How Can I Tell if My Dog Enjoys Being Petted?
All Dogs Like Being Petted, Right?
Nope. Your dog may be telling you that he doesn't like being petted and you may not know it! Or your dog might love it but you still aren't sure. Dog body language is often very subtle and quick and hard for humans to catch.
Here are some pictures and descriptions of things dogs do when they like petting and when they don't, and a video that shows you a method to know for sure whether your dog wants to be petted, and what it looks like when your dog doesn't want that.
Dog Body Language: YES to Petting
If you are petting a dog and he does everything he can to move into your space and keep you doing it, and shows a lot of relaxed behaviors, he is likely enjoying it very much. So if he puts his head or body under your hand, or pulls your had towards him with his paw, and keeps moving towards you, those are good signs. If he flops his body down in a very relaxed way, especially into your space or even your lap, he's also probably having a good time. You can also look at the muscles in his face. Some dogs get droopy eyelids and their facial muscles may be very relaxed.
Dog Body Language: NO to Petting
On the other hand, dogs can give some pretty clear signals that they are uncomfortable if we just know how to read them. Here is a little list of dog behaviors that usually mean that dogs are stressed. They may: look away from you, lick their lips, yawn, show "whale eye" (white around the edge of the eye), scratch themselves, or lift a front paw.
In addition, a dog not enjoying petting may duck her head away when you reach for her, move away from you, or simply leave the area. Not to mention that she might growl, snap, or even bite.
Lots of people think that when dogs are licking they are expressing affection as if they are "giving kisses," but this is not always true. It might be. But licking is frequently an appeasement signal. The dog is actually saying, "Please stop." Dr. Patricia McConnell has a great blog called "The Kiss to Dismiss" that is about that behavior. But since licking can go either way, it's good to look at the other things the dog is doing.
If a dog is doing several of the above stress behaviors while you are petting her, she is likely very uncomfortable.
To Pet or Not to Pet? A Test to Tell the Difference
The following video shows a simple method to tell whether your dog really enjoys being petted or not. This is sometimes called a "consent test." The video also shows in detail the difference in behaviors between a dog's "yes" and "no" answers about being petted. The dog in this movie is very friendly and trusting of her owner, but makes it clear from her behavior when and how she wants to be touched and when she doesn't. Her owner respects that and has made this movie to share the information with the rest of us.
How to Tell if a Dog Likes to Be Patted
People Are Often Mistaken About Their Dogs
A quick glance at YouTube will show us how many people are likely mistaken about their dogs. I searched and easily found 10 videos that either through their titles or the humans' behavior implied that the dog loved being petted. Probably not. Here are just two of many examples.
A video entitled Maltese poodle enjoys petting on the couch shows the dog averting its gaze, licking, yawning, then moving away at end the video. Licking can mean different things, but because of the other things it does, the dog is probably politely trying to get the human to stop.
In an interesting video called Cooper the therapy dog loves his petting therapy, it's not quite as obvious, but Cooper does not really act happy with the petting. Most knowledgeable observers I have shown this to agree that Cooper doesn't enjoy his therapy petting very much. He yawns, and is mostly very quiet and disengaged. He exposes his belly and lies down on his side. Once you have seen a dog who seeks out petting, it's unmistakeable.
So to finish up, here is a charming contrast. Oscar the pug drags its owner's hand back whenever the petting stops. Dogs are usually show us what they prefer: we just need to pay attention. My Pug Will Not Let You Stop Petting Him,
Why Should We Let Dogs Decide?
I have written on this topic several places, and have actually gotten some hostile responses. People will sometimes write that we should pet our dogs no matter what. They say, "These are our dogs, we are the people, and it's their job to do what we want." These people will even say that we are not being responsible owners by letting them decide, that that means we are letting them be "dominant."
I don't agree. We already hold all the cards. We have the big brains. We decide what and when our dogs eat. We have the locks to the doors and put on the leashes and harnesses. It is simple kindness to let them have a say about being touched.
Let's let the dogs decide.
Online Resources on Dog Body Language
- Free Downloads on Dog Body Language
Free poster by renowned veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin showing common messages our dogs send through their body language.
- Observation Skills for Training Dogs (FaceBook group)
Log into Facebook to start sharing and connecting with your friends, family, and people you know.
- Videos | Dogs and Babies
This video shows how to teach both children and dogs ways to be comfortable and safe with each other.
- Family Paws-Dog and Baby Support & Education
Family Paws Parent Education Ongoing support for families with dogs and babies.
- Dog Bites Reporter: Why?
A frame by frame analysis of the video where a dog bites a reporter's face on live TV. Once you know the signs, you can see it coming.