Ever wonder what your dog is doing when they start moving their leg when they're being pet, like they have an itch? Many think that it's actually your dog's way of saying that's where they're ticklish.
For us humans, tickling usually results in uncontrollable shaking and laughter, followed by trying to escape your "attacker". Since dogs can't necessarily laugh, they show that they are ticklish in other ways.
Their kneejerk reaction to finding that paw-fect spot on their belly is their way of telling you that they're laughing with ya! It's completely involuntary, much like our reactions when we're tickled. But whether or not your pup actually likes it, just like humans, depends on their unique personality!
Does Your Dog Like Being Tickled?
So, in a way, dogs can be tickled, though lightly, and not in the same way we are. The way they move their legs when you're scratching that one spot on their belly is their involuntary reaction to being "tickled". It's a reflexive reaction to actually try to scratch themselves in the area you're petting!
Basically, what you're doing with those pet-pets is inducing an itching sensation in your dog, and it's completely subconscious! While it's not exactly the same as a human being tickled, it's definitely similar. They don't laugh, but they may roll around, sticking their tongues out with a big grin on their face!
For most dogs, the best tickle spots are the ones behind their ears, between the front legs, and along the belly. Scratchies in these spots can result in that kneejerk reaction from your pup! The sides of their ribs are often a good spot to try out, too. When you find that scratch reflex, you've found the paw-fect tickle spot!
It's important to remember, however, that some dogs may not like being tickled. Make sure while you're playing with your pooch to keep an eye on their reactions to your scratchies. Keep your pats on your pup gentle and soothing. Signs that your dog likes being tickled can include tails a-waggin', rolling over on their bellies, and a big ol' smile. According to scientists, their way of laughing is with a "slightly opened jaws which reveal the tongue, and the tilted angle of the mouth which stretches almost from ear to ear", giving the impression of laughing.
Pooches that don't like being tickled may respond to unwanted scratches with snarling or snapping, flinching or pulling away, or perhaps even whining if you hit an uncomfortable spot. If they do any of these things or try to run away, maybe they just don't like those repeated pets in that spot. Make sure to always keep an eye on your dog's reactions when you've got a good cuddle-sesh going.
The Science Behind Ticklishness in Dogs
For those of us who like to know about the neurological workings behind those involuntary leg kicks, we can look all the way back to 1897. Back then, psychologists coined two phrases describing the sensations of being tickled: knismesis, and gargalesis. Impress your friends by using those in a sentence! The first is a feeling of light tickling, which can give us goosebumps--but it doesn't cause us to laugh. The second, in contrast, is heavy tickling, like when our friends dig into our ribs. It leads to involuntary laughing, shaking, and all around craziness!
While most people can be reduced to fits of laughter due to gargalesis, dogs (as well as most other mammals) can only feel knismesis. Dogs can't really laugh, so "tickling" to them is a light touch or scratch. To them, knismesis can feel like an insect landing on their skin, or something else that causes an involuntary twitch. That's why their reaction involves something that looks like leg-scratching - they're trying to reach that spot you're giving pet-pets to! It's also completely involuntary. The nerve endings in that area of your doggo's skin send a signal right to the spinal cord without rerouting to the brain at all. Your dog may not even know that he's basically kicking you!
Vets oftentimes even use this involuntary reaction to check for the reflex ability in dogs, as well as any spinal damage that may have occurred. If your dog seems too ticklish, i.e. they're constantly scratching or licking the same spot, kicking at their ears, or are overly responsive to touch, it may also be a sign that your dog is having skin issues. These can include fleas, allergies, or just plain dry skin.
So, not only can the sensation be pleasant for your dog, but it can also confirm if they're happy and healthy!
Training Your Dog to be Tickled
While you can't really "train" your dog to be tickled, you can train your dog to be more comfortable with being touched or petted in certain places. This can come in handy if you take your dog with you into social settings, or if you have small children around. That way, your dog will be less likely to nip or bite out of fear when these areas are touched.
A good idea is to start slowly. If during a petting session, you come across a spot that makes your dog wince, take note. Always double check with your vet that there is no pain coming from this area, perhaps from an injury or underlying condition. If your pooch is in the clear, move on to the next step.
Gently pet your dog in their area of discomfort, while offering small treats at the same time. If the dog receives this attention well, give them LOTS of praise. If they seem too uncomfortable or "mouth" your arm, call it quits. Keep each training session short and repeat daily if you see progress. (This training technique can also come in super-handy for teaching pooches to let you touch their paws for nail trims!)
By Katherine McCormick
Published: 02/05/2018, edited: 04/06/2020