hugging matter wasn’t part of a peer-reviewed study.
That said, animal experts still appear to agree that squeezing your pooch isn’t the best way to show them attention. Of course, not all dogs will respond the same way; some will be less agitated by being hugged than others.
Ultimately, you don’t have to refrain from affection altogether. “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,” Dr Coren suggests.
Don’t forget the belly rub.
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