Updated | For many pet owners, a cuddle with their pooch on the sofa can be a good way to relieve stress at the end of a long hard day.
Unfortunately, those snuggles may not have the same positive impact on dogs. A recent column written by Stanley Coren, an expert in canine behavior and human-animal bonding at the University of British Columbia, argues that, in the majority of cases, hugs make dogs feel stressed out and anxious, rather than warm and fuzzy.
In his column in Psychology Today, Coren lays out a data collection exercise he undertook, in which he analyzed 250 photos he found online of people hugging their dogs to look for signs of canine stress. These, Coren says, include the dog turning its head away from the source of anxiety; showing the whites of its eyes; lowering its ears or slicking them back against the side of its head; and even licking its lips.
Coren’s conclusion is that in 81.6 percent of cases, the dogs were showing at least one sign of discomfort (the humans in the photos were generally rather pleased with themselves, he says). Only 7.6 percent of the photographs showed dogs enjoying a cuddle, Coren adds, while the remaining 10.8 percent were neutral or ambiguous.
Though Coren’s findings have not been peer reviewed or studied in a clinical setting, the column is likely heartbreaking for dog owners who find it comforting to cuddle with their furry best friends. But Coren said it’s important to remember the difference between humans and canines. “Dogs are technically cursorial animals, which is a term that indicates that they are designed for swift running,” he said. Anything that impinges on a dog’s natural stress response to run away—such as being locked in a bear hug—is likely to generate more anxiety.
A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that the findings in Stanley Coren’s Psychology Today column were part of a scientific study. The article has been updated to clarify that the notion that dogs do not like being hugged is Coren’s expert opinion based on a self-designed analysis of online photographs, and not a scientific finding.