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Research Confirms It: Dogs Don't Like Being Hugged

Analysis of video clips shows that dogs are stressed when humans hug them.

Key points

  • Humans view the act of hugging as a sign of affection. Dogs interpret hugs as restraint.
  • One study of 250 photographs of people hugging their dogs found that 82% showed at least one sign of stress.
  • A study of videos found that two-thirds of dogs who were hugged responded by trying to nip or bite.
Dominika Roseclay / Pexels
Source: Dominika Roseclay / Pexels

You should not be hugging your dog — at least according to the latest research by a multinational team of investigators headed by Elizabeth Ann Walsh of the Cork Pet Behaviour Centre, in Cork, Ireland.

Of course, that advice seems to be counterintuitive to most pet owners since one of the mainstays of social media platforms is photographs and videos of joyful people hugging their dogs. It seems clear that folks post such images because they believe that they illustrate how closely bonded they are to their pet dog and how happy their dog is to be near them.

Unfortunately, anyone with knowledge of dog communication signals should be able to tell that many of the dogs shown in the multitude of posted photographs, instead of enjoying being hugged, are in fact showing signs of stress. That observation should not be too surprising since hugging is a difficult behavior for dogs to understand.

Dogs are technically cursorial animals, which means that they are designed for swift running. That implies that in times of stress or threat the first line of defense that a dog uses is not his teeth, but rather his ability to run away. Behaviorists believe that depriving a dog of that course of action by immobilizing him with a hug can increase his stress level and, if the dog's anxiety becomes significantly intense, he may even be driven to bite.

Data from Photos

Back in 2016, I was intrigued by the common misreading of dogs' responses to this typical human display of affection. To satisfy my curiosity I ran a small study on the reaction of dogs to being hugged. I used the myriad photos of people and their dogs posted on the internet as my data and scored the first 250 photos that came out of Google Images and Flickr using the search terms "hug dog."

The signs of stress and anxiety in dogs are well-established and are easily observable. They range from the high end, where a dog bares his teeth, through more subtle indicators such as turning the head away from whatever is bothering them in order to break eye contact, closing or partially closing the eyes, lowering the ears or slicking them against the side of the head, lip licking, half-moon eye, and several others. I was simply looking to see if the dogs being hugged in the photos were showing any of these signs, and was surprised at how frequent this was.

In all, 81.6 percent of the photographs showed dogs giving off at least one sign of discomfort, stress, or anxiety. Only 7.6 percent of the photographs were rated as showing dogs that were comfortable with being hugged. The remaining 10.8 percent showed neutral or ambiguous responses to this form of physical contact.

At the time, my study led to an outburst of responses from the general public as people insisted that I was wrong and that their dogs truly did love to be hugged. To prove this, they sent me or posted pictures of themselves hugging their dogs, completely ignoring the fact that these images often contained the very same stress signals that I had pointed out in my report.

Data from Videos

For this newest piece of research, investigators used videos instead of the static photographs that I scored. This gave them a much broader range of signals that they could interpret—such as panting, blinking, or biting, which are easily detectable from movements and don't show up well in a still photograph.

Specifically, they ran three separate studies looking at videos of people playing with their dogs, petting their dogs, and hugging their dogs, analyzing each separately. Below I will review their findings on the hugging behaviors that were videotaped since they are the most interesting.

Researchers reviewed the 80 most popular videos on media platforms found by searching for people hugging their dogs. The way that they scored their data was different from the way that I did. In my study, I looked for any one of the set of stress behaviors that I targeted so that I ended up with data entries indicating that a dog showed, or did not show, stress when it was hugged. In this more recent piece of research, the specific behaviors were tabulated individually.

That gives us a more nuanced breakdown. Their data showed that 68.25 percent of dogs avoided eye contact with the human and turned their head away from the hugger, 43.75 percent licked their lip or nose, 81.25 percent were observed blinking, 60 percent had ears flattened, and 42.5 percent were panting.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of their observations was something that I couldn't observe by looking at static images. Namely, in two out of three of the videos that they reviewed (67.5 percent), the dog showed nipping or biting behaviors directed toward the human hugging them. This is certainly not evidence that a dog is joyfully responding to our human act of affection!

Summarizing their results, the investigators wrote, "Our pilot studies show many causes for concern as humans tend not to necessarily understand the body language or vocalizations exhibited by dogs, when interacting with them."

In other words, when we hug our dogs we aren't making them happy; we simply aren't noticing the signs and signals which indicate that our affectionate hugs are causing them stress and anxiety.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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Walsh EA, Meers LL, Samuels WE, Boonen D, Claus A, Duarte-Gan C, Stevens V, Contalbrigo L, Normando S. (2024). Human-dog communication: How body language and non-verbal cues are key to clarity in dog directed play, petting and hugging behaviour by humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 272, 106206.

Coren, S. (2001). How to speak dog: Mastering the art of dog-human communication. New York: Fireside Books, Simon & Schuster (pp. i-xii, 1-274). [ISBN: 9780743202978]

Coren, S. (2016, 13 April). The Data Says "Don't Hug the Dog!" Psychology Today.

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