4 min read

How to Pet Your Dog The Right Way

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By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 03/01/2022, edited: 03/01/2022

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Generally speaking, doggos enjoy petting. But there are variations about who, when, how, and even whether a dog wants to be stroked. Dogs have rules for greetings and being touched, and they may be different from one day to the next depending on the pup’s mood and the situation at the time. Knowing how to pet any pooch correctly requires patience and the ability to read their signals.

Meeting a dog for the first time is an especially delicate time for human contact. Walking up to a strange dog and reaching to pet them can result in aggressive behavior, and maybe even a nip. Here is some information to help you decide when and how to pet your dog, or any dog that you meet.


How not to pet a dog

Consent is a word often used to describe situations where one person wants physical contact and the other doesn’t. Touching or petting a dog should also always be done with their consent. Even dogs that have bonded closely with their humans may not want to be touched from time to time, and forcing contact can lead to canine anxiety or panic that can sometimes end in unfortunate behavior.

It is important how you approach and pet a dog, as the wrong way can be perceived as a threat that might lead to mental and physical trauma for the dog and/or you. Your desire to pet them may not always be reciprocated and doing so without using language the dog understands is risky. Here are some tips on how not to pet a dog.

  • Don’t approach a dog aggressively and directly from the front as this can cause anxiety.
  • Avoid looming over the dog or staring at them while petting them.
  • Don’t reach over the dog’s head to pet them.
  • Don’t pat their heads or slap their sides as many dogs don’t like this, even if they tolerate it. 
  • Avoid petting the face or muzzle, the base of the tail, or the legs and paws, unless the dog has shown you these areas are okay.
  • Don’t start petting a dog while they are eating, chewing on a toy or bone, or sleeping, as such actions can startle them and elicit aggressive behavior even in mild-mannered dogs.
  • Don’t hug a new pooch, as this can make them feel restricted or trapped. 
  • If the dog appears fearful, tense or nervous, give them some distance and refrain from touching them.
  • Never attempt to pet a dog who is barking, growling, or showing other signs of aggression.
  • Don’t pet a dog without getting their parent’s consent. They know what their dog can tolerate, and what they can’t.


Brown dog cowering and hesitant to approach a person's outstretched hand

Dog body language: signs of discomfort

Dogs have limited ways to express themselves, and aren’t able to use words like, “Don’t do that,” but their body language sends clear messages. Learning dogs’ body language clues is critical to knowing when and how to pet them.

If you’re meeting a dog for the first time and they lie down on the ground and roll onto their backs, this does NOT mean they want their belly rubbed. This is submissive behavior that doesn’t necessarily translate into permission to touch them, which can be confusing for us humans. Another confusing sign is tail wagging, which doesn’t always mean a dog is comfortable, so it’s important to look for other signs that can indicate that a dog is anxious and doesn’t want to be touched.

Body language that says, "I don't want you to pet me" include:

  • Hanging back rather than approaching you
  • Hair raised up along the spine or tail
  • A tail that is standing straight up
  • Barking, growling or baring their teeth at you
  • Licking their lips
  • The ears are up and forward
  • Standing stiffly or straight-legged
  • The dog’s head stays still while their eyes look intently to the side or up, allowing you to see a crescent-shaped portion of the whites of their eyes
  • Hiding or cowering


How to pet a dog the right way

While dogs that have bonded closely with their families usually love to be touched and petted by them and will endure almost any contact, there are still some basic rules that you should always follow to ensure they continue to feel comfortable. These same rules apply with new dogs you meet, and can help prevent an incident from a nervous pup.

Rules you can follow to make petting pleasant and beneficial for everyone include:

  • Waiting until the dog approaches you for some affection
  • Remaining calm and moving slowly
  • Kneeling or squatting to the dog’s level
  • Turning your body to the side instead of approaching head on to make yourself less threatening
  • Using slow, firm hands when petting. Massaging the muscles gently is enjoyed by many puppers too.
  • Petting in the direction the hair is growing
  • Using minimal eye contact
  • Patting your legs to invite the dog to come to you
  • Petting safe areas first, such as the top of the head, behind the ears, the base of the neck, shoulders, and the middle or upper back. 


Black and white dog in pet parent's lap enjoying some petting - how to pet your dog the right way

Dog body language: signs of enjoyment

Always pay attention to all the signs the dog is showing, including behavior and body position. As a dog gets more comfortable with you, they may guide you to more specific areas where they want to be touched. For many dogs, it seems the belly rub is the most satisfying form of contact an some will let you rub and scratch for as long as you like. They might even fall asleep. Massaging the muscles gently is enjoyed by many puppers as well.

Body language that signals a pooch wants to be touched can include:

  • They approach with their tail swinging freely
  • They’ll have a wiggly, loose and friendly body posture
  • Their ears are held slightly back
  • They look directly at you  
  • They nuzzle or brush against you
  • They move their bodies to indicate where they want to be petted
  • They sniff you in curiosity
  • They’ll lean toward you when you stop petting

A favorite position for some dogs is to sit alongside their human besties and let them hug them with one arm, which is much less restricting than a full hug and will usually get them to lean in comfortably.

Playing with your pup is a great way of engaging with them and cementing the bond between you. A sign that your pooch wants to play includes the “play bow,” where the dog leans on their front legs and looks directly at you with their butts held up in the air. In this pose, tails are usually wagging energetically.

 

For dogs as well as humans, physical contact is an important part of enjoying life and showing affection to those we care about. The motivation to touch and be touched differs among pooches, and it’s important to be sensitive to the dogs in our lives and not ignore their boundaries. Learning to pet your fur-vorite furry when and where they like is an essential part of the bonding experience.

Are you having problems reading your dog’s signals? Does your dog seem anxious when you try to pet them? Chat with a vet professional now for some insight and advice.


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