The way you pet a dog can make you his favorite person — or the human he’s always trying to avoid. Certain red-flag petting tactics send most dogs running in the other direction, while other petting strategies will have a dog tail-wagging’ happy in your hands.
Whether you’re petting your own dog or one you’ve just met, here are some strategies for better petting, including petting styles to avoid and those to employ.
Start With a Proper Greeting
If you’re a dog lover, it’s hard to resist reaching out when you see a puppy in a park or on the street. You just wanna scratch this little guy. But think twice before you do it. While you’ve probably petted dogs your entire life, you might not be doing it the best way.
In a small study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, researchers observed 28 dogs of different breeds, ages, and origins. The dogs wore heart rate monitors and were seen when a stranger was brought into the room while their owners were present but ignored them.
Strangers were told to stroke the dog in nine different ways – including on the top of the head, chest, shoulder, neck, the base of the tail, and holding a paw – and the researchers have observed their responses.
When the dogs were petted on the head or paw, they exhibited so-called “calming gestures” such as licking their lips and yawning to indicate they were stressed. They also had high heart rates. They were less stressed when stroked on the chest, shoulders or the base of the tail.
Dogs in the study were approached and petted by people they didn’t know. Obviously, your personal dog will tolerate you a lot more than dogs who don’t know you. But whether it’s your four-legged pal or a puppy you meet out for a walk, here are some tips to make every dog more comfortable.
Avoid eye contact
Maybe your dog is looking you in the eye with love, but direct eye contact can make him uncomfortable and may appear aggressive and domineering. This is something humans tend to do all the time that dogs really hate.
Instead, approach a new dog with your eyes slightly away and your body tilted slightly. Speak softly and walk slowly.
Invite him to greet you
Instead of being the one making the first contact, crouch down at the dog’s level and see if the pet a dog is interested in greeting you first, suggests author and trainer Mikkel Becker in Vetstreet.
Reach out. If the dog sniffs him and walks away, that’s a pretty clear sign that he’s not interested in any interactions, writes Zazie Todd, Ph.D. in companion animal psychology. If he sticks around and nudges you, let the hugs follow. (You may want to keep your fingers curled in case the dog feels threatened and snaps at your hand, suggests Mental Floss.)
Best places to pet
As the study found, it’s best to avoid reaching a dog’s head or face. You might notice that even your beloved family puppy doesn’t like to be touched on the face or patted on the top of the head. It can be a threatening gesture and an invasion of personal space.
Instead, stroke a dog’s chest, shoulders, and base of the neck. Avoid reaching for the dog to stroke it. And don’t touch a strange dog’s belly, which is a vulnerable area. A dog can be on his back to show that he is submissive or fearful, not because he wants his stomach to scratch.
Be calm and slow with your stroke, rubbing in the direction the fur grows. Don’t be brutal unless you know the dog and that’s how you know he likes to play.
“The petting should be soothing and therapeutic for the dog and the person, both reaping the mutual benefits of shared contact,” says Becker. “When you pet a dog in a relaxed, slow, and gentle manner, he is likely to bend over for more.”
Look for signs of stress
Fortunately, dogs are great at sending signals about how they feel. If you’re pet a dog and he’s leaning into you and loosely wagging his tail, he’s likely enjoying the interaction. But if he’s yawning, licking his lips, looking away, or has his ears back; he’s telling you he’s stressed, says veterinarian Karen Becker of Healthy Pets. If a dog shows any signs of stress, stop petting him and back off.
“By observing your dog’s reaction to physical contact and following his lead; you can enhance your bond with him and forge a more positive relationship,” Becker says.
It’s the way we often show our love and affection. Even the tiniest of toddlers hug their parent’s leg. But although people love hugging, for the most part, hugs make dogs uncomfortable.
You probably know how your personal dog feels about hugs, but it’s never a good idea to see if a strange dog will tolerate a squeeze. It’s a threatening and a bad idea. Instead, find a spot that a dog seems to like and stroke gently instead.
Related Article: 8 signs your dog wants more affection