When I’m sad, I hug my dog. A big, fat, full-armed hug around his furry chest, punctuated by big fat kisses on his awfully sweet, awfully long, awfully blond snout.
And when I’m happy, I hug my dog, too, maybe even more tightly. Dog hugs are the very finest, sunniest thing in the known world, next to puppy breath and puppy kisses, of course.
So thanks for nothing, Psychology Today, with all of your damn digging and analysis.
The magazine posted a piece earlier this month on how “hugging your dog raises its stress and anxiety levels,” written by Stanley Coren, psychology professor, author of many dog books, and an expert in the fine art of killing joy.
We’re not hugging our dogs, you see. We’re “immobilizing” them, and triggering anxiety, stress, and maybe even a bite. Coren, whose column Canine Corner appears regularly on the Psychology Today website, combed the Internet for photos of people hugging dogs — he didn’t have to comb very hard, I’m sure — and studied the dogs for signs of displeasure. Among those signs: the head turning to avoid eye contact, the ears going down, the licking of lips, and the whites of the eyes forming a half moon.
“I can summarize the data quite simply,” Coren writes, “by saying that the results indicated that the Internet contains many pictures of happy people hugging what appear to be unhappy dogs. In all, 81.6% of the photographs researchers scored showed dogs who were giving off at least one sign of discomfort, stress, or anxiety.”
If we’d only known! Social media was not happy about the news. Most dog-hug addicts believe what novelist Ann Hood once said, that “there is more power in a good strong hug than in a thousand meaningful words.” It’s how we’ve been communicating love directly to our beloved animals, who don’t use words. When I think about having made so many dogs miserable over the years, I feel like an insensitive human, an entrapper, a needy, callous soul getting what he needs at the expense of another.
Thankfully, we huggers got a reprieve of sorts on Wednesday, when Psychology Today posted a response by animal behavior author Marc Bekoff, who cofounded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Jane Goodall.
Bekoff essentially says that hugging a dog can be just fine, assuming you understand the dog and his or her tells. “Pay close attention to what you know about the individual dog and what she or he is telling you,” he writes. “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.”
So the data may say “Don’t hug the dog.” But my dog — and my heart — say, “Hug, baby, hug.”
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org