Tickling is fun, right? At least for a minute, you might enjoy laughing. But the fun quickly dissipates. Then being tickled is annoying and aggravating, and if it keeps going, will become infuriating. Dogs can’t tell you when they love or hate something you’re doing. They can’t laugh or cry like people can, but they can communicate in nonverbal ways that humans don’t always understand or notice. Dogs can, however, become just as irritated as you might be when someone bothers you for a little too long. It’s hard to know just what a dog is thinking, but you can make an educated guess if you know how to look. Are dogs ticklish?
The Root of the Behavior
Some people can be more ticklish than others. The same is true for dogs. And where they’re ticklish varies from dog to dog. When a dog kicks their leg or twitches if you touch a specific spot, is it your dog’s ticklish spot? Not necessarily. Dogs have nerves in their skin that send messages to the spinal cord. These nerves are important, and they let your dog know when there’s a pest on them such as fleas, ticks, or other critters. That network of nerves on your dog’s skin tells their brain when a pest is biting. That prompts your dog to start trying to kick or scratch to get rid of the pest. When you scratch that one spot and your dog’s leg starts revving up, it’s actually just that reflex in your dog’s skin kicking in. That scratch reflex is a kind of survival instinct since it helps rid your dog of what might be a dangerous parasite.
It’s a lot like having your knee whacked with a rubber hammer in your doctor’s office—the reaction is not something you can control. Some dogs don’t mind you activating their scratch reflex, but it may make some dogs uncomfortable or even irritated. Some dogs may have specifically sensitive spots on them, such as their feet, tail, or ears. If your dog pulls their paw away when you touch it, you may just think your dog is ticklish, especially if they’re only just yawning. If might be amusing to you, but your dog might feel differently. Innocuous behaviors like panting can actually indicate distress. A closed mouth, yawning, and looking away from you are all actually indicators that your dog may not be enjoying themselves. An open mouth with the tongue out is the closest you’ll ever get to seeing your dog smile. If your dog flicks their ears or pulls their feet away, you’re probably engaging that same involuntary nerve response that causes your dog to kick or scratch. That light touch makes your dog feel like a pest is on them. It’s probably not enjoyable for your dog, and they may even become irritated or defensive.
Encouraging the Behavior
While humans might feel differently about a friendly tickle, your dog doesn’t enjoy it on the same level that people can. Those light brushes, like when we feel a fly or a stray hair tickle us, don’t cause us to giggle. Your dog won’t either. Harder tickling, the kind that makes humans roll over with uncontrollable mirth, isn’t really something your dog can appreciate either. You can always play with, pet, scratch, and rub your dear canine pal, but pay attention to your dog’s body language. There’s a good chance they’re not enjoying the tickle-fest as much as you are.
Ears back, looking away, yawning, recoiling, and a closed mouth are all indicators of discomfort or stress. Even panting can be a sign of distress. If your dog appears to lose interest or wants to leave, give them a break. It’s also important to watch your dog around children. Kids don’t always recognize when a dog has had enough. It only takes an extra few seconds for your dog to react defensively when they’re pushed too far. On the other hand, if your dog rolls over and presents their belly, they’re probably all on board for a thorough belly scratching. Rolling over can be a sign of submission, though, so paying attention to other body language is important. Keep scratching sessions short and always leave them alone if they appear stressed.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If your dog is persistently scratching, nibbling, or licking a certain area, they may have a pest or an underlying health issue you are not aware of. Dermatitis is one condition that causes skin problems. Allergies can also cause skin sensitivities or rashes that make your dog feel itchy. Even things like improper diet or harsh bathing products or too frequent bathing can cause your dog’s skin to react or become irritated. Some breeds are more prone to sensitive skin than others. Bulldogs, Pit Bulls, Spaniels, Poodles, and Labs are some breeds that tend to have more skin sensitivities and problems than others. Consult your vet for advice and further health testing.
Tickling might be fun for some humans, but probably not for your dog. That reflex to kick and scratch is a lot like the same kick reflex humans have in our knees. Some dogs might enjoy it, and others may not. Pay attention to your dog’s body language and always be respectful. If you don’t enjoy someone tickling you persistently, your dog probably wouldn’t either.