All dogs have scruffs (the loose skin located around their neck.) The dog’s scruff has a very distinct purpose from early on. When you look at the way mother dogs interact with their pups, you will also see that they often pick the pups up by their scruff. They do so to carry them from one place to another. Pups in their neonatal period are taught to go limp and curl their tail to ease the process.
As they grow older, this behavior stops, and the mother doesn’t carry them around like that anymore. Going for the scruff in adult dogs, however, is not really advisable. Some people are convinced that the scruff is one of the least sensitive areas on the dog’s body, and some even say that dogs don’t really feel much there.
The main question is, do dogs feel their scruff? Is that indeed a very robust area that can withstand pain, or is it sensitive after all?
Signs That Dogs Feel Their Scruff
The most common way the puppy will react when you pick them up by the scruff is going limp and relaxed. This is their natural behavior and a pup seems to be completely unable to move when they are carried around like that. As the pups grow up and become older, they will continue to be submissive when held by the scruff.
Even though some would argue that dogs don’t feel any pain when you scruff them, their main argument being that their mothers carried them by the scruff when they were puppies, this isn’t true. Adult dogs can’t be carried around like that, even the smallest of breeds. The reason for this is that they weigh much more than they did when they were younger, and all this weight can do considerable damage if they are lifted by their scruffs. They will often yelp.
Now, touching their scruffs will also cause a response. This response depends on how the dog perceives the person trying to touch their scruff. There are several responses to this:
Growling – Since going for the scruff is seen as a display of dominance, and the dog won’t have any of it, they might become aggressive and start growling.
Staring – When you touch their scruff, the dog might just stay in place and stare at you. This means they accept you as the dominant one.
Whining – If you try to lift an adult dog by the scruff, or even a puppy, but do so improperly, they will start whining and yelping because this causes them pain and might even cause harm.
Weakness – If the dog accepts you as the dominant one, touching the scruff will be met with lying down, even becoming a bit limp. This way, the dog lets you know that you are in charge.
History of Dogs Feeling Their Scruff
The way dogs feel about their scruff dates to ancient history: their ancestors had to arrange a dominance ladder within the pack in order to be at their most efficient. The power plays can be seen even in today’s wolves—the dominant one will go for the scruff or neck of the submissive one. The submissive one will, in turn, show their neck to indicate they accept the dominant wolf as their better.
Our dogs are also pack animals, but very often, they live with humans only. They will see you and your family as their pack, so it’s important that they know their position. If you let them do what they want, they will naturally behave like the alpha, meaning they will probably be aggressive towards anyone who tries to go for their scruff.
This behavior can also be seen in multi-dog households, but it can be minimized and even prevented with proper guidance. In order to minimize the risk of aggressiveness between dogs, it’s best to be in charge. The human should always be regarded as the boss. Remember, positive reinforcement should be the primary method, while scruffing should be seen as a last resort that’s used only rarely.
Science of Dogs Feeling Their Scruff
The scruff is a very important area of dogs and is often used in communication and power struggles between dogs. For pups, the scruff is a signal to relax and go limp, to help their mother when she is carrying them around.
As they grow up, the scruff and neck continue to play a very important role. It becomes a thing of dominance. When one dog goes for the scruff of another, it signals that it wishes to be the superior one, the alpha. How the other dog will take it depends. It might submit, but it might also fight for the dominant spot.
This is exactly why going for the scruff of a dog you do not know, or a dog that isn’t used to this kind of power play, is a risky move. If the dog is dominant, going for the scruff will be answered with aggression.
Training Dogs with Their Scruff
Scruffing is often used when training dogs. Before you go for the scruff, however, have a professional show you the proper way to do so. By scruffing your dog improperly, you can cause physical injury, and continuous improper usage of this method can lead to psychological trauma as well.
By scruffing your puppy when it misbehaves, you are essentially imitating what its mother would have done. Scruffing should never be too firm or aggressive. Grab the dog’s scruff, shake gently and say “no.” It’s important that you have eye contact with your dog when doing this. This way, you will more easily let them know that they did something wrong.
Additionally, the dog will understand that they did something unwanted, and slowly, they will start associating it with the verbal commands. Eventually, just saying “no” and staring should be enough to deter your dog from unwanted behavior.
Keep in mind that the mother dog will never hurt the pup this way. Scruffing shouldn’t be used to inflict any physical pain, so it’s important to avoid being rough.
Timing is also important—this method has to be used at the same time an offense is performed. Pups need some time to become house trained, so they might have mishaps around the house. As soon as your dog is doing the deed, you have to step in. This way, they will associate the scruffing and “no” with the offending act. If you scold them after the deed is already done, they will have a hard time making the connection.
Dogs do indeed feel their scruff, and they are very conscious about it. It’s a very important area that plays a big role in dominance display. Scruffing can be used in training, but it should be the last resort. Once your dog learns to associate “no” with an unwanted action, scruffing shouldn’t be needed anymore.
By Charlotte Ratcliffe
Published: 06/27/2018, edited: 04/06/2020