SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Many people who share their lives with dogs are certain that their dogs just love to be hugged, well, as much as we love hugging them. A new study says that dogs may be faking it. Loving embraces may actually distress dogs by raising their stress and anxiety levels. Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of Psychology Today's Canine Corner blog, joins us from the CBC in Vancouver. Thanks so much for being with us.
STANLEY COREN: Glad to be here.
SIMON: This is the worst news I've heard in a long time.
COREN: Why (laughter)?
SIMON: I like hugging dogs that I meet on the street. And the whole idea that this is distressing them - think about people who, you know, have loved their dogs for 10 years and assume the dog loves being hugged.
COREN: Well, the issue is not that you shouldn't love your dog. It's just the way that you express your affection. Dogs are what we call a cursorial animal. That means to say they're adapted to run quickly. So if they run into trouble, I mean, their major way of handling it is to run away. And what we're doing when we're hugging is we are basically building a corral with our arms so that the dog can't run away. And back over there in his primitive brain, he's going, oh, my God, if something happens, you know, I can't get away. And if I...
SIMON: I'm a prisoner of love.
COREN: Yes, yes. And the signs that the dog is being stressed are very easy to read. I mean, the dog yawns. The dog avoids eye contact. The dog's ears slick back. The dog closes or partially closes his eye or shows something which we call a half moon eye where you can see part of the whites of the dogs eyes. You can pick up all those things from a photograph. So I simply thought to myself, well, if I had a stack of photographs of people hugging their dogs, I could see whether or not they're stressed.
Well, it turns out, you know, all you have to do is to go onto Flickr or onto Google image search and put in something like hug dog or love dog or something like that. And you get this infinite scroll of photographs of people hugging their dogs. And what I did was I took the first 250 scorable instances. And by scorable, basically you had to see enough of the dog's face so you knew whether or not he was stressed. And what I found was absolutely astonishing. I mean, 82 percent of the pictures of people hugging the dogs had a dog who was showing at least one stress sign. Now, you know, people say what kind of upbringing did you have? You don't love dogs or maybe nobody hugged you enough when you were young or something like that. But that's not the point.
SIMON: Oh, you anticipate my questions, Professor.
COREN: (Laughter) The point is, you know, not that you shouldn't love your dog, but it's how you express that affection. And there's lots of ways to express affection for the dog without, you know, restraining it or hugging it in any way.
SIMON: So if you love your dog, give him or her a treat and a belly pat.
COREN: Yeah, exactly. And talk to them in that sort of baby talk is one way.
SIMON: (Imitating baby talk).
COREN: Yeah, exactly. You know. who's a clever dog? (Laughter) I mean, you've all heard it. I mean, it sounds so silly. And, you know, we know that everybody does that when they're at home. I mean, we'd never admit to it in public. But, you know, everybody does that to the dogs when they're at home.
SIMON: Stanley Coren is a professor of psychology at University of British Columbia and author of Psychology Today's Canine Corner blog. Thanks so much for being with us.
COREN: (Laughter) Woof.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARTHA MY DEAR")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Take a good look around you. Take a good look, you're bound to see that you and me, we're meant to be with each other, silly girl.
SIMON: This is NPR News.
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