A rule of thumb before hugging a dog is to pay very close attention to individual differences, your relationship with the dog, and the situation at hand
Yesterday I received a bunch of emails about an essay published by Dr. Stanley Coren called "The Data Says 'Don't Hug the Dog!'" A short piece in the New York Times titled "Should You Hug Your Dog?" also reported on this essay. I was asked what I thought about the data, and frankly, I was somewhat surprised by his over-arching conclusion (for more on this topic please see this essay and comments for all).
I read through Dr. Coren's essay and also the comments for his and the New York Times essay and want to offer my two-cents because while the data seem to agree with Dr. Coren's conclusion, namely, "The clear recommendation to come out of this research is to save your hugs for your two-footed family members and lovers. It is clearly better from the dog's point of view if you express your fondness for your pet with a pat, a kind word, and maybe a treat," we need much more information before prescriptively saying "Don't hug the dog."
Dogs are not all unconditional lovers nor sponges for hugs: When in doubt, don't hug
The bottom line for me is that hugging a dog is okay when the human gives very careful consideration to who the dog is, their relationship with the individual, and context, for example, is the dog nervous or is there food around? It is essential to pay close attention to the overall context in which the hugging is taking place. Every single dog with whom I had the privilege of sharing my home loved to be hugged by me and some of my friends. However, two of them didn't like to be hugged by anyone but me when there was a lot of noise, one didn't like anyone close to him when there was food around, and one, who was terrified of thunderstorms, didn't like to be hugged by anyone at all in the midst of thunder and lightning or shortly thereafter. I needed to know each dog as an individual and respect their differences. And, I always told visitors and others about their individual personalities so that everyone could get along just fine.
So, a safe rule of thumb to follow, in my humble opinion, is to pay close attention to what you know about the individual dog and what she or he is telling you. And, if you're unsure, don't hug the dog! Better safe than sorry. Just like people, some dogs love it, some sort of like it, and some may not like the close contact at all. This follows in line with the fact that dogs are not all unconditional lovers nor sponges for hugs, and we need to respect these differences when interacting with them.
Becoming a student of dog behavior would be a win-win for all
All in all, I thank Dr. Coren for writing his essay because it's so interesting that we know so little about what dogs are thinking and feeling when interacting with humans in different situations. It also raises questions about what people need to know about the animals with whom they chose to share their homes.
Choosing to live with another animal is a huge decision that requires deep thought before becoming the guardian for another sentient being. I will write more about this in a future essay, focusing on Dr. Jessica Pierce's forthcoming book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. Indeed, I think it would be a great idea for potential dog guardians/owners to have to take a short course on dog behavior (or on the behavior and needs of the particular species with whom they plan to share their home). It is essential to get things right when trying to understand just whom dogs are and why they do the things they do (please see, for example, "On Comparisons Between Dogs and Wolves: What We Really Know").
It also would be a great experience for youngsters who will be living with the dog and who, at some time later in life, may choose to share their lives with a dog. It would be a win-win for all, and those dogs who like to be hugged can receive and savor them, and those who don't will be left alone and be just as happy.
The bottom line is when you hug a dog it's on their terms, not yours.
Note: In the spirit of generating more research on this most important topic, I received this interesting note from biologist Paul Paquet. As a fun project, Erik Zimen [an expert on wolf and dog behavior] and I considered the question of "hugging" "petting" and "inguinal stroking" in the 1970s. Our study controlled for the age, sex, breed of dogs, as well as familiarity of the dogs (labelled as context) with the persons doing the hugging and petting. We also controlled for the age and sex of the human huggers. We measured the response of the dogs using heart rate and respirations (blood pressure was too difficult to measure). We also recorded behavioural responses of the dogs, including body position, ears, tails, and lips. Our general findings were clear--dogs familiar with their "hugger" responded very positively to hugging, petting, and iguinal stroking. Dogs unfamiliar with their "hugger" were initially cautious but gradually relaxed. Breed differences were evident but not adequately predictive of how the dogs would react. Interestingly, behavioural responses that we interpreted as discomfort did not correspond well to the physiological measures of stress.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)