What does a veterinarian do when faced with pet-themed entertainment masquerading as science? In my case, I write about it. Consider the recent to-do over the unwelcome advances of humans towards their dogs. Hugs in particular, it was widely reported, are disfavored by a majority of our canine companions.
How can that be? Our dogs love their hugs!
After reading a blurb about the “study,” I learned that it was based on a random sampling of Internet-sourced photos depicting dogs mid-hug. No control group, no rigorous scientific methodoIogy, therefore no serious findings. This was a simple opinion piece in a pop-psychology magazine, not science. I read no further.
Yet the “no-hug” issue lingered. In fact, just this week I received several emails on the subject, including this one from my friends over at PetMD who were hoping to receive some veterinary clarification on the issue:
PetMD: “What’s your stance on hugs? It's been in the news recently that this isn't always the best way to show your dog affection... any thoughts?
Me: #1 This is one issue that’s been bugging me lately so thanks for the chance to let me expound and hopefully clarify. For starters, what’s being reported as “science" on what dogs enjoy or don’t … isn’t.
Turns out that what’s being touted by a wide variety of news outlets as a “scientific study” on the subject of dogs disliking hugs is actually one single opinion piece written by a PhD psychologist who’s built a reputation for himself with popular books like Understanding Your Dog for Dummies.
Moreover, this op-ed piece appeared not in a peer-reviewed journal where legitimate research is discussed among scientists, but in a for-the-lay public magazine you can find in any airport concession (Psychology Today). This is an important distinction.
This is not what we in medicine (or any other scientific discipline) consider science. Dr. Stanley Coren, the op-ed’s author, made an informal argument using a small amount of data with the goal of impressing his readers with an opinion he holds dear: that dogs do not like being restrained in human hug-like fashion.
Here are some problems with this informal evaluation:
- One researcher's limited data set does not a study make. Studies need to be reviewed by peers in order to be considered a valid research effort.
- Photographic evidence sourced from a supposedly random sampling on the Internet was used to make his case. I would question the randomness of this sampling. Often, the most popular pics are those in which dogs are making “funny” faces, thereby skewing the sample towards oddball canine expressions.
- The assessment of a dog’s displeasure was based on these pictures, with the opinion of just one assessor (albeit an expert) as foundation for the methodology.
- This observation included no control group of pictured dogs who were not being hugged to assess their degree of discomfiture and compare their expressions to those of dogs being hugged. This is a critical element in any scientific study.
- The author has a vested interest in the outcome. He already believes that dogs don’t like to be held a certain way and he translate that restraint as ‘hugs,” a subtle distinction from cuddling, one other observers might not agree with.
To be fair, Dr. Coren probably never intended this to be portrayed as science. After all, if I can poke a zillion holes in this "study design,” so can its author. It was likely only intended to provoke interest in the issue, and possibly a little thoughtfulness among those who would put their dogs in a WWW-style choke hold.
Yes, the media sometimes grabs a salacious headline and runs with it –– in this case, much to the dismay of dog cuddlers everywhere. Because, as most of us know from personal experience, most well-socialized dogs love a good cuddle.
My two cents: If a gentle embrace and a sweet snuggle is your idea of a hug, you're on the right track, no matter what the media says “science” has unequivocally proved.