Why Does My Dog Duck His Head When Petted?

Dogs tell us a great deal with their body language. When your dog ducks her head, tucks her tail, licks her lips or stares at you, she's sending you a message. Most dogs who are head-shy are exhibiting submissive behavior, but consult your vet to be sure a medical problem isn't causing your dog pain when she is touched.

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Don't Touch Me?

When you reach down to pat your dog and she ducks her head, you might think she's avoiding your touch. Although this could be true if the dog has a bad history with humans, that's rarely the case. Learn to read your dog's signals to better understand your canine companion and improve your bond. A dog who ducks her head when you approach or reach down to pat her head is acting submissively -- in deference to the person reaching for her. This is a passive behavior from a dog who is cautious, reserved, nervous or just overwhelmed by the size difference between herself and a human. Rather than reacting by moving away from you, she ducks her head. You may also notice that your dog looks at you as you approach and her eyes appear worried or nervous -- all of which can be signs of deference rather than fear.

Canine Body Language

Your dog's body language will tell you whether she's simply being submissive, or if she's fearful. If she's being submissive to you, she ducks her head but typically stands still. A dog who is frightened exhibits body language similar to that of one who is submissive, but the behavior is more exaggerated. A dog who is frightened will cower, lowering her body to the ground and make herself "shrink" as much as she can. Some submissive dogs will roll over on their backs and show you their tummies -- something a fearful dog would not do. A submissive dog rolls over on her back to tell you she's vulnerable to you; a frightened dog hides her tummy to protect it.

How To Approach

Change your approach if your dog is head-shy. Instead of bringing your hand straight down to pat the top of her head, offer your hand palm up, which can be less intimidating, and try slowly -- but confidently -- petting her chin. Sometimes avoiding her head altogether helps, and scratching her chest or back can be soothing, but each dog can react differently. If your dog has a naturally submissive personality, she may duck her head whenever you approach her, even if you don't raise your hand to pat her. Speak to her in a calm and happy voice with a treat in your hand to show her that your approach is positive. Always touch your dog softly and be responsive to her reaction.

Retraining the Behavior

A dog who is sensitive to touch or is submissive may always duck or shy away when approached. But patient training and conditioning can reduce or eliminate the behavior over time. Begin by calling the dog to come to you instead of approaching her. Kneel down so you are on the dog's level when you reach for her. Touch her neck or sides instead of the top of her head. Work your way up to her face, and keep your touch soft. Don't pat hard, or roughly. When your dog comes to you with her tail wagging and her body relaxed, offer a treat first and then pat her.

By Ann Compton


References:

The Whole Dog Journal: Understanding How Dogs Communicate
ASPCA: Canine Body Language
VeterinaryPartner.com: Touch and How It Affects Your Dog
ASPCA: Is Your Dog Dominant