‘Don’t hug your dog’ – Is this true or false?

Bray People - - LIFESTYLE - PETE WED­DER­BURN An­i­mal Doc­tor

THE head­lines in this week’s pa­pers sur­prised many peo­ple: “Don’t hug your dog”. For many of us, phys­i­cal con­tact with our pets is part of the en­joy­ment, and it seems strange to be told to back off in this way. So what’s the back­ground to this at­ten­tion-grab­bing head­line?

The story started with a piece in Psy­chol­ogy To­day by psy­chol­o­gist and an­i­mal be­hav­iour spe­cial­ist Stan­ley Coren. He did some sim­ple re­search by analysing two hun­dred and fifty pho­tos posted on the in­ter­net of peo­ple hug­ging dogs. He as­sessed the fa­cial ex­pres­sions and body lan­guage of the dogs in the pho­tos, looking for signs that the dogs were feel­ing stressed. He found that in over 80% of the pho­tos, the dogs were show­ing at least one sign of dis­com­fort, stress, or anx­i­ety. His con­clu­sion was that hugs should be re­served for other hu­mans, and that dogs would be more likely to ap­pre­ci­ated a pat on the head, a treat, or just a kind word.

As is of­ten the case, the news­pa­per in­dus­try took the orig­i­nal story and am­pli­fied it, rather than looking at it crit­i­cally. But so many pet own­ers love hug­ging their dogs from time to time, and the story seems to me to be so con­tentious that it de­served to be looked at in more de­tail.

In par­tic­u­lar, the way that the data was gath­ered de­serves to be scru­ti­nised.If you think about the type of photo that peo­ple post on the In­ter­net, it’s of­ten far from a re­laxed sit­u­a­tion. Many of the pic­tures are self­ies, with the per­son hold­ing their pet tightly while they try to catch the right pose for the cam­era. This means that the pet is un­der two stresses: first, be­ing hugged, and sec­ond, be­ing forced into a par­tic­u­lar po­si­tion to show up well in the photo. It’s no won­der that they of­ten seem anx­ious.

One of the odd as­pects of an­i­mal be­hav­iour that I’ve no­ticed over the years is that some an­i­mals don’t seem to like hav­ing their photo taken. I can’t ex­plain this, but all I know is that some pets seem to do any­thing to avoid looking at the cam­era in a re­laxed way. They avert their gaze, they wrig­gle, and refuse to look re­laxed and calm when a cam­era is point­ing at them. Pho­tog­ra­phers use tricks like treats and squeaky toys to make pets look at the cam­era, but it seems as if some pets are stressed by the mere fact that their photo is be­ing taken. So it seems likely that there is a built in bias to­wards pets looking stressed when their pho­tos are be­ing taken.

With those pro­vi­sos, Pro­fes­sor Coren is mak­ing a very good point. Many dogs do not en­joy be­ing hugged tightly. Many hu­mans are not aware enough of dog body lan­guage, and they don’t notice when their pets are not happy. There’s a strong risk that if peo­ple con­tinue to hug dogs that are not en­joy­ing the sit­u­a­tion, the dog may snap, and if some­body’s bit­ten, the dog will be blamed. So for this rea­son, peo­ple should think care­fully about how their dog is re­act­ing to be­ing hugged.

The signs of stress in dogs should be known and recog­nised by all dog own­ers. Un­happy dogs carry out a range of dis­tinc­tive be­hav­iours, and some of them are sub­tle. The most ob­vi­ous sign is growl­ing, or bar­ing the teeth, but be­fore dogs do that, they have other man­ner­isms, in­clud­ing tens­ing their body, lick­ing their lips, yawn­ing, flat­ten­ing their ears, clos­ing or nar­row­ing their eyes, or adopt­ing a fear­ful ex­pres­sion that shows the whites of their eyes. If a dog is do­ing any of th­ese things when you’re hug­ging them, it’s time to back off and give them some space.

Chil­dren are par­tic­u­larly at risk, for three rea­sons. First, they are more trust­ing and less cautious than adults, of­ten com­pletely un­aware that there is a risk of be­ing bit­ten by a dog. Sec­ond, they have not yet learned about mean­ing of body lan­guage in dogs, so they may not even recog­nise a warn­ing sign as ob­vi­ous as a dog growl­ing. And third, they are smaller than adults, so they make an eas­ier tar­get for a dog to bite.

Chil­dren be­low the age of 15 ac­count for 60% of all dog bites on hu­mans, with the 5 - 9 year old age group be­ing par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble. And boys are par­tic­u­larly at risk, mak­ing up two-thirds of the chil­dren be­ing bit­ten. Stud­ies have shown that chil­dren are par­tic­u­larly poor at un­der­stand­ing dog body lan­guage, get­ting it right only 17% of the time. This means that they’re un­likely to spot the warn­ing signs that a dog is anx­ious or fear­ful. So if a child is hug­ging a dog that’s un­com­fort­able about the sit­u­a­tion, the child won’t re­alise it, and the dog’s dis­com­fort is more likely to progress to the stage when the dog may bite the child in an ef­fort to es­cape.

It makes sense, then, for par­ents to do two things. First, dis­cour­age their chil­dren from hug­ging dogs. And sec­ond, teach their chil­dren about dog body lan­guage: there’s an ex­cel­lent web­site (www.dog­gone­safe.com) which pro­vides low-cost ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als for teach­ers and com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions to help ed­u­cate chil­dren about how to recog­nise neg­a­tive emo­tional sig­nals in the body lan­guage of dogs.

As for those many adult dog own­ers who en­joy an oc­ca­sional close-up snug­gle with their pets, well, it’s up to you. If you are sure that your dog en­joys your em­brace, carry on do­ing it. But do be aware that for some dogs, it isn’t much fun. Dogs need per­sonal space, just like hu­mans.

Watch your dog’s body lan­guage: make sure he’s happy to hug you

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.