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You probably shouldn't hug your dog, regardless of how adorable they are

Ben Gilbert

Dogs are adorable and friendly. Your dog is probably a member of your family -- not just your "pet."

I certainly sympathize.

My dog Goodwin, seen above surveying Brooklyn, sleeps in the same bed I do. 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 like he's ok with it -- happy to be hugged, even! -- it's entirely possible he's not such a fan.

"A lot of dog professionals would agree that hugging a dog is non-ideal," dog cognition scientist Dr. Alexandra 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, you know?"

The question of dog hugs has come up a lot in the past year. Headlines fought for both sides of the argument:

So, what's going on?

This all started with a weekly column in Psychology Today, called "Canine Corner," by Dr. Stanley Coren. It wasn't based on a study, or a new set of evidence -- it was, as Coren described it to The Washington Post, "a set of casual observations." Coren's got a long history in dog science and psychology: He's written books on the subject, and he continues to pen a weekly column for Psychology Today that's focused on dogs.

That said, as Coren himself points out, the column was based on observations and wasn't intended to have the same impact as a peer-reviewed study -- the bare minimum for scientific evidence.

So, should you hug your dog? Even without a conclusive study, the answer continues to be probably not.

Obama running dog

"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 behaviour. 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 behaviour that's like, 'This is uncomfortable.'"

Or, as Horowitz succinctly put it: "Dogs are dealing with it."

So, as adult humans, we can limit our own impulse to hug dogs. Impulse control, however, is much harder when you're an infant.

"Children like to give dogs hugs, and some dogs do not deal with it," Horowitz said. That's where problems can happen, like a normally calm dog attacking a child.

"The child is right at dog-face level, and they could get a real bad injury by the dog snapping -- a perfectly good dog," Horowitz added. "There's nothing wrong with the dog. You've done something they don't like. You're right there. They're growling. You're not listening. And they snap at you. And that could really injure a child."

That's just common sense, of course -- you don't need to be an accomplished dog cognition researcher like Dr. Horowitz to realise that children should be taught limits when it comes to the family dog (or cat, or bird, or whatever). And when it comes to hugs, however hard it is to resist, limitations may be necessary.

Or, as Dr. Horowitz puts it: "We assume because it shows our love that the dog feels our love, but I think in that case we're probably wrong."

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