You’re looking at the title above and thinking to yourself that it’s pretty obvious and you know how to, right?
A scratch behind the ear and a belly rub may feel pleasurable to us, but how do you know that you may actually be interacting with your little guy in a way that’s making them feel as uncomfortable as a chicken in a pond?
We all know the health effects and benefits of being in a dog’s presence – scientific research shows decreased blood pressure, lowering of anxiety levels and improved overall health through exercise, but do we ever consider how petting feels to a dog?
The Science Bit
In a recent study “Behavioural and Cardiac Responses by Dogs to Physical Human-Dog Contact” (F. Khune et al.), 28 dogs of different age, breed and backgrounds were assessed whilst being petted by a stranger in nine different ways for thirty seconds per time:
1. Petting the dog on the shoulder
2. Petting the dog on the lateral side of the chest
3. Petting the dog on the ventral part of the neck
4. Petting and holding the lying dog on the ground
5. Holding a forepaw of the dog
6. Petting the dog on the top of the head
7. Scratching the dog at the base of the tail
8. Holding the dog on his collar
9. Covering the dog’s muzzle with one hand.
Source: K9 Health Centre
These Findings May Surprise You…
All dogs showed they were uncomfortable with the contact when the stranger petted the head, shoulder or paw.
Not surprising, then, when the stranger then mildly constrained the dogs holding on the ground or covering the muzzle; all dogs froze, looked away and increased licking of their lips with faster heart rates – a clear sign of stress.
The most calming physical contact with the dogs, showing a decrease in heart rate was petting on the chest.
Even the dog owners failed to recognise the clear signs of discomfort and stress as the dogs turned their heads, licked their lips and froze on the spot.
More notably, the study found that the dogs showed disposition signals for a longer period of time when touched by their owners over being petted the same way as the stranger.
Could these dogs have just become desensitized to their owner’s repeatedly stressful petting?
What Can We Do?
With the research in mind, here’s our Top 5 List of what you can do to ensure your prized pooch isn’t stressed by your touch:
1) First Contact
Let the dog initiate contact first. Do not invade a dog’s space; instead, allow them a few minutes to approach you. Be patient, they will when they’re comfortable enough.
2) Gently Does It
Do not hug the dog. Ever. Also avoid any contact over or across the dog. Instead, pet the dog gently on the chest or behind the ear closest to you. Stop after a few seconds. The dog will sure enough let you know if they want more.
3) Knowing the Stress Signals
Keep an eye out for any of the following anxiety signals. If they show any, back off immediately and give them space:
· Licking of the lips
· Looking away
· Ears back
· Lifting of the paw
· Tail tucked under
· Whale eye (when you can see the whites of the dog’s eyes. It happens when a dog tilts their head slightly, but keeps the eyes fixed)
4) Desensitize Unavoidable Restrains
In the case of your own dog, do take the time to desensitize the dog to potentially unpleasant restrains (such as a trip to the vets). Do this by grabbing the collar and giving a treat, grab the dog’s ear, paw, tail etc. but always give a treat.
5) Be Polite
Lastly, this is always an obvious one, but always ask the owner of the dog for permission to interact with their pooch.
We must remember that although we think we’re rewarding our pets with physical interaction, some handling can also trigger negative emotions.
As always, all dogs are different and some may enjoy a more vigorous pet when others feel stressed. So we know we’re not sending the wrong message, the key is in understanding how these physical contacts can impact our dogs and how to recognise the stress signals in order to develop a more positive, affectionate relationship.
How does your dog like to be petted? Do you have any tried and tested desensitizing techniques you can share? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.