Petting Your Dog: Where, Why, and How

One of our favorite ways to show affection towards our dogs is physical contact, most often in the form of petting. Humans often use physical contact among themselves to build and maintain healthy social relationships. We extend this form of communication with our furry companions in friendly and playful interactions, to show our affection, to provide comfort, and to reward wanted behaviors. Petting a dog is a calming and comforting experience and has been shown scientifically to have beneficial impacts on both parties’ physical and emotional health.

Why Do Dogs Like To Be Pet?

To put it simply, dogs likely enjoy being pet because it feels good and is often accompanied with other positive events such as play or food rewards. Most dogs seem to view petting as a positive and enjoyable experience, though it should be noted that some dogs may not enjoy it especially if they are not comfortable with the human trying to pet them (Donaldson, 1996). Studies show that dogs will actively seek out petting from people, including those they do not know (Feuerbacher and Wynne, 2015), but that they seem to prefer petting from familiar people (Kuhne et al., 2012). They also seem to prefer petting to verbal praise (Feuerbacher and Wynne, 2015). Research has shown that interacting with humans can reduce a dog’s stress (Shiverdecker et al., 2013), blood pressure (Odendaal and Meintjes, 2003), and heart rate (Kostarczyk and Fonberg, 2010). Petting a dog during or after a stressful event seems to have a positive effect on the dog’s emotional and physical state (Mariti et al., 2018) providing further evidence that dogs find petting to be calming and enjoyable.

Where Do Dogs Like To Be Pet?

When petting a dog, it’s helpful to understand that dogs use physical contact to communicate in vastly different ways than humans do. For instance, dogs will use physical gestures to display their dominance such as standing over, using their body to push, mount, or knock over a subordinate, or placing their head or paws over the body of a subordinate. They may also grab at the muzzle or neck as a display of their dominance. Sometimes when humans go to pet a dog, the dog may interpret our friendly advances as dominate actions and may respond negatively to them (Győri et al., 2010). Dogs may show signs of discomfort when certain parts of their body are touched (Luescher and Reisner, 2008). In general, dogs dislike their paws or hind legs being touched, and dislike the top of their head being patted (Landsberg et al., 2003). Areas that seem to garner the best reaction from dogs include the sides of their chest or under their chin.

How To Pet Your Dog

It is generally recommended that you pet your dog using long, slow strokes with gentle to medium pressure. You should always be sure that you are stroking in the same direction as the dog’s fur. These types of strokes typically have a calming effect on the dog. Faster, shorter strokes can be used during play to increase the dog’s arousal and excitability. Most dogs prefer to be stroked as opposed to being patted. While these are general petting guidelines, it is important to remember that dogs have individual personalities and preferences. The dog’s current emotional state as well as the nature of your relationship with the dog can affect where and how the dog likes being pet. Dogs may learn to accept and enjoy a wide range of petting activity as they develop stronger social bonds and trust with their owner. By continually monitoring your dog’s body langue, you can ensure that they are enjoying how they are being pet.

How Do I Know If My Dog Is Enjoying The Petting Session?

By reading a dog’s body language you can determine whether a dog wants to be pet, and if they are comfortable with how and where you are petting them. Dogs that are enjoying a petting session may seek attention, make eye contact, and may initiate body contact. It can be beneficial to pause petting to see how the dog responds. For example, if they climb further into your lap and nudge your hand you can gather that they would like the petting to continue. Dogs may even direct you to where they would like to be pet. Signs that your dog does not want to be pet or is no longer enjoying being pet include appeasement, redirected, or displacement behaviors.

  • Appeasement behaviors: blinking, turning head or body away, closing eyes, freezing, sitting, laying down, moving away, licking their nose or lips, flicking their tongue, and lifting a paw
  • Redirected behaviors: sniffing or licking the floor, playing with objects, digging, drinking, visual scanning, and excessive activity
  • Displacement behaviors: licking or scratching at their own body, mounting, shaking, yawning, stretching, vocalizing, and wallowing

If a dog is shying away from you or is displaying any of the above behaviors associated with discomfort, then you should refrain from petting them. When introducing your dog to unfamiliar people or when children are playing with your dog, always supervise the interaction to keep an eye out for any of these behaviors. If the dog appears uncomfortable, intervene to stop the petting session to ensure everyone’s safety.  

What Are The Benefits Of Petting Your Dog?

As mentioned above, being pet can have beneficial health and well-being effects on dogs. There is growing evidence that these interactions have similar effects on the people doing the petting as well. One experiment found that petting a dog can lower a person’s blood pressure and heart rate (Vormbrock and Grossberg, 1988). It has also been shown that physical contact with dogs can increase our levels of oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle” or “love” hormone (Miller et al., 2009). Another study suggested that petting dogs could help improve the functioning of our immune system by increasing the level of antibodies that fight off sickness in our bodies (Charnetski et al., 2004).  

Aside from Petting, Do Dogs Like Hugs And Kisses?

As much as we love to hug and kiss on our dogs, we need to remember that hugs and kisses are behaviors that dogs would not naturally perform among themselves. The closest thing dogs do to a hug is standing over, which is when a dog puts their leg over another dog’s body, or when they place a paw over another dog’s head or body. These gestures are thought to indicate competitiveness or control and can confuse a dog when we perform similar behaviors towards them. With kissing, a dog may interpret this as you displaying submissive behaviors towards them. These behaviors could make a dog feel uncomfortable and confused as to why we are not following their social rules. In some cases, a dog may act out aggressively from a hug or a kiss if humans continue to ignore their signs of discomfort. It should also be noted that dogs are individuals and their tolerance for silly human behavior may vary widely. Some dogs may learn to love their human’s embrace or smooches, it all depends on the individual dog!

Conclusion

Petting dogs is not only good for their physical and emotional health, but it seems to equally benefit us as well. We can help ensure that our dog feels comfortable around us by learning to read their body language and act accordingly. Through this improved understanding, we can strengthen our social bond with our furry loved ones.


Works Cited

Charnetski, C. J., Riggers, S., & Brennan, F. X. (2004). Effect of petting a dog on immune system function. Psychological Reports95(3_suppl), 1087-1091.

Donaldson, J. (1996). The culture clash: A revolutionary new way of understanding the relationship between humans and dogs. Wenatchee: Dogwise Publishing.

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures. Behavioural processes110, 47-59.

Győri, B., Gácsi, M., & Miklósi, Á. (2010). Friend or foe: Context dependent sensitivity to human behaviour in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science128(1-4), 69-77.

Kostarczyk, E., & Fonberg, E. (1982). Heart rate mechanisms in instrumental conditioning reinforced by petting in dogs. Physiology & behavior28(1), 27-30.

Kuhne, F., Hößler, J. C., & Struwe, R. (2012). Effects of human–dog familiarity on dogs’ behavioural responses to petting. Applied animal behaviour science142(3-4), 176-181.

Landsberg, G. M., & Hunthausen, W. (1997). Handbook of behaviour problems of the dog and cat. Butterworth-Heinemann.

Luescher, A. U., & Reisner, I. R. (2008). Canine aggression toward familiar people: a new look at an old problem. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice38(5), 1107-1130.

Mariti, C., Carlone, B., Protti, M., Diverio, S., & Gazzano, A. (2018). Effects of petting before a brief separation from the owner on dog behavior and physiology: A pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior27, 41-46.

Miller, S. C., Kennedy, C. C., DeVoe, D. C., Hickey, M., Nelson, T., & Kogan, L. (2009). An examination of changes in oxytocin levels in men and women before and after interaction with a bonded dog. Anthrozoös22(1), 31-42.

Odendaal, R., Meintjes, J. (2003). Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs Vet. J165, 296-301.

Shiverdecker, M. D., Schiml, P. A., & Hennessy, M. B. (2013). Human interaction moderates plasma cortisol and behavioral responses of dogs to shelter housing. Physiology & behavior109, 75-79.

Vormbrock, J. K., & Grossberg, J. M. (1988). Cardiovascular effects of human-pet dog interactions. Journal of behavioral medicine11(5), 509-517.