Hug o’ war (apologies to Shel Silverstein)

Is this too close? Am I invading your personal space?
Is this too close? Am I invading your personal space?

My instinct in hugging situations is to tense up as if I’m about to be mugged, so I get how many dogs feel about hugs, according to a recent study that suggests they don’t enjoy being embraced as much as we enjoy embracing them.

Canine behaviorist and author Stanley Coren inflamed many dog lovers with his April Canine Corner column for Psychology Today, in which he noted the stress signs (ears back, eyes rolled, head turned) exhibited by many dogs in photos of people hugging them. The study was not a scientific one (Coren himself called it “a set of casual observations”), but he summarized by saying “the results indicated that the internet contains many pictures of happy people hugging what appear to be unhappy dogs.” The internet, of course, is ablaze with fiery retorts and defiant “proof” that dogs love hugs, including an abundance of photos of dogs mid-hug, exhibiting the very same warning signs discussed by Coren.

This dog is not a hugger; note the eyes, ear position and rigid posture. Photo courtesy the Humane Society of Greater Rochester.
This dog is not a hugger; note the eyes, ear position and rigid posture. Photo courtesy the Humane Society of Greater Rochester.

Coren isn’t anti-hugging-your-dog, he’s pro-understanding-your-dog. I have consumed and given so many of his books, I should receive royalties. And I am a better human, with happier dogs, for having read The Intelligence of Dogs, How to Speak Dog and others.

A point of emphasis for Coren is learning to recognize a dog’s expressions, body position and conduct; humans often aren’t as good at it as we like to think. Of his dogs-and-hugs study, Coren said it “seems consistent with other research which suggests that people, especially children, seem to have difficulty reading signs of stress and anxiety based upon their dogs’ facial expressions.”

As Coren’s fellow behaviorist and columnist Karen B. London pointed out in a reaction for The Bark, children are especially at risk for dog-bite injuries, which frequently occur during hugs or otherwise innocent contact. Dogs provide signals before they resort to biting; people simply miss them.

Bro hugs are acceptable.
Bro hugs are acceptable.

When it comes to hugging, part of the problem is our own obliviousness to what our dogs are communicating. But human culture today is also, for some reason, inclined to hug (did I miss the memo on the hug becoming the standard greeting for every social occasion?), and research reinforces that hugging is good for us. Studies suggest that hugs can have long-term health benefits, improve mood, and even protect against the common cold.

But I feel similarly toward them as Christopher John Francis Boone, the adolescent, autistic hero of Mark Haddon’s perceptive The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: “I do not like hugging people.” He will, however, hug a dog (even a dead one). “I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking,” explains Christopher. “It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating.”

Some dogs may be happy recipients of hugs, but others feel a mix of sad, cross and concentrating (on escape). About the only thing I impulsively embrace is my dog Reese; he’s just magnetically huggable, and sometimes amid the freakshow that is reality I seek solace in something warm and furry and able to exist unconscious of things like political ads and Facebook (the latter of which has become the former).

For Reese, happiness is a warm human.
For Reese, happiness is a warm human.

Besides, Reese adores hugs; no physical contact is too intimate or too much. Miles doesn’t mind an embrace, but he’d rather tug (o’ war) than hug. Wyatt, who is adversely adorable and possessed of a gentle demeanor, is the dog most people want to hug; he braces as if for crash impact, though he has so far tolerated the occasional embrace without eating anyone’s face.

As have I, even though hugs violate my personal air bubble, there are no clear rules of engagement, and they are often horribly awkward. Besides, a hug is more special when it’s rare and has some weight: family at the holidays, friends long unseen, people you just met in a bar after a Game 7 Blues victory in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But hug away, I say; your dog, a grudge, a stranger, a tree. Even Wyatt and me; everyone ignores the warning signs anyway. Just remember that there are some wounds a hug can’t heal.

Wyatt attempts to ward off hugs by coating himself in a protective layer of grime.
Wyatt attempts to ward off hugs by coating himself in a protective layer of grime.

2 thoughts on “Hug o’ war (apologies to Shel Silverstein)

Add yours

  1. It’s a bit to close to my bedtime for a reasoned and longer reply, but I just want to say that dogs also get it wrong with humans many (most?) of whom do not appreciate a dog thrusting its nose into his/her crotch, or as Jeremy Hardy was saying on the News Quiz on Friday, humping your leg, while the fond owner looks on and says “He likes you!”.

    Not sure if you can get this your side of the pond, but try BBC iplayer, radio 4.

    Back soon.


    1. That is too true, and it seems like only the victims are bothered in those circumstances. I’m lucky that we don’t have any “humpers,” but Reese can be a crotch-seeking missile if not diverted.


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