Can Dogs Be Ticklish?

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Introduction

It’s no surprise that humans are ticklish - some more than others! Have you ever wondered if your canine companion is ticklish too? That sort of depends on how you define a tickle. Generally speaking, a tickle is an involuntary response to a touch. 

In humans, the sensation most often occurs on our most vulnerable areas and results in uncontrollable laughter. We’ve all found that sweet spot on our furry friend that makes their leg kick with pleasure! Other pups will squirm around, vocalize, or show your their belly when you run your fingers over their favorite or most sensitive spots. So, are dogs, in fact, ticklish?  

Signs a Dog May Be Ticklish

How we define a “tickle” can help us understand if dogs can experience this sensation. If you think of a tickle as an involuntary response to a touch, then yes, dogs can be ticklish! This is most often seen in the “scratch reflex,” an involuntary kicking or scratching response that takes place when you tickle or stroke a specific spot. 

This is a reflex that results from neurological stimulation causing the dog to experience an itch-like sensation. The sensation sends a nerve impulse to the spinal cord, which in turn activates the nerves of the hind leg closest to the itch. The intensity and location of the itch determine the intensity and location of the scratch! Areas most often subject to the scratch reflex include the belly, flanks, and back. Signs of a dog’s scratch reflex being stimulated are sudden leg kicking or scratching at the spot you’re touching. This is not a conscious reaction, so your dog may even show surprise at the action taking place.

A more scientific way to define tickle sensations are the terms “knismesis” and “gargalesis.” Knismesis is the sensation of feather-light tickling that results in goosebumps or itching. This sensation occurs in lots of mammals, including dogs! 

Signs of this type of tickle in dogs include itching or shaking in response to a light stimulus, like an insect landing on them. Gargalesis is heavy tickling in which harder pressure is applied to sensitive areas. In humans, this type of tickling induces laughter and squirming! Primates and rats have also been documented responding to this heavy tickling. As far as we know, dogs do not experience this type of tickling.

A tickle may also be as simple as a touch that your dog enjoys! If you playfully tickle and stroke your pup and they roll over and show you their belly, they are likely comfortable and enjoying themselves. Keep an eye on your dog’s body language- stretching, showing their belly, or even giving a bit of a “smile” indicate that they are comfortable with the action. On the other hand, raised hair, snarling, or growling indicate that the dog is uncomfortable and the action should be discontinued.

Body Language

Here are some signs a dog may show in response to tickling:

  • Scratching
  • Stretching
  • Shake off
  • Rolling

Other Signs

Other signs a dog may show in response to tickling:
  • Rhythmic Movement of a Leg
  • Showing Their Belly
  • Raised Hair

History of Dogs Being Ticklish

In 1897, the terms knismesis and gargalesis were first coined by psychologists G. Stanley Hall and Arthur Allin in the American Journal of Psychology. Since then, responses to these sensations of tickling have been studied in various species, including dogs, primates, and rats. These studies have been geared at gargalesis, as it is the form of tickling associated with what scientists consider “social joy.” 

In nature, playful tickling behavior has been observed in species like gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Studies have not yet shown dogs experiencing gargalesis. Many dogs do have sensitive spots that they enjoy having rubbed and scratched, though! One owner reported that her boxer likes to come up to her, sit down, lean against her, and wait expectantly for his “special spot” below his armpit to be rubbed and scratched. He shows signs of enjoying the action and appears annoyed when she stops! 

Another owner reported that when he scratches his dog in the middle of his back, the dog kicks his leg, stretches out, and extends his neck. This account indicates that the dog is experiencing a pleasant or involuntary response to the touch, which may be interpreted as the animal being “ticklish.” Recent evidence has suggested that dogs can laugh- that is, emit sounds associated with social joy. This has yet to be associated with tickling, though!

Science Behind Dogs Being Ticklish

The terms “knismesis” and “gargalesis” have been coined by psychologists to classify two types of tickling. Knismesis is defined as light, feather-like tickling. This does not usually induce laughter, but may result in an itching sensation. This sensation is widespread among mammals, including dogs. 

In nature, this behavior likely evolved to help ward off harmful insects or other creatures. Gargalesis refers to heavier, laughter-inducing tickling as a result of the repeated application of high pressure to sensitive areas. This type of tickling has yet to be observed in dogs.

In a different vein, the “scratch reflex” is often interpreted as a dog being ticklish. While this isn’t necessarily true on a scientific basis, it is still an involuntary response to a touch. The scratch reflex is a neurological reaction to being stimulated in a certain spot, often on the belly, back, or flank region, that causes the dog’s leg to move rhythmically, as if scratching. The response is not conscious and may even surprise the dog!

Training Dogs to Be Ticklish

You can’t exactly train a dog to be ticklish, as this is simply a response to a sensation or stimulation and is often involuntary. You can, however, train your dog to be more comfortable and accepting of certain touches. Some pooches don’t like to be touched in certain areas, like their belly, chest, or paws. 

It may be helpful to train your dog to be comfortable or at least tolerant of these touches to prevent aggression or fearful behavior during vet visits, grooming sessions, or social outings. You wouldn’t want your furry friend to growl or nip at an unsuspecting child! Before proceeding with touch training, be sure your dogs discomfort isn’t due to an underlying cause. Once you have ruled out pain in the area being touched as a cause of the discomfort, proceed training with positive reinforcement. 

Moving slowly, run your hand over the area in question and reward your dog with treats and praise. If your dog is receiving the touch without distress, continue the practice and offer lots of praise! Keep these training sessions short and repeat often to encourage the behavior to continue. Pay close attention to your dog’s body language during this process. If they are calm and receptive or showing their belly, you have the green light to continue. 

On the contrary, if they are tense, tucking their tail, growling, pinning their ears, or moving away, then stop touching them. Try again another time at a slower pace. Once you feel your dog is totally comfortable with the touch, try introducing the touch from different people. Be sure to accompany this with lots of praise and treats! Your canine companion will be comfortable with the touch in no time!

Safety Tips for Tickling a Dog

  • Watch for signs of overly sensitive skin! While a slight tickle response or leg kicking is normal for certain areas, this shouldn't occur all over. If your dog suddenly starting exhibiting these signs in new places, it could be due to a rash or skin irritation causing itchiness. If you suspect this, consult your veterinarian!
  • Be gentle with your rubs and scratches! You don't want to overstimulate a potentially sensitive area.
  • Pay close attention to their body language - stop the touching if they show signs of discomfort, like shying away, growling, wincing, or tensing up.

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