Petting Your Dog: Where, Why, and How

There’s nothing quite as calming as petting a dog, for both you and your pup. In fact, it’s scientifically proven that petting a dog provides many health benefits. Not only that, but petting a dog is a great way to share the human and animal bond that is so important to cultivate with your dog. Petting can help create a lifelong friendship unlike any human relationship you’ll ever know. However, to get the most benefit for your pooch, you need to know where and when to pet them.

Why Do Dogs Like To Be Petted?

Let’s face it, dogs live to be near us and to gain our approval. Nothing says, “You’re doing a great job,” or “I love you” like a gentle rub on the head or a stroke from head to tail. More interestingly, petting seems to be a preferred reward over vocal praise. Even though a dog’s addiction to petting hasn’t been thoroughly studied, we have some speculations.

  • The feel of a pleasant touch

Anyone that has had a relaxing body massage knows this. A gentle touch just feels good in dogs and humans alike. The nervous system is an amazing machine that has various sensors throughout the body programmed to receive different types of signals. Some sense pain, others temperature, and some respond to slow gentle pressure. These sensors then tell the brain to release endorphins and other feel-good hormones that give a pup a sense of contentment.

  • It’s healthy

Petting a dog inspires a lower heart rate and blood pressure leading to a calmer and collected feeling.

  • Sense of belonging

We all want to know that we’re a part of something and that we’re bonded to those around us. Dogs are no different. Petting a dog gives them that connection and helps them feel a part of their own world. Being petted is also a great way to clue in to the emotions of others and help a dog decide how to respond. A soft, disengaged pet means a dog parent is distracted or worried about something else. A firm pet may mean they’re agitated about something, while a gentle and present pet shows that they’re here for the pup.

  • Attention

In the era where everyone is multitasking and living a busy life, it’s often easy to pass over our four-legged friends. Sometimes in the rush between preparing dinner and getting the kids to bed on time, our pups could use just a little petting to reaffirm their importance in our lives.

Where Do Dogs Like To Be Petted?

As a dog parent, you probably realized that dogs enjoy being petted. However, you may have also noticed that not every pet is the same. Have you ever been in the middle of an all-consuming belly rub that has your dog practically melting into the floor only to have them jump up and run away the minute you touch their foot or leg? What’s with the hot and cold attitude you probably wondered. Well, there’s definitely a time and place for petting so let’s look at the sweet spots that dogs prefer.

First off, as a general disclaimer, every dog is different. Some may welcome petting in any and all areas where others will definitely have their preferred spots. If you’re unsure where a dog prefers to be petted, take it slowly and watch for signals that they’re upset, like flattening the ears, tension in the body, or sudden jerky movements. Shifting their eyes back and forth may also indicate that they’re scared or uncomfortable.

Safe areas to pet just about any dog are along the back, sides, and usually the chest. Most dogs like a good head rub, but be careful about covering their eyes especially in the beginning. Legs and tail are generally off limits, but some dogs will allow it once they’re set in and relaxed. As a side note, the more comfortable you can get a dog with having their feet handled, the easier a nail trim becomes. The rump or base of the tail area may be off-limits since some dogs prefer their privacy. That leaves the belly. While some dogs will absolutely relish a belly rub and fully believe that anyone that rubs their belly walks on water, other dogs may find it a little too threatening. After all, one very important survival tactic in the wild is to never expose their soft belly. Again, when working on discovering your dog’s favorite petting spots, just take it slow and let them do the steering.

How To Pet Your Dog

Some of you are probably thinking that petting a dog is one of those activities that don’t need instructions. However, you may be one of those people that runs up to a dog and goes directly to petting their tail, then only to find the dog running in the other direction. To avoid this kind of situation, let’s do a step-by-step guide to petting a dog. Not only will this help you improve your petting and please your furry friend, it may also help you better interact with new dogs.

  • Greet them

Similar to the feeling you get when someone forces you to do something you don't enjoy, dogs don’t appreciate being startled or forced into anything as well. Always let a pup initiate contact. For most dogs, this is pretty easy since they’re always ready to socialize. But for others dogs, you may have to get down to their level. Squat or kneel down so that you’re not so imposing. You may pat your legs, clap, or talk to them. If they’re unwilling to come to you right away, try sitting quietly near them and focus your attention on something else. Often curiosity wins out and they’ll come over to investigate you.

  • Let the dog decide

For a dog that is meeting you for the first time, letting them come up to you isn’t necessarily an invite for a petting session. Let them sniff you to see what you’re all about. If a pup’s body is stiff or ears are pinned back, chances are they’re not ready for the petting to begin. However, if they’re wiggly and relaxed, it’s time for you to get to work. Start petting the shoulders, chest, back, and neck, and then try other spots later on.

  • Gentle and slow strokes

A long slow stroke with gentle pressure in the direction of the hair is the best way to pet your dog and bring them to a euphoric relaxed state. You may also try light scratching. Too vigorous or aggressive petting won’t go over well and will instead overexcite your pup for play rather than relaxation. Patting usually doesn’t do the trick either. It’s the long slow pressure of a hand stroke that feels the best.

How To Tell If Your Dog Is Enjoying The Petting Session

Again, petting seems pretty intuitive to most dog parents. After all, how can you possibly screw up petting a dog? Just because dogs crave attention doesn’t mean that all attention is equal and welcome. For example, you may have noticed that your pup seems a little uneasy around children. It’s probably not due to their small stature, but more likely due to their lack of finesse and technique when it comes to petting. While some really loyal dogs will sit through any petting session, it doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it. Paying attention to their body language is your best bet in determining if your pup is actually enjoying their time with you or not.

Happy pups are relaxed. Their muscles are loose, their tail is wagging in a wide sweeping motion, and they may even be drooling. Happy dogs will often move their body around to help you reach the right spots and act like they never want this petting session to end. Unhappy pups will be tense and rigid. Their tail will be held straight out or tucked between their legs. Their ears may be down, and their eyes may be shifting from side to side. They generally will have tight lips, sit or stand stiff, and stay still like a statue rather than lounging lazily. Most dogs that don’t like their petting session will try to hightail out of the situation as soon as they get the chance. If your pup isn’t thoroughly enjoying the petting session, you probably aren’t enjoying it either.

What Are The Benefits Of Petting Your Dog?

While you may not be the one receiving the massage during a petting session, it doesn’t mean you aren’t reaping any benefits. Those benefits are similar to what a dog feels with the release of feel-good hormones. One of those hormones is oxytocin which is released during childbirth and helps with infant-bonding. So every time you pet your dog, you may get the same good feeling a new mother gets when she holds her newborn baby. Along with the release of oxytocin, petting a dog can also reduce blood pressure and lower your heart rate to help you calm down and relax after a stressful day.

Aside From Petting, Do Dogs Like Hugs And Kisses?

With all of the benefits that both you and your dog get from petting session, why do dog parents feel the need to find other ways to display their affection? We just do! But how do our pups feel about hugs and kisses? Again, this depends on the dog. For some dogs, a hug can feel like you’re petting their whole body at once. For others, it can make them feel trapped and uncomfortable. Some dogs see a kiss from you as someone taking the initiative on displaying affection while others may see it as a threatening challenge that’s brought directly to their face. When deciding whether your dog needs hugs and kisses, assess their personality. If they’re a bit more on the standoffish side or prefer their own personal bubble, then maybe not. Gauge their reaction by watching their body language as previously discussed. If your dog is a sitting-on-your-lap-still-isn’t-close-enough type, then they may enjoy the occasional, or frequent, hug and kiss.


There’s more to properly petting your dog than most of us might imagine. There is a real and practiced routine to it. The more you pay attention to your pup, the happier both of you will be. Petting is an important activity that builds and cements the human and animal bond. It also serves to calm and comfort your pup and makes you healthier and less stressed at the same time. With such great benefits from petting, making it a part of your daily routine can definitely help you and your furry friend live a healthier and happier life.