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Why Do Dogs Like Being Petted? An Owner’s Guide

By Bridget Reed


Dogs and petting go together like peanut butter and jelly. You’ve probably met at least one pup who goes crazy for a good back rub or kicks their legs whenever you pet their belly.

You might not be able to talk to your dog with words, but there are plenty of other ways to show affection and bond with your pup. Body language is extremely important to dogs, so it’s no surprise that they enjoy physical touch from their favorite humans.

Petting can be a good way to communicate across the species barrier and show your dog the love you feel toward them. However, every pup is different, so don’t expect your dog to enjoy the same type of petting that other dogs might like. 

Some body parts might be off-limits depending on their history and personal preference. You may need to be gentle with some dogs, while others will gladly let you play them like a drum.

Read on if you want to know more about why dogs love to be petted and how to give your pup the scratches they enjoy.

Why Do Dogs Enjoy Petting?

Your dog probably reacts enthusiastically every time you give them a good pet. They might even demand physical attention by leaning against your leg or bumping their head into your hand until you give in. It’s usually pretty clear when your dog wants to be petted, but what causes this behavior?

Most dogs enjoy petting just as much as humans enjoy petting them. However, it might not have always been this way. 

When dogs were first domesticated thousands of years ago, they might not have been huge fans of belly rubs. Like the wild wolves of today, they probably didn’t want to be hugged and saw prolonged eye contact as a threat.

However, as dogs became accustomed to living alongside humans, they adapted to our methods of communication. Unfortunately, they never figured out how to talk to us directly, but they certainly learned to enjoy physical contact and closeness with their human companions. Today, most dogs respond to touch as another way of forming bonds.

Petting your dog can make your relationship closer, as they’ll enjoy spending time with you and getting those hard-to-reach itches scratched simultaneously.

Research shows that petting or snuggling with your dog causes an increase in oxytocin, which is commonly called the love hormone. Both humans and dogs experience a surge in oxytocin associated with petting. 

Patting your dog on the back is one of the best ways to show you love them. It’s also worth noting that dogs don’t have opposable thumbs, and their limbs aren’t as flexible as ours. 

When you pet your dog, you can reach spots they couldn’t scratch on their own. In a way, you’re doing them a favor, and they’ll certainly show their appreciation with a wagging tail or a happy groan.

Where Should I Pet My Dog?

Some dogs love any pets they can get, while others prefer only to be touched on specific body parts. There’s no universal guide to where you should pet your dog, but you can follow some common rules to ensure your dog is enjoying the experience as much as you are.

First, always back off if the dog is uncomfortable or distressed — watch your dog’s body language, especially if it is an unfamiliar dog. If they yelp or back away when you pet a specific spot, they might have pain or trauma associated with that area. 

When looking for the best spot to pet your dog, we recommend steering clear of a few areas, like the tail and legs. Some pups do like a good scratch at the base of the tail, though!

You may want to avoid patting the top of your dog’s head unless you know that’s something they enjoy. Most dogs won’t appreciate being touched directly on the face, so keep your hands away from their eyes, nose, and mouth.

One of the best spots to scratch your dog is behind the ears. Dog ears have a lot of nerves, making them sensitive and very responsive to good pets. Gently petting your dog’s ears can release endorphins to relax your pooch.

Many dogs will also appreciate a good scratch on the back of the neck, especially if they’ve been wearing a collar for a while. You can also give your dog a chest rub or a belly rub if they flop over and expose their stomach, but make sure you’re paying attention to dog behavior; some dogs hate when you touch their abdomen.

How Can I Safely Pet a Dog That I Don’t Know?

If you want to pet a doggie you’ve just met, you should be more cautious. You can’t always know how a new dog will respond, especially if they’re anxious or wary around strangers.

Before you pet, always ask the dog’s parent if it’s alright. They’ll be able to tell you if their dog enjoys getting some attention and scratches from people they don’t know. 

Never approach and pet a strange dog without permission. You can’t predict how they’ll react, and it’s never a good idea to risk upsetting a nervous dog.

Once you get the go-ahead from their pet parent, we recommend approaching from one side rather than coming at the dog head-on. Heading straight toward a dog’s face might cause them to feel defensive.

To introduce yourself, you should offer the back of your hand for the dog to sniff. This motion shows your positive intention and lets the dog decide whether they want to interact with you or not. If the pup happily sniffs your hand and approaches you, tail wagging, you should be good to go.

Take it slow, and don’t go straight for the dog’s head. Instead, we suggest you pet a new dog's back or neck or give them a rub along the shoulders. 

If their ears droop and their face relaxes, that’s a good sign that they’re enjoying your pets. However, if they tense up, you should back off and give them a chance to calm down.

Following these tips, you can safely befriend any friendly dog without stress. Just remember to ensure the dog is comfortable before you engage, and be ready to step away if they don’t seem to enjoy themselves.

Do Dogs Like Head Pats?

Head pats can be a tricky issue when it comes to petting your dog. You might notice that many dogs feel uncomfortable when patted directly on top of the head, and there are a few reasons behind it.

Although we mean well, humans can often be too rough when petting a dog’s head. Your pup might not appreciate heavy pats, especially if they have sensitive skin. 

If you ever feel inclined to give your dog a head pat, make sure you use a light, gentle touch, and don’t continue if they duck away from your hand. Dogs may also dislike head pats because they can’t tell what your intentions are. 

When your hand reaches down from above, they might feel stressed or uncertain. You may have noticed your dog has become head shy if they quickly get out of the way when you reach for the top of their head.

Head-shy pups can be inconvenient at the best of times and potentially dangerous if you need to put a leash on your dog during an emergency. However, you can prevent head shyness in several ways.

First, when allowing strangers to pet your dog, ensure they don’t pat the top of their head. You can politely ask that they stick to scratching your dog’s back or chest while avoiding their head. This should keep your dog from developing negative associations with people touching their head.

You can also use treats to show your dog there’s nothing to fear. Either use clicker training or simply repeat a short phrase as verbal praise while reaching toward their head and give them a treat immediately. 

Start by sitting or crouching next to them, so your arm is roughly level with their head, and gradually work your way up to standing.

Using these methods as a dog owner can keep your dog from becoming uncomfortable with head pats during their petting session. Just be sure to touch the top of their head gently and make sure their associations with your hand are positive.

What Should I Do if My Dog Doesn’t Like To Be Pet?

Your dog might not enjoy petting as much as you’d hope, but there are still other ways you can bond with them. If you give them the time to warm up to you, you might find that they start to enjoy the occasional scratch behind the ears.

Here are a few of the ways you can spend time with your dog without making them uncomfortable with too much physical touch:

  • Games like tug-of-war or fetch
  • Going for long walks or runs
  • Taking your dog to a dog park
  • Sharing some healthy snacks, like bananas or watermelon

Remember that 90 percent of your dog’s diet should be composed of healthy and balanced dog food, such as one of our super premium dog food recipes, which can be ordered online or found in shops using our store locator

Save the snacks for special occasions, and keep your dog happy and healthy with a high-protein diet that supports their immune system and tastes delicious. If you allow your dog to reach out to you, you might be surprised at how quickly they start to enjoy petting and belly scratches. 

However, take it slow if your dog is especially nervous or uncomfortable with human contact. Your pup might not be a cuddle bug, but they’ll still find their way to show affection and love.

Why Don’t Some Dogs Enjoy Petting?

While most dogs will appreciate physical touch in their favorite spot, some dogs just don’t enjoy any amount of petting. In some cases, this is purely due to their personality; your dog may be friendly but prefer other interaction methods instead of touch.

In other cases, your dog might have negative memories or trauma associated with hands and petting. When touched, they could become defensive and potentially aggressive, depending on their current stress level.

Finally, your dog might not feel like petting at the moment, even if they usually enjoy it. When this happens, the best thing you can do is give your dog some space. They’ll be happy to return to you when craving a good rub on the back of their neck.

If you’re not sure whether a dog appreciates your touch at the moment, look for the following signs that they might be uncomfortable:

  • Pulling their ears back
  • Yawning frequently
  • Growling or baring their teeth
  • Licking their lips
  • Tucking their tail between their legs
  • Backing away, dodging your hand
  • Showing the whites of their eyes

If you notice these behaviors, you should give the dog as much space as they need and let them calm down. If you keep petting them, you could cause them distress and potentially hurt any trust you’ve built up.

However, if your dog shows open, relaxed body language and their tail wags, you can continue to pet them happily. Just be aware that they might change their mind — be ready to leave them alone when they’ve decided they’ve had enough pets.

Tips for Petting Your Dog

As you can see, petting your dog can be a great way to bond with them, as long as you respect their boundaries and preferences. Your pup will love the chance to spend time with you, and you’ll get the treat of cuddling with a great dog. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a win-win.


Where Do Dogs Like to Be Pet? Here's How to Give the Best Scritches | Daily Paws

Why Dogs Like Being Pet | The Spruce Pets

Why Does My Dog Duck When I Pat Him on the Head? | American Kennel Club

The Best Places to Pet Your Dog | PetMD

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