Are Dogs Ticklish—and Should You Tickle Them? Here's What a Behavior Expert Recommends
There's a lot of science to help us understand why humans are ticklish. For example, did you know that when we're tickled, both our touch and pain nerve receptors are stimulated? This is potentially one reason why some individuals consider being tickled stress-relieving—or super uncomfortable.
But enough about people! At Daily Paws, we want to know: Are dogs ticklish? Let's explore this concept.
Are Dogs Ticklish?
Research indicates there are two forms of ticklish sensations. One is knismesis, which is a light touch that might make our skin twitch, itch, or raise goosebumps. This is an automatic safety alert to having something crawl on you that must be swatted away. The other is gargalesis, the often more probing touch by someone else in certain areas of our body that prompts involuntary laughter. (Which isn't always a good thing.) While most mammals have a natural knismesis response—and yes, humans can lightly tickle themselves—we can't produce the gargalesis reaction on our own.
Mikkel Becker, KPA CTP, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CDBC, is a dog behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free. She says dogs have touch receptors in their fur and skin that are similar to humans'—which means you should pay close attention to your dog's body language to determine if tickling is the type of engagement they enjoy.
"Dogs are unique, and it's important that pet parents learn about their dog's specific needs and preferences," she tells Daily Paws.
The Center for Shelter Dogs at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine indicates "when observing a dog's body language to determine what is being communicated, it is crucial to observe the entire dog, as well as the situation/context, in order to accurately determine what is being conveyed."
So if you're someone who giggles at being both the tickler and the ticklee, you might pick up on a cue that yes, your dog is ticklish. Becker says many canines are. The real question is, do they like the experience? Honestly? Probably not.
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How Can I Tell If My Dog Is Ticklish?
"They may act a little squirmy and pull away, or you may see their ears back or tail down," Becker says. "To humans, it may be a fun game, but for dogs this is something that's going to be uncomfortable." If you're not a fan of being tickled, you totally understand.
In fact, she adds that you shouldn't intentionally try to tickle your dog. "I wouldn't suggest doing things to your dog that will cause unnecessary fear, anxiety, or stress. We're all about reducing these emotions as much as we can for our furry friends."
Where are dogs ticklish? Primarily on their paws. While the leathery pads on the bottom are designed to withstand most types of terrain and temperatures (as long as the surface isn't too hot or cold), the paw tops and those spaces between the pads are particularly touchy.
"They're similar in that, just like people's feet may be more sensitive, dogs' paws have more receptors," she says. "Some pets love a paw massage, but other times they'll be aversive due to tickling." It shouldn't be a surprise to learn dogs' feet are ticklish—this is often one reason why nail trimming sometimes requires dedicated patience.
Many animal behavior professionals recommend starting a pooch in puppy kindergarten to help them (and pet parents!) learn how to be properly handled, especially in preparation for veterinary visits, and to be more comfortable with their humans. This isn't an invitation to tickling, of course, but they might eventually be accepting of hand–to–paw contact, especially if putting a paw on you is one way they communicate.
Other dogs' ticklish spots include their armpits (clinically known as the axillae) or ears. But there's one place most doggos frequently welcome some of your attention. "Under their collar may not be ticklish but may be itchy, so it feels good to get a nice scratch there!" Becker adds.
Are Dogs Ticklish On Their Belly?
Here's the thing. We might believe when a pooch flops onto their back and flashes their fuzzy belly, they want rubs and tickles. Surprisingly, it could be just the opposite! Becker says showing their vulnerable underside is often an "appeasement gesture" that lets you know they intend no threat. "Pet parents might mistake this to mean they're asking for belly rubs. Sometimes they're not even comfortable in that position," she adds.
So similar to paw touching, belly rubs fall into the "some pups say yay, others say nay" categories. Becker recommends pet parents do a consent test to find out.
"Try petting [for] three to five seconds and then stop and see what your dog does. See if the dog seems relaxed, or if they pull away," she says. "You want to find out if he or she was enjoying that interaction."
If they enjoy it, great! And if they pull away, you know to find other ways to interact with your pet. Like maybe devoting more time to scrumptious scritches in areas they truly appreciate, such around their ears and neck—aaannnd maybe a few along the mid-back and chest, too, depending on the pooch. Every pup has a sweet spot, and the more time you spend doing enriching play and exercise activities with them, the easier it is to find!
Why Do Some Dogs Kick Their Legs During Belly Rubs?
Scientists theorize leg kicking during belly rubs is more of a scratch reaction, just like the automatic knismesis sensory prompt. "Kicking the leg is a reflex, similar to when a doctor taps your knee and you kick it. It's involuntary and doesn't necessarily mean they're enjoying this behavior," Becker says.
For the most rewarding times with your canine friend, she advises attending to any early signs of fear, anxiety, and stress, as well as understanding the signs of a content and happy pet.
"This is essential for deepened relationships, safer living with dogs, and helping them have happier, healthier, fuller lives," she says. "Here's a video where pet parents can learn the key communication signs to attend to, including the subtle whispers of the pet's underlying emotional state that you can't afford to miss."