It is hard to imagine a dog that doesn’t like to be petted or scratched by their pet parent from time to time. There is no doubt that when done right, our furry friends feel great joy from the experience and even show their appreciation in waysrecognizable to us - such as closing their eyes during the scratching. While most people consider that as positive feedback, are there other reasons dogs close their eyes when you scratch them? In addition, are certain areas safer to pet than others or do different dogs have different preferences? Needless to say, it is incredibly important to get to know the dog and be able to read his body language before proceeding with any physical contact.
The Root of the Behavior
Communication with our canine companions can sometimes be tricky, mainly due to the fact that it is limited to non-verbal cues. On the upside, dogs are incredibly expressive creatures who openly express their feelings in a variety of recognizable ways. Their body posture, ears, tail, and most importantly, eyes can tell us a lot about how they are feeling at a given moment. It is very common for dogs to close their eyes when you scratch them, and usually, it indicates a level of satisfaction, pleasure, or enjoyment. Similarly to humans, dogs have a limited amount of attention that they can divide between various sensory experiences. They close their eyes to be able to better focus on the sense of touch, which consequently makes them experience the scratching more intensely. Think of it like this - when you go to a spa and get a massage, you also most likely will close your eyes to limit visual focus or distractions and allow yourself to fully enjoy the relaxing experience. You don’t usually close your eyes with the intention to go to sleep or to show dissatisfaction. Quite the opposite closed or squinting sleepy eyes are associated with content, approval, and relaxation.
That is also partially due to the fact that when you get massaged, or in a dog’s case petted or scratched, you relax and get comfortable, thus letting your facial muscles to do the same. To make sure that pleasure is actually what a dog is feeling you have to observe and consider other factors, such as the present circumstances and the other non-verbal cues. If it is your dog that you are scratching, you probably already know where and how he likes to be scratched and how he reacts to your touch, leaning in for full enjoyment. However, if it is a stray dog or a stranger's dog, he might be closing his eyes because he is scared, as a way to avoid you or to let you know he wants you to stop. This is even more likely if the behavior is accompanied by a turning of the head away from your hand and a so-called whale eye (when a dog’s eye whites become very visible as he turns his head away from you as far as possible while at the same time still keeping you in his sight).
Encouraging the Behavior
Dog owners should encourage their canines to express themselves freely and share their enjoyment whenever possible. There is no reason you should scold or discourage your dog from closing his eyes when you scratch him if that is how he expresses joy and appreciation. This can usually be identified by other accompanying behavior, such as a wagging tail. On the other hand, if your dog closes his eyes in disapproval or as a warning, you should stop whatever scratching you were doing to de-escalate the situation.
Though most dogs are okay with being scratched all over the body, there are certain areas that are not recommended for petting. The top of their head is a common area lots of people tend to go for but since it is out of a dog’s visual field, it can make them uncomfortable and threatened. Another common mistake is that people lean or bend over the dog which can also make them feel unsafe. The best way to pet a dog is to let it initiate whatever it is comfortable with while you are crouched down and turned slightly sideways. This way, if the dog is comfortable, he will come closer and either put his chin or chest by your palm, thus granting you the permission for physical contact.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Another theory as to why some dogs close their eyes when you scratch them is because they close their eyes too when they scratch themselves. The habit might have originated from the fact that dogs scratch themselves using their clawed paws, that can both hurt the eye or accidentally launch something (such as hair or dirt) into it during the process. Closing their eyes might be an instinctual impulse to protect their incredibly important and delicate body part. Eyes are sensitive, so it is not surprising canines close them when they are near any fast movement, such as scratching, or at risk of getting poked.
You know you’ve hit the sweet spot when your four-legged furball fully leans into your hand as you scratch him behind the ear or on the stomach and closes his eyes in bliss. Both areas are difficult for dogs to reach and usually are appreciated when paid attention to. However, it is better to be safe than sorry and stick to petting only the dogs you own or know really well to avoid any trouble and potential injuries.