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Hugging dogs, media myths, voodoo science

May 9, 2016

 

Samantha asked for hugs from morning till night.

 

 

 

Yesterday I woke up to a local news channel telling me it was no longer fashionable to hug our dogs. This was news to me.

I’ve spent the last twenty-some years caring for literally hundreds of my clients’ dogs in their homes, and my own dog in mine, from puppyhood until that final moment when they slip away in our arms. Based on my large sampling of real-world data, I can confidently report that telling people their dogs don’t appreciate being hugged, implying it’s actually an unkind imposition, is at best sensationalizing some very narrow findings of a very questionable study by Stanley Coren—and at worst giving readers the sort of simplistic slogans that make for good headlines.

Not only do the vast majority of dogs I stay with not shy away from hearty embraces, they’re likely to seek them out actively, some insistently. The nestling begins when my alarm clock sounds in the morning. After watching patiently for me to rise, dear old friends approach and lean into me, tails wagging with faces and bodies relaxed (yes, ears can go down, but so can ears on puppies near their mothers). We all know the drill. I put my arms around them and provide no-holds-barred bear hugs that can last a long time, eliciting some interesting sound effects. We then release, energized and ready start our busy day. Depending on the dog, this ritual can be repeated at various intervals, right until bedtime when many dogs sleep with me. Some sleep in my arms. Some won’t have it any other way. Dogs I don’t even know have demanded intimacy in the public dog park, and come back for more.

I’m not normally one to get touchy-feely or Care Bearish. Like dogs, the desire for close contact depends on how you were raised and whether you come from a family that was “close that way.” I was trained to be distant, cool, and apprehensive. But like many dogs, some of whom come from hard lives in street packs or perhaps have a history of abuse, I gradually warmed up and realized what I was missing. I understand this may never happen for some, in which case you simply respect another animal’s space and only have contact on their terms. It all depends on the dog, the person, or some combination thereof. You don’t go around smothering dogs, or people, with unwanted affection.

This should all go without saying, which is why I find Stanley Coren’s assertions so perturbing, and the scientific facts more in line with my own empirical findings. I realize that collection of data should be cool and impartial—but fishing photos from the internet and assuming you can interpret anything about the personality of the human (owner or not) or canine subject, or make assumptions about their relationship or emotional states? The very process of posing for a camera is contrived. It creates stress in both humans and dogs who no doubt sense each other’s uneasiness. You might as well prop them up for long-exposure daguerreotypes where subjects always look stiff and terrified.

Science isn’t always right. Sometimes it isn’t even science. Psychology, for example, has been known to make wild interpretations of anything it calls “data,” which can be nothing more than consensus drawn from poll-taking (again, making a myriad of assumptions of its sources). This was the flawed methodology behind one book (by Coren) I recall purporting to give us useful advice on selecting the right brand of canine flesh and fur to match our personalities and lifestyles. If all this science proved to be too much for readers, they were invited to identify with photos or paintings of royalty, famous presidents, and Hollywood celebrities living or dead for centuries. If we identified with their “personalities”—which could only be guessed at from history books, court memoirs, gossip—then we were advised to buy the same breed of dog seen posing with them.

 

I also recall the inside flap of another best-selling book that showed the author hugging his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

 

 

 

Stanley Coren hugs his so-called "Cavalier King Charles Spaniel," a breed that Coren himself has told us, in his books and articles, is the same fancy lapdog seen lounging about in court paintings from the time of Charles II. Beset with agonizing, life-threatening illnesses, the so-called "Cavalier" is another good example of how misleading appearances can be.

 

 

 

 

(Top photo of Michael Brandow by Derek Berg)

 

 

 

 

 

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