Guide to Petting Dogs

If you have a dog, petting your furry BFF probably feels second nature. But soon-to-be dog owners, kids, and even experienced dog people can miss telltale cues that their petting technique is off. When done right, petting is pleasant for dogs and people, and promotes bonding. When done wrong, it can be uncomfortable—even scary—for your dog.

Positive petting experiences for your dog boil down to a few simple do’s and don’ts, along with an understanding of dog body language and the unique preferences of individual dogs. Here’s what you need to know:

How to Pet a Dog

When it comes to petting, it’s important always to follow the dog’s lead. Whether you have a new puppy, an older dog, or you’re petting a stranger’s dog, it’s helpful to remember dogs have moods, just like people. Sometimes even the most easygoing, affable dog wants a break from affectionate pats, rubs, and behind-the-ear scratches.

Additionally, some individual dogs and dog breeds are naturally aloof and prefer love shown through playtime, walks, and companionship rather than petting. If you want to shower your dog with affection and get lots of love back, select a dog breed known for its rambunctious, friendly temperament.

So what are the cues a dog welcomes petting? If a dog approaches you boisterously with his tail wagging, it’s a good bet he’d enjoy some petting. A welcoming wag is sweeping and relaxed, with the tail held at about back height. A tail held low or tucked is a sign of anxiety or fear in the dog, while a tail held high from the base can be a sign of overstimulation or dominance.

When a dog comes close to you without hesitation, leans up against you, or looks up at you expectantly, bring on the petting. Some bold dogs make it clear they’d like some petting by shoving their snout under your hand and lifting it up.

Always start petting dogs gently and slowly in the direction of their fur. To be on the safe side, keep the motion slow and near the shoulders when it’s a dog you don’t know or a lost dog. As you get to know a dog over time, however, you may discover he enjoys different types of petting depending upon his mood. When playful, he may prefer firm, fast petting and rubbing. When relaxed, he’ll probably prefer slow, rhythmic petting.

When meeting a dog you don’t know, always ask permission from his owner before petting him. If his owner gives the go-ahead, stand sideways to the dog (an unaggressive stance) and put your hand out towards his nose, letting him come to you if he wants. Some dogs will greet strangers on the sidewalk and seek out petting, in which case the dog probably loves back pats from one and all. Dogs who are aloof and keep their distance aren’t in the market for petting and should be given a wide berth.

A soft expression in a dog’s eyes is another helpful cue, whether it’s your own dog or a stranger’s. A relaxed expression usually indicates the dog is feeling at ease and would enjoy some gentle petting. A dog who is staring intensely or showing the whites of his eyes may be fearful or displaying dominance, which is never a good time for petting.

How Not to Pet a Dog

From the family dog to an unknown dog, here are the most common dog petting mistakes people make:

  • Reaching over the top of the dog’s head.
  • Petting when the dog’s attention is focused elsewhere.
  • Surprising the dog by petting him first on the hindquarters.
  • Petting when the dog is overstimulated.
  • Petting when the dog is barking.
  • Petting when the dog is staring or showing the whites of his eyes.
  • Petting when the dog is licking his lips, a sign of nervousness.

Why Can’t You Pet Service Dogs?

Service dogs are not pets. When you cross paths with a service dog he’s hard at work helping his handler stay safe, navigate the world, and perform day-to-day tasks. Petting distracts him from his duties and puts his person at risk should he miss a cue that they require immediate help.

The important jobs service dogs perform include guiding the blind, assisting compromised people with mobility and balance, picking up and placing items for wheelchair-bound people, alerting chronically ill people to impending seizures, a loss of consciousness, or a dip in blood sugar, and providing support for psychiatric conditions, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Even when a service dog looks like he’s doing nothing, he’s actually focused on his job. Petting sidetracks him, as does talking to him, saying his name, and making eye contact.

Where to Pet a Dog

Every dog is different, but the best place to pet a dog is often on his shoulders, chest, and at the back of his neck. Bonus points if you give a good scratch under his collar. The forward part of his back is usually a good location for petting, too. Sensitive areas to avoid are the legs, paws, and the tail. Where the base of the tail meets the back can go either way—some dogs love being scratched there, while others prefer you steer clear.

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