The Expert Guide on How to Properly Pet a Dog
The science doesn't lie—petting a dog is downright good for your health. The act releases happy hormones, reduces stress, and hello, who doesn't feel good when petting a happy pupper? If you, like many others, want to make the most of these happy moments, you might ask, "Where do dogs like to be pet?" An even more important question, though, is whether the pupper in question wants to be pet.
Assuming the pup in mind has signaled the A-OK for affection via human touch, Annette Louviere, DVM at Wisdom Panel, says that petting your dog can be a form of communication between the two of you. "It's not so much the where but rather the way in which you are doing the petting that provides information—such as comfort, playfulness, or praise," she says.
Do Dogs Like Being Pet?
Not all dogs like to be pet, Louviere says. If you're unsure whether a dog would enjoy some hands-on love, always ask the owner first. Then, even if the person gives you the go-ahead (since not everyone reads their own dog perfectly), take a moment to look out for these signs before you reach for the dog:
- Ducking or moving the head away
- Leaning away from being touched
- Tension in the face, like a furrowed brow
- "Whale eyes," or rounder eyes than typical with whites exposed
- Licking lips
If a dog shows any of this body language, he's telling you "don't touch me, please."
Other pups love being pet and might reward you with a slobbery kiss. "Licking while being pet can be a sign of enjoyment and mutual affection," Louviere explains. However, this can easily be confused with the stress reaction of a dog licking his lips. Some dogs seem to lick almost compulsively when being pet. Bottom line: Licking is not a sure sign that a dog is enjoying the petting. When in doubt, stop petting and give the dog some space.
So, why do some dogs like to be pet? Louviere says petting is a way for pups and humans to communicate with each other, like a "hello," although some dogs might prefer to just give you a sniff and not be touched at all in their hello. That said, giving and receiving affection, like petting, can be a bonding experience for both parties. "Plus, receiving rubs and pets just feels good," Louviere adds. "So, there are plenty of reasons for dogs to enjoy the interaction when done properly."
How to Pet a Dog the Right Way
Melissa McMath Hatfield, MS, CBCC-KA, CDBC, owner of Loving Dogs in Fayetteville, Ark., says it's called a pet and not a pat for a reason. "Most dogs do not like the most common human pat, which is the pat, pat, pat on the head, but prefer a chest rub or a tickle under the chin," she says.
Before you go in for a trusty chin scratch, a proper introduction is due. "Never reach out and pet a dog without asking permission from the pet parent, especially if you and the dog are strangers," Hatfield says. Even if you do know each other, let the pup come to you and sniff around. If his body language is positive (soft eyes, a slightly open mouth, and a wiggly-looking body), let your hand dangle at your side and see if the dog stands or wiggles near your hand. If they do, then you can slowly engage in petting.
If the dog stays near you and has already brushed against or sniffed your hand a few times, it likely means the dog is open to more petting. Louviere has some suggestions on where dogs like to be pet and how:
- Do rub and scratch the ears. "Dog ears are well supplied with nerves, so [gentle] rubbing and scratching here will release endorphins and can help relax the dog," she says.
- Do scratch hard-to-reach spots like along the neck and under the collar.
- Do scratch under the chin as well as along the neck, chest, and upper back. "If the dog is accepting, then they may offer other areas like the lower back near the base of the tail," Louviere says.
- Do check in with the dog's body language as you interact. Loose facial muscles and relaxed ears are signs of enjoyment.
- Do pause periodically to give the pup the chance to decide if he would like the petting to continue.
- Avoid the dog's groin and rear end. "Dogs will be protective of their private areas," Louviere says.
- Avoid petting directly on the face, along the tail, and on the lower legs and feet.
RELATED: Is It OK to Hug Your Dog?
Though these are general rules, Hatfield reminds us that every pup is different and some might like being pet in certain areas more than others. "For some, their back may be off-limits due to arthritis or old injury," she says. Other pups find that their ears are much too sensitive for a friendly scratch. "They will tell you what they like. We just have to listen with our eyes."