From a human perspective, most people would agree that petting a dog is a way to show affection. But what do dogs think about being petted? Is petting them only for our benefit?
Before we dive into the logic behind why dogs like to be pet, it’s important to note that, the way you pet a dog can make or break your relationship with that dog. To start off on the right paw, keep these tips in mind when you are petting your dog or meeting a new dog:
Always ask first
Before you pet a dog, always ask its owner or handler before approaching to pet. Sometimes this is hard to remember when you see a really cute dog, but it really is very important to do!
Do not assume the dog is friendly; they may not be or they may need a specific approach for the interaction to be positive for them. Every positive interaction a dog has with someone helps them become better socialized, while every negative interaction can cause a dog to become fearful and less socialized. These experiences can impact a dog for the rest of his or her life.
If a stranger ran up to you on the street and tried to hug you, you probably would not appreciate it. Keep in mind that most dogs like an introduction first too.
To begin, offer the back of your hand for the dog to sniff. Do not shove your hand in their face; hold it near their face and they will likely begin sniffing your hand without much if any convincing. If the dog does not sniff your hand, try to sit down nearby with relaxed body language and ignore the dog. You will wait for the dog to come to you, so you will need to be patient. Play on your phone, watch the surroundings, have a conversation with their handler in a calm voice, and do not rush. The dog will likely come over to check you out, and once he or she has chosen to investigate, you will have an opportunity to offer the back of your hand for sniffing again.
Pet in the right places
After the dog sniffs your hand, if their body language is relaxed, you may begin petting by gently stroking their chest or shoulders. Keep in mind where dogs like to be pet, and do not attempt to pet the top of a dog’s head or a dog’s face; this makes many dogs uncomfortable.
After a dog has responded positively to their chest and shoulders being rubbed, you may pet them in other areas. Most dogs like to be petted in the following areas and ways:
- They like their chests rubbed and scratched.
- They like their necks and backs scratched, especially underneath a collar or harness.
- They like the base of the tail and across the hips scratched.
- Some dogs enjoy gentle ear massages. This is done by bending a finger and rubbing your bent finger joint in their ear gently. Never force your finger deep into the ear or roughly into the ear; being gentle is key. A dog will likely want to smell your finger after an ear massage.
- If a dog is anxious, it will not want its belly rubbed. If a dog is comfortable with you, they may want a belly rub. Only rub the belly of a dog that you are familiar with and only if know that they enjoy belly rubs. Some dogs will roll onto their backs out of anxiety, not because they want a belly rub, and may react aggressively if you attempt to rub their belly. Never force a dog to roll over for a belly rub as this makes them uncomfortable and they may feel the need to defend themselves.
Consider how human massage therapists work sections of a client’s muscles rather than focusing on one area and follow their strategy when petting a dog. Try all of the recommended petting techniques, and if the dog responds positively to one particular area, circle back to that.
Use the right pressure
Using the right amount of pressure when petting a dog is important. When you pet your dog or are petting a new dog, never pet them roughly, fast, or vigorously. Think of smoothing a comforter across a bed you have finished making with your hands rather than a deep tissue massage.
Begin with gentle petting, and if the dog leans towards your petting they may want you to slightly increase pressure, especially if you got the right spot. Always increase pressure very gradually, but never get to a rough level of pressure.
Pay attention to their body language
When you are interacting with a dog it is crucial to pay attention to their body language. Since dogs cannot talk, they communicate with us with their body language. This is how you will know if the dog is enjoying the interaction or if they are becoming stressed out.
Dogs will communicate that being petted feels good by leaning towards you, staying with you, “talking” to you with happy sounds, and leaning against you. If being petted does not feel good to a dog, or if they have had enough, he or she will walk away or may growl if they feel like they cannot getaway.
Respect their boundaries
Keep in mind that many dogs do not like being petted in certain areas, such as their paws, belly, tail, ears, and face. This may be because they simply do not like that area touched, they are not used to it, or they suffered an injury and are in pain.
Dogs can only communicate “no” in so many ways; if while petting a dog the dogs try to move away from you or growls, that is their way of saying they are uncomfortable. Always respect what a dog communicates to you. If you continue to make them uncomfortable they may feel cornered and bite in response.
Never assume that because your dog likes something another dog will. When petting a new dog, learn their likes and dislikes and respect them.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let’s dive into some frequently asked questions regarding why dogs like to be pet:
Do dogs actually like being petted?
Many dogs do like being petted, but some are more fond of being petted than others, similarly to how some humans enjoy physical contact more than others.
All dogs are individuals; they have their own personalities and life experiences that make them who they are. Some dogs will actively seek petting and attention from humans, while others are more withdrawn.
According to Vet Street, most dogs view being petted as a reward or as soothing if they are anxious.
Why does my dog want me to pet him all the time?
It is natural for a dog to seek affection from their humans, however, some dogs seek more attention than others. According to Purina, this behavior may occur for several reasons:
Your dog is anxious.
Similar to how a young child will run to a parent in an uncertain situation, anxious dogs look to their owners for petting as a way to be comforted. While petting a dog is a part of the relationship, overly comforting a dog may reinforce their anxiety by telling them that their worry is real.
Your dog is bored.
Some dogs seek attention because they are not receiving enough mental stimulation and the interactions with you are something for them to do. Dogs need daily walks, training and playtime in addition to daily petting and cuddling sessions to be mentally fulfilled.
The behavior was reinforced.
Your dog has learned to come to you for attention and when they receive that attention it is a form of positive reinforcement training. Your dog did a behavior and received a positive reward of being petted. While that is supposed to be a part of the relationship we share with our dogs, if your dog is constantly asking to be petted it can be difficult to get things done around the house especially if you work from home. This behavior may be modified through training if needed.
Why do dogs like to be with humans?
There is no debate that the bond between humans and dogs is a special one, but the timeline of when this relationship began varies according to a variety of scientists. What we can reasonably agree on though, is that dogs and humans initially interacted because of food.
According to BBC, humans and dogs began interacting with each other when wolves began to spend time near human settlements to obtain scraps of food. Over time, the wolves learned to follow the humans as their settlements relocated as a means of eating. Some wolves became tame as they associated the humans with the positive of easy meals.
Further according to BBC, these tame wolves may have been brought into the settlements for companionship and guarding duties. These tame wolves traveled with their humans as they relocated, and this eventually leads to dogs being strategically bred for specific purposes rather than tamed from the wild.
These interactions and events evolved into the unique bond that humans and dogs share today.
Why do dogs like to be touching you?
- Affection and bonding. Dogs view cuddling, playing, and petting as a way to show affection and bond with their humans.
- Separation anxiety. If your dog is described as a “velcro dog” who is always at your side, it might seem endearing to you. However, in some cases, it is a symptom of separation anxiety. In very severe cases of separation anxiety, dogs may be unable to be apart from their owners without experiencing significant trauma.
- Asserting their role as dominant in the pack. Some dogs sit on humans to assert dominance over them.
- Breed Traits. Some breeds are more affectionate than others; Chihuahuas for example are lap dogs who cannot get enough cuddles.
- Scent marking. Your dog might want to be touching you to spread his or her scent on you, especially if you smell like another dog or animal.
Does petting dogs benefit humans?
Yes! According to the American Kennel Club, petting a dog may lower a human’s blood pressure, relax tense muscles, lower their heart rate, and slow their rate of breathing. Petting dogs are also known to offer comfort, reduce general stress and anxiety.
Further, according to Vet Street, relationships with dogs release the hormone oxytocin in human brains. This hormone is often seen in the brain of a mother in relation to her child; it relates to social attachment, trust, and love. Oxytocin also has the ability to decrease the power of the stress hormone cortisol.
Can Wolves be Tamed Today?
Some readers might be wondering if they could go tame a wolf to become part of their “pack”. While it is an intriguing idea, it certainly should not be attempted. According to the ASPCA, one of today’s best dog insurance companies, wolves do not make good pets.
Firstly, keeping wolves, wolf hybrids, or any other variety of purebred or mixed breed wild dogs as a companion animal is illegal in most areas, with the exception of licensed wildlife sanctuaries.
Secondly, know that despite their ancestors in common, there are vast differences between wolves and domestic dogs. This means that a wild dog, whether purebred or hybrid, will not act like a domesticated dog.
For example, wolves will not crave human contact the way domestic dogs do because of their survival instincts.
This is supported by the very basic way they interact with humans; eye contact. According to Science Direct, domestic dogs are comfortable making eye contact with humans and will do so freely. Wolves do not even initiate eye contact with humans like domestic dogs do.
From sharing snacks with a wolf outside of camp to petting and snuggling a dog on a couch indoors, the relationship between humans and canines has evolved nearly unrecognizably into something so beautiful it is not uncommon for a story of a dog and its owner to move us to tears.
While domesticating wolves is no longer an option, there are many dogs available for adoption who need loving homes. Visit your local shelter to find a special pup to a pet today!