While your dog doesn't say it with words, they appreciate when you pet them just right. And yes, there is an art and more than a little science to petting a dog, and it's backed up by research. Studies have shown there are some universally good and bad places to pet your dog, so for your dog's sake, learn where and how they like to be pet. Petting your dog communicates your love, strengthens your bond, and is scientifically proven to be a positive experience for you both.
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Where do dogs like to be pet?
You may have never given a thought to petting your dog, you simply just did it. But as you might expect, there are a multitude of variables involved with petting. First, your dog must be in the mood for a pet. You must also know their preferences such as where and how they like to be pet. Just like people, dogs have preferences. Some dogs go crazy for a head pat, while others love a combo of tail and under-the-chin scratches. Deciphering the silent signals from your dog will help you determine the best way to pet them.
The chest, shoulders, and the base of the neck are among the best places to pet your dog. Many dogs enjoy being pet at the base of the tail, under the chin, or on the back of the neck. If your dog is in pain, they may suddenly yelp when you touch a vulnerable spot on their body, which will alert you to an issue that may need a visit to the vet.
Avoid petting or touching the top of the dog's head, muzzle, ears, legs, paws, and tail. Gentle, slow petting or light scratching has a calming effect on many dogs and sharing contact is a mutually beneficial exercise for you and your pup.
Your petting moves should be light, soft, and supportive like a soft massage. Think about how the petting feels to your dog. Roughness may be interpreted by your dog as anger, frustration, or disappointment and spoil the interaction.
Dogs love petting accompanied with praise.
Surprising new research suggests that dogs are crazy about humans petting them, much more so than verbal praise, such as "good boy" or any of the other things we say and do to show affection to our dogs. Studies conducted by Dr. Clive Wynne, professor and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, observed 42 shelter and pet dogs interacting with two people in a room. As one person petted the dog, the other offered verbal praise. The researchers gauged the length of the dog's interaction with each person. The other part of the study included 72 shelter and pet dogs placed in rooms with only one person, a stranger for the shelter dogs and the dogs' owners. Interactions were recorded with each session varying between the person petting or praising the dog or both, versus no interaction at all.
Research revealed that the dogs showed more interest in petting when it was accompanied with praise, while vocal praise alone did not engage them as much. The essential finding is that dogs love and need petting. It lowers their heart rate and blood pressure.
How not to pet a dog.
Most dogs dislike patting which is an up and down, harsh, vertical punch-like gesture that children often do before learning the proper way to pet a dog. Always horizontally stroke a dog softly with the growth of the fur, not against it. Slapping a dog's sides gets him equally agitated and even frightens some dogs. Fast, rough stroking is also not well-received by most dogs and can overstimulate anxious dogs. Overly vigorous, aggressive petting by overzealous humans can make dogs anxious and combative.
Respect a dog's personal space.
We all have our own "personal space," both people and dogs. When a friend's or family member's dog voluntarily enters your personal space, treat them to a stellar pet or two, some well-placed scratches, and you will be the favorite uncle or aunt and make a friend for life. Pet the dog in a no-go zone or scratch them on the belly when they are in a submissive position, and the pooch will avoid you forever — or worse, they may bite you.
From the greeting to your petting technique, there is a right way and a wrong way to pet a dog. These rules are particularly important to emphasize with young children who may intrude on a dog's personal space by boldly marching up to them when they are lying down.
When to pet a dog.
When meeting any dog for the first time, observing proper dog-petting etiquette is vital. Do some serious dog watching before you touch that big, friendly looking fellow with the smiling dark eyes and toothy grin. A genuinely friendly dog will come toward you with his ears back slightly and his tail held at a medium height and sweeping in a wide, wagging motion. A dog may sniff you at first while they gather crucial information to determine whether or not you are trustworthy. If a dog looks or acts nervous or shows signs of suspicion, do not touch them.
Before you pet a dog, ensure they have a loose, open, wiggly body posture, relaxed eyes and mouth, and a wagging tail. If a dog wants to make friends with you, they will show interest in interaction by initiating eye contact.
When to leave a dog alone.
Remember to never pet a dog who does not invite contact even after you've made the proper approach. Stop petting a dog if they move away or show discomfort such as licking their lips or showing the whites of their eyes. Do not approach or pet dogs on chains, behind a fence, in a vehicle, or any place where they have no way to move away from you. And always keep your face well away from a dog you are not familiar with while petting or interacting with them.
Contrary to popular opinion, when a dog shows their belly, it is not always an invitation for a belly rub. Fearful dogs display this submissive posture and roll over to appease and placate a threatening dog. Your dog may crave a belly rub, but rubbing, petting, or scratching a strange dog's belly is never a good idea.
How to introduce yourself to an anxious dog.
If a dog seems shy or fearful and does not come to you right away, ignore them until they make the first overture. Then, you can invite the dog into your space by squatting down to their level. Avoid eye contact with the dog and turn your body slightly to the side. Now, you are less threatening. With a confident, enthusiastic pooch you need only bend slightly at the waist and pat the front of your legs while calling their name. Keep in mind that dogs will perceive you as a threat when you hover over them. Also, avoid direct eye contact until you are sure of the dog's intent. When a dog does come to greet you, that is the time to lavish some affection and win them over.
Do dogs like hugs and kisses?
Save hugging for your human friends and kisses for your sweetheart. While your dog may tolerate or appear to like these blatant expressions of love, many dogs feel threatened and become anxious when locked in someone's arms unable to move away. Kissing a dog risks injury if they're having a bad day. The bottom line: do not invade a dog's personal space unless you are invited in. Children especially need to learn early not to hug or kiss a dog and to handle even the gentlest, sweetest dogs in a nonthreatening way.
Unpredictability and irritability are not exclusively canine characteristics, but a characteristic of all animals, especially humans — it's wise to think first before you touch or pet any dog in any manner, and it is always better to be safe than sorry.
Does breed, temperament, or familiarity determine how dogs like to be pet?
Petting your own dog is probably routine for you by now. Your pup strolls up to you countless times a day with their tails wagging, gives you that "look," and saunters back to their chew toy after you give them a pet. You have reinforced that you love them and the act of stroking their fur is also calming for you. But just as every dog can learn new tricks, you too can learn to ramp up your dog-petting game with a few new twists.
Like people, dogs are individuals distinguished by unique personalities and emotions. Breed genetics also inevitably play a leading role in your dog's behavior and influence their reaction to your petting. If your dog is low-key and calm, high-energy and excitable, or somewhere in between the two, adapt your petting repertoire to their temperament. For example, your rambunctious cattle dog may be hypersensitive to touch and needs a slow, gentle pat on its sides and chest. Apply too much pressure or pet too quickly and your dog is jumping out of their skin. With incorrect petting, your dog morphs into a jumble of nerve endings, running in circles and barking out of control. Practicing some slow, gentle, light-handed pats will make a world of difference in your dog's demeanor and enjoyment of the session.
On the other hand, your fearless, intrepid hound while inexhaustible outdoors, is the laidback picture of tranquility indoors and no matter how exuberant your petting style or where you pet them, they're in doggie heaven and revel in your touch as they drift off to sleep at the feet of a roaring fireplace.
Petting your dog makes them feel special and is the ultimate human-dog bonding experience.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
- Vet Street: How to Pet a Dog - Page Two
- Vet Street: How to Pet a Dog
- Vet Street: The Right Way to Pet a Dog Video
- Pet MD: The Best Places to Pet Your Dog
- U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin
- Huffington Post: Dogs Prefer Petting Way More Than You Thought
- Science Direct: Shut Up and Pet Me!