We’ve all heard of the many health benefits of owning a dog; from reducing our blood pressure and heart rate to increasing our immune system. Being in the presence of a dog or better, touching and petting a dog is both soothing and relaxing. But how does it feel to the dog? Can we be sure that our furry companion equally benefits from our friendly touches? Dogs use physical contact with one another to show affection, but also to provoke or intimidate, so how can we make sure we don’t send the wrong message? More studies today show that although dogs appreciate physical contact with us, we can often be rude in the way that we pet a dog, forcing our pets to put up with repeated discomfort. Even with the best of intentions, we can unknowingly trigger negative emotions in the dog. A pat on the top of the head, a belly rub, a scratch behind the ear, may all feel equally pleasurable to us, but they are certainly not experienced in the same way by the dog. In a recent study, the physiological and behavioral responses in dogs was measured to assess which touches feel good to the dogs and which ones do not (Kuhne & al., 2014).
As social creatures, we like being touched and hugged. Being hugged by a loved one or by a stranger however, feels very different. Just because we might appreciate holding our spouse’s hand doesn’t mean that we’d like to do the same with the neighbor. Why would it be any different for dogs? Not a day goes by without someone asking to pet my dog. When taking service dogs out in public places, kindly but assertively coaching people on how to interact with a dog is an intrinsic part of the job. Dogs are magnets to other dog lovers and since service dogs are expected to be friendly, many see an opportunity for petting. Few however understand the effects of their behavior on the dog. What does it feel like to a dog when a stranger leans over them and pets them on the head? The dog is rarely given the choice to interact or not and is expected to put up with the intrusive human.
In a recent study, 28 dogs of different breed, age and background were evaluated while they were touched in 9 different ways (for 30 seconds at a time) by a stranger (Kuhne & al., 2014):
- Petting the dog on his shoulder
- Petting the dog on the lateral side of the chest
- Petting the dog on the ventral part of the neck
- Petting and holding the lying dog on the ground
- Holding a forepaw of the dog
- Petting the dog on the top of the head
- Scratching the dog at the base of the tail
- Holding the dog on his collar
- Covering the dog’s muzzle with one hand.
When petted on the head, the shoulder, or a paw, the dogs showed appeasement signals and redirected behaviors, signs that the dogs were uncomfortable with the physical contact. When the stranger mildly constrained the dog, for example, gently holding the dog on the ground, grabbing the collar or covering his muzzle with one hand, the dogs showed increased freezing and displacement behaviors such as lifting a paw, looking or moving away and licking the lips. In all these cases, the dogs’ heart rates also increased as a clear sign of stress. Shaking and stretching right after they were touched, was also a sign of relief once the interaction was over, another indication that the dogs were not enjoying the interactions. Petting on the chest however, was associated with a decrease of heart rate, and was more calming to the dog.
Even dog owners often fail to recognize their own dogs’ subtle stress signals. A head turn, a quick lick of the upper lip, a freeze, often go unrecognized as the dog’s expressions of discomfort. Consequently, the relationship between dogs and their humans can sometimes be difficult and even become dangerous over time. We might assume that if a dog owner touches his own dog in the same ways, the dog would not be affected negatively. Surprisingly, in a similar study, when the dogs were petted and touched by their owners, they displayed displacement signals for even longer periods of time than when touched by a stranger (Kuhne & al., 2012). It’s possible that the results in this situation were a reflection of the dog/human relationship. Due to the history of repeat stressful manipulations the dogs had become now sensitized to the discomfort of their owner’s touches.
So how can we make sure we’re not being rude to the dog?
- It’s always best to let the dog initiate the contact rather than invading his/her space. Some dogs need a few seconds or minutes before they feel comfortable enough to come close and accept being touched.
- Pet the dog gently on the chest or behind the ear closest to you. In all cases, avoid any petting over or across the dog. Never hug the dog. Stop after a few seconds and see if the dog asks for more or on the contrary shows signs of relief and avoidance.
- Watch for any displacement or stress signals: freezing, looking away, licking of the lips, yawning, whale eye, lifting of a paw, tail tucked, ears back, urination. If the dog displays any of them, back off and give him/her space.
- When it’s your own dog, take the time to desensitize your dog to unavoidable restrains. Grab the collar for instance, and give the dog a treat. Grab the dog’s paws, tail, ear, etc… and give a treat. For more information on how to desensitize the dog to potentially unpleasant manipulations, you can refer to the blog ‘The importance of preparing animals for the vet‘
- When the dog isn’t yours, always ask his/her human before interacting with him/her.
When we consider petting as a way to reward a dog for performing a behavior, we have to keep in mind that some petting may be felt as pleasant, while others might trigger negative emotions. When that happens, our displays of affection, a ‘good boy’ with a friendly tap on the head, may actually be punishing the behavior. When we fail to recognize how the dog truly feels about the intended ‘reward’, it’s easy then to label the pooch as stubborn when after many repetitions, he/she’s still not willing to respond as asked. This is one more reason to favor the use of treats in training over praise and petting. As always, being mindful of the impact we have on the animal is key. All dogs are different, when some enjoy a vigorous pet, others might get stressed or even scared. When we understand how physical contact can impact our pet, we can develop a more positive relationship based on mutual respect and affection.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.