Apparently there is nothing more offensive to the pet-loving masses than suggesting that pets might not love everything we do. Stanley Coren, a psychologist who has been very active in studying the human-animal bond, recently presented his observations that when analyzing randomly selected photos of humans hugging their dogs, over 80% of the dogs appeared to be exhibiting behavioral signs of stress (to be clear, some dogs seemed perfectly happy with the hugs, just not too many of them). Now, this was not a peer-reviewed study, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet.
This article, posted on Psychology Today’s website, created a furor around the internet. Headlines and reactions went strongly in both directions (and even in the middle):
Most people seem devastated by his suggestion because THEY LOVE HUGGING THEIR DOGS. Other people seem downright ANGRY! One writer proclaimed he was going to hug his dogs like it or not — because HE NEEDS a hug from them every once in a while.
And that’s fine. Hey, we live in a world where animals are property, you can do whatever you want.
The funny thing is that this is not a new idea. Patricia McConnell posted about this SIX years ago – explaining why hugging is a very primate behavior, and not a very canine one. Dr. McConnell is a very well-respected expert in dog behavior, and her excellent book “The Other End of the Leash” explored the ethological foundation of human-dog interactions. Her observations that many dogs probably do not enjoy this type of handling are based both in the natural history of the dog, and from years of watching humans and dogs interact (she very kindly updated her blog post to reflect the furor over Coren’s post here).
And other dog experts have respectfully reflected on Coren’s “findings” and the controversy, suggesting that this is a potentially rich area of future research.
As a cat behavior consultant, I wasn’t too blindsided by Coren’s conclusions. I routinely see people do things to their pets that their pets do not like. I’m not talking about things that are necessary (like keeping your cat in a carrier for car rides or giving your pet medication). I’m talking about social interactions that we instigate because WE want something from our pet. Maybe it’s a laugh. I tried to put a small derby hat on my cat because I thought it would be cute. Guess what. She didn’t like it. See!?! Even I am guilty as charged. But I felt like an ass-hat after I looked at the photos and never put it on her again.
Maybe we want reassurance. You really love me, don’t you Fido? I’m sad and need comforting, Fluffy. Maybe we like the feeling of control over another animal. You don’t want something right now but I’m going to show you who is the boss. Sometimes we just look at our pets and think “YOU ARE SO CUTE I MUST SQUEEZE YOU RIGHT NOW!!!” (why cuteness makes us want to get aggressive and squeeze things).
And maybe we are anthropomorphizing so much that we think that our pets want what we would want if we were in their shoes – reassurance when we are afraid, to share things with others, to be hugged…
I can’t count the number of clients I see who want to pull their terrified cat out from under the bed when I come to their home, so I can meet the cat. Guess who doesn’t want to meet ME? Your cat. Other clients describe how they want to SHOW their cat that being picked up isn’t scary…by picking them up more. Some people like to “tease” their cat with rough petting or by poking them with a toy, ignoring obvious signs of irritation that the cat is sending out.
Okay, but that’s cats. They’re barely even domesticated. Haven’t we selected dogs to LOVE US? I’ll admit, I don’t know that much about dogs – they are definitely an enigma to me. But even I can understand that hugging is not part of a dog’s natural behavioral repertoire.
Maybe YOUR dog does love hugs. I’m sure some of them do. One of my cats LOVES to be held (the same one who hated the hat). I feel pretty certain. My evidence?
- she (a) climbs into my lap (b) of her own free will, (c) wraps her arms around my neck and (d) settles in.
- She (e) jumps into my boyfriend’s arms from the ground to be held.
- She (f) digs at the bedcovers for me to let her in, and (g) settles into my arms to sleep all night.
I’m going to take this as a pretty strong indication that she likes being held (at least by the people she knows well). My other cat doesn’t like being held – but she loves belly rubs. Guess what my first cat hates? Belly rubs.
Can you help your pet “like” some of the things they don’t like? Sometimes – you can use training, rewards, and counterconditioning to help change your pet’s emotional response from negative to positive. In fact, it’s a really GOOD idea to train your dog (or cat) to accept handling of many types. But you may not get them from “hating” to “loving” anything anytime soon.
When we really want something from our pet, it’s difficult for us to see clearly what they want. But if we watch them closely while putting our own interests aside, we might get an idea. And if your pet is sending you a clear message that they don’t like hugs, why keep hugging them?
But it’s really not about hugs. It’s about the outrage people feel that their dog might not like something that humans want to do to or with them. The question that keeps spinning in my head is why it’s so hard for us to accept that our pets have their own desires and needs, ones that might not coincide with ours? Is it our pet’s responsibility to “make” us feel good, feel happy, feel loved? That’s a lot of responsibility. And what if they fail?
**thank you to Julie Hecht at DogSpies for her thoughtful feedback**