Does Your Dog REALLY Want to be Petted?

Picture of a small black and tan dog leaning away and giving "whale eye," where a small crescent of white shows at the edge of her eyes, as a woman in pink pants and a white tee shirt reaches out to pet her.

Zani doesn’t want to be petted

Newsflash. Not all dogs want to be petted. But you wouldn’t know it from watching videos on YouTube.

What you can learn on YouTube is that there are lots of dogs whose owners _think_ they are enjoying petting. But they aren’t. This is another one of those disconnects between dog and people language. People who clearly adore their dogs–and whose dogs love them–post videos of said dogs saying in every polite way they know how that they would like the human to STOP.

And in all of the millions of videos on YouTube, I haven’t found one that plainly explains a way to tell if a dog enjoys petting. Since this is Dog/Human Communication 101, I took a stab at it.

I made a video that demonstrates a “Consent Test” for petting. A Consent Test is a way to tell if a dog likes something. It’s very simple. If you cause the activity to stop, does the dog take action to make it start again?

I didn’t invent this, of course. Jean Donaldson describes this technique in Oh Behave (actually with humping, to see if the humpee minds). Many trainers use it as a way to tell whether rough or one-sided looking dog play is enjoyable for the smaller or less assertive dog. You remove the stronger/more active/suspected bully dog from the situation and see whether the other dog tries to re-initiate play with him or her. If you were unsure about both dogs, you could try the test each way.

Some people learn about it in a formal way, and some people just intuit it as a way to understand the communication of a non-verbal animal. It’s one of those things that seems obvious to do after you hear about it or figure it out.

In the video I show the petting consent test with two of my dogs. Zani says, “No” to more petting. Summer says, “Yes.” I go over some basic body language that supports their answers.

Here is a short list of body language indicators, yea or nay, for petting. Of course all of them vary with individual dogs, and context is very important. These are generally accepted observations but not set in stone.

Dog Likes Petting

  • They initiate it by moving into your space
  • They put their head or body under your hand
  • They pull your hand toward them with their paw
  • The muscles of their face are relaxed
  • Their eyes get droopy
  • They flop their body down like a rag doll
  • They flop their body onto YOU

Dog Doesn’t Like Petting

  • They duck their head away when you reach for them
  • They move away
  • They look away
  • They leave the area
  • They yawn
  • They scratch themselves
  • They lick their lips
  • They lift a paw
  • They show “whale eye”
  • and of course some more obvious things like growling and snapping

Signals that Could Go Either Way

  • They lick your hand. This could be appeasement, meaning “please stop.” Or with a mouthy dog it could accompany nuzzling into your hand to solicit petting.
  • They flip over on their back. This could be an inguinal display, an extreme display of appeasement. Or it could be exposing their tummy for petting.
  • They push against you with their paws, straightening their legs. This could be a distancing maneuver, but some dogs seem to enjoy it as a way to stretch.
  • Lip licking can actually go either way too (one of my dogs smacks her lips in slow motion when she seems to be enjoying petting), but I think is much more common as a stress signal.

In the case of these more ambiguous signals, you need to look for other indications from your dog. In fact, look at the context for all of the signals. Next time you see a dog yawn, you may think, “Oh no, stress!” And miss the fact that the dog just turned three circles in a bed and lay down.

Addendum: I created a followup post with more examples of dogs (my own and others’) enjoying petting: Dogs Who Like to be Petted or Touched.

Training a Dog to Enjoy Petting or Handling

Petting is a not essential to life with a dog. But a certain amount of handling is necessary for the health of the dog. A dog can learn to enjoy both handling and petting through the use of classical conditioning. A dog taught to accept handling will be much less stressed at vet visits, for example. That’s a topic for another day; I just wanted to mention that dogs’ preferences (just like humans’) are not set in stone.

Educating the Public

I wish some more folks would publish some videos about petting dogs. I know that in the grand scheme of things there are many worse things that happen to dogs in the world than forced attention. But this is a microcosm of many of the bigger problems. Think how many dogs could have happier lives if their people didn’t misunderstand their reactions. It’s such a simple thing.

I searched for videos on YouTube of dogs enjoying petting and got some pretty horrifying results. I found only one video on the first page when I searched “dog enjoys petting” that actually showed a dog who appeared to be enjoying himself, and re-initiated contact when his owner stopped.

So let’s make videos. If your dog likes petting, show the world what that looks like. Or perhaps you have some old footage of your dog reacting with dislike to some aspect of handling that you wouldn’t mind posting and labeling. I already have a new video in the works with Clara, who is not very subtle about her preferences. It’ll be good for a chuckle.

Related Resources

Doggonesafe.com: How to Love Your Dog –  Believe it or Not. This little gem describes ways to ask the dog’s consent, encourages getting to know one’s dog’s language, and suggests ways that humans and dogs can be physically close to each other without intimidating or “over-touching” the dog. The whole website has great stuff about learning to read dogs and keeping kids safe around them.

Dogs Like Kids They Feel Safe With. This is a wonderful movie about teaching dogs with a clicker and teaching children with TAGteach with the goal of comfortable and safe interaction between the two. Children who are fearful and and children who tend to overdo with animals are both included. The children are taught about asking the adult handler’s and the dog’s consent.

Dr. Sophia Yin has a wealth of information on dog body language, polite greeting behavior (from humans), and low stress handling. Here is a page with a load of information. Free Downloads: Posters, Handouts, and More.

Family Paws is another great site that focuses on safe interactions between dogs and their human family members, with special emphasis on education for expecting families and families with infants. Here is founder Jennifer Shryock doing a great analysis of a now infamous human/dog petting session gone wrong, with nice explanations of the mismatch between dog and human communication and expectations.

Observation Skills for Training Dogs. That great FaceBook group I have mentioned before.

Discussions coming soon:

Synopsis of the Video

To do the petting Consent Test I suggest settling down with the dog when she is relaxed, in a space in which she can leave. Not leashed up, and not blocked into a corner or onto furniture. I suggest petting the dog, perhaps starting on her chest, then stopping to see what she does.

I demonstrate this with Zani, who just stares at me when I stop. I then show the whole clip, which shows her throwing clusters of stress signals, including lip licks, head turns, whole body turns away, and shrinking away from my hand. She says, “No” to more petting a dozen different ways. All her signs are very fleeting though, so I show some freeze frames to help us humans see what she is doing.

I contrast this with some footage of Summer, whose eyes are half shut with a look of bliss on her face, as she repeatedly walks back into my hand when I move it away. Summer says, “Yes, please!” to more petting.

It’s interesting with my dogs because Zani is very sociable and loves most people and dogs, and Summer is very retiring and generally needs a lot of personal space. Yet she tends to welcome low key petting, while it just makes Zani nervous.

Although I didn’t have treats in the area, after I finished filming with Zani I gave her some spray cheese for being such a good sport. She could have left, but chose to stick around. Probably it’s because I had the camera running and she kept thinking we would have a training session.

About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
This entry was posted in Dog body language, Dog training hints, Human and dog misunderstandings and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

70 Responses to Does Your Dog REALLY Want to be Petted?

  1. Jess Rollins says:

    This is fantastic! I’ve shared it on my Pet Expertise Facebook page and I would like to link to it in an article on petexpertise.com. Let me know if that’s okay with you. – Jess

  2. Heather says:

    Great job. I will be sharing this. I hope people watch and learn.

  3. Wendy says:

    Excellant well written article! I agree with you on many points!

  4. Wendy says:

    Will also share on Facebook. Just curious what you think on one point. I’ve been of the belief that the behaviors you state are “signals that could go either way” are actually rooted in the “dislike” realm of behaviors but can go to the “like” side through conditioning. As an example, a dog who licks its lips but clearly says Yes in other ways and seemingly enjoys the close contact, may be a dog who is uncomfortable with that contact at the core of their personality, but has learned to override their internal feelings and been conditioned to enjoy and/or seek the attention. Be it intentional conditioning or unintentional conditioning

    • Hi Wendy and thanks for your kind words and for sharing. I’m sure not the expert, but I agree that dogs seem to be conflicted sometimes, and that they will tolerate all sorts of stuff they don’t like because of their bonds with us and a history of fun and pleasure that is at least sometimes under their own terms. In the case of the lip lick though, I was thinking of my dog Summer, who I’m pretty sure has at least two different kinds, and that one of them doesn’t indicate stress at all.(She actually does one in this video, although her head is down and it is hard to see.) I’ll be publishing a video on that soon and you can see what you think. I’m still thinking about the conditioning aspect you mention.

  5. Gerd says:

    A very good film with great explanations. Have a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Voo3blXjFpI Sorry that it is in German but you will understand it.

    • Gerd, thank you. You’re right; the film is perfectly understandable to an English speaker. I recommend it to anybody who wants to see a huge cluster of stress signals in a very short time, labeled in slow motion. This kind of thing is so valuable I think since dogs move so quickly. By the way I had someone punish my dog for sitting politely for a greeting recently by patting her head. I didn’t move fast enough!

  6. Janet Parker says:

    Great stuff Eileen. I teach about people in my puppy classes about asking permission to pet their puppies. We pet, we stop, we see what the dogs say. If the dogs say “no” that’s OK! They are still good dogs. – Janet

  7. Marjorie says:

    Another excellent informative post! Another stress signal that one of my dogs displays when uncomfortable with petting is heavy panting. I’m also curious to learn more about excessive licking which I thought might be stress, but when you put her down or take your hand away she tries very hard to continue the behaviour.

  8. lorac says:

    After having a dog who loved to be petted, held and lie close to me (she initiated it), it’s been a shock-er-oo to have a dog who only sometimes likes to be petted, but doesn’t like to be held and rarely likes to lie close. Over time I’ve had to learn to take comfort from her being nearby and not try to force her into being a snuggle pup. OTOH, it has improved my skill at reading her body language.

    Great post on an important subject.

    • Thanks. Having had a couple of dogs and cats who mostly disliked petting (and one cat who was wired badly and seemed to solicit petting, then would snap suddenly into a biting frenzy) one does have to work out other ways to enjoy being together. But then it feels almost like a privilege when the standoffish ones break their rules sometimes and snuggle up.

      • ClearlyKrystal says:

        So true! Although with my standoffish girl, when she is snuggly, it usually means she is not feeling well or is scared. She does solicit contact first thing in the morning but then it’s as if she doesn’t have time to do that “cuddly thing”.

        Thanks for the post. Great discussion! I hope this helps get the word out there! I have German Shepherds and even the one who is very cuddly with me/people he knows is standoffish with new people. It’s so hard to explain to people that just because they don’t want you petting them, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you!

        • Hi ClearlyKrystal! Thanks for writing. Funny thing–my standoffish girl is the one in the video who is all blissed out from being petted. Most of the time she has a space bubble about 5 feet around her. When she is scared, she doesn’t want petting, but she does huddle very close to me. I love your last line. Dogs have all sorts of ways of showing they like us, but so many of them are less visible that soliciting touch.

  9. Gail Anderson says:

    Who knew? And
    I thought (most) dogs just like to be petted!!

  10. latrenda says:

    Great post! It always perplexes me that folks don’t see calming signals when they are forcing pets on their dogs or worse, holding their dogs down while scary strangers pet them. But when they come home and see their house in disarray, and get mad, they see the calming signals and assume it’s the “guilty” look :(

    • Thanks La Trenda, and boy is that a good point. People don’t notice the signals in one context, but then do notice (and misinterpret) them in another. Talk about selective attention! I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it. Dogs sure put up with a lot from us.

  11. Lisa says:

    Sorry for the late response. Just wanted you to know that when you first put this vidoe out I had a seven year old houseguest. She and her Grandmother watched it with me, and they both learned a lot. It’s a great instructional video, and was a convenient segue into discussions about interacting with dogs and canine body language. Thanks again!

  12. Kate Donaldson says:

    Thanks so much for this video Eileen! I’m going to show it to all of the kids in my house, many of whom want to snuggle Annie the friendly pit bull even when she is saying “please leave me alone”. They pretty much think I’m making it up when I tell them that the dog is saying xyz and try to explain what I see. People also try to pet Calamity too, of course, but I’m super strict about that because she can be people reactive. It’s funny, the people who give her the most space are the ones she solicits attention from the most. It’s almost as if she’s saying “hey there, I know YOU won’t trap me into handling I don’t like, you can pet me, just here, below my shoulder blade please… ” Er, ok I may be getting a little carried away with the anthropomorphizing. Thanks again!

    • Oh Kate you are welcome, nice to see you here. I bet you are right about Calamity. I think most dogs learn very fast who they are going to be most comfortable with. And Calamity is wicked smart anyway….. Sorry to hear that Annie gets mauled. Hope you can win some people over.

  13. Thank you for this wonderful and much needed lesson into how to read dogs’ body language and respect their space. I’ll definitely integrate and share this in my training classes.

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  16. I’m linking to this AGAIN in an upcoming post. BTW, Barnum has two “either way” behaviors that are clearly yesses (which is nice, since he is not Mr. Demonstrative, although for a bouv, he kind of is). Anyway, ever since he was a pup he has liked to roll onto his back and have his belly rubbed. When he wants this, he seems me coming toward him (NEVER if I’m using my chair — not safe!) and he gives me a “come hither” look and rolls onto his back and looks at me with soft eyes. The other one is a lip lick, which, like Summer’s, is totally different from his, “I’m uncomfortable, please stop” lick. This is one when he is being scratched in a certain spot — usually on his neck — he lifts his chin up into the air and half-closes his eyes and stretches and licks.

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  19. Ocean's Edge says:

    very interesting article … honestly not a subject I’d given a lot of thought to. My Newf is a velcro dog and there’s never been any question about his wanting petting – he’s downright PUSHY about it (once grabbed an old lady’s hand, with a “hey, where ya goin?” when she quit petting him to get back on her bus!) but it is interesting to see dogs that are less demonstrative in their body language.

    • Thanks for commenting! Yes, it’s hard to imagine a Newf that wouldn’t want petting, but I guess there may be some out there. I have another article on this topic that has some overlap in material with this one but it includes also a list of YouTube videos of dogs that are probably not enjoying petting. (Most of their owners think they are, though.) You can see it here.

  20. Erin says:

    This is really fantastic info! I never knew!

  21. Gary says:

    Eileen—Thanks for the great article. I know it was written some time ago but I’ve been wondering about my dog for sometime now. She’s a keeshond. Question: Would a wagging tail or a tail going from down to up, indicate that she wants to be petted?

    • Hi Gary, Glad you enjoyed the article. Tail wagging and carriage depends so much on the dog. There’s a very general rule that a tail wagging with a high carriage may not be friendly, but the lower the tail goes the friendlier the wag might be. Down to very low wagging, which can be associated with appeasement. For one of my dogs, her tail goes up when she is excited about a critter in the yard, or even when she is aggressing, but also when she is having fun. I wish I could help but even if I could see your dog, I probably am not the person to advise on that. If you are able to take a video of your dog and are on FaceBook, consider the group, “Observation Skills for Training Dogs.” Here is the URL. You can post a video there and ask opinions. There are some really expert observers there. They concentrate on actual observing, but will do interpretation also after they have described the dog’s behavior as well as they can. Even if you can’t post a video, anyone can learn a lot about dog body language on that group I think. Glad you liked the article, and good for you for trying to figure out what your dog is saying. It can be hard sometimes.

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  24. laura says:

    Thank you – this is very helpful. My dog does not like to be petted by strangers and it is best to ignore him when I am with people. The problem is that he is so cute people think he must love to be petted – he growls and then will snap. I made an agreement with him that I would tell people not to pet him and just let him hang out – sometimes this works but more often people see him sitting or lying down when I am talking and think he is saying pet me – not sure why he is like this but otherwise he is the biggest love dog (at least to me ….)

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  26. Katie P says:

    This is a great video! I plan on sharing it with my children, nieces and nephews. I do have a quick question though, the dog that you show sitting on the couch, what breed of dog is it? My rescue looks just like it and I have always been curious. Thank you!

    • Glad you like the vid! I wish I knew her breed! That’s my feral dog. All I know is that her mom looked like a small yellow lab, and two of her littermates were colored black and rust. I’d love to see a picture of your dog. I’ll send you my email address.

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  28. THAT is an EXCELLENT article! Brilliantly written, by someone who clearly knows their stuff! And brilliantly explained too! We find that one of the major training issues that soooo many people have is that they reward their dog with ” petting” and worse still, ear ruffling or head patting Without nderstanding their dogs reaction to such. Unwittingly punishing their dog, rather than rewarding it ias they see it. I so beieve that this is an article that will benefit milions from reading. Again, I applaud the author. Briliant. Denise

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  30. Reisa Stone says:

    Hello Eileen,

    This is a great article. I posted it on my Facebook business page, as I’ve received irritated feedback when I’ve told people that the word “pet” doesn’t mean an animal wishes to be petted all the time! I’m an Animal Communicator who’s released digital recordings for learning this skill. I strongly advise students to let the animal initiate contact.

    People are so accustomed to having animals submit to their will, it’s difficult to learn when an animal does and does not want to be touched. Your article makes it so very clear what signals canines display. I’d love to send you a complimentary copy of the recording where I discuss this.

    Your article has attracted over 300 views on my FB page within a few hours.

    Please email me with your email address, if you’d like the digital download:
    info (at) reisastone.com

    • Hi Reisa! How wonderful you are out there standing up for what the animals want, and tell us so plainly.

      I completely agree about people being accustomed to having animals submit. We were just brought up that way. I certainly still find myself failing in that regard sometimes.

      Thanks for your offer, and I’ll send you an email. Really glad you liked the article and movie.

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  33. Dane La Born says:

    So I have a couple of things. I have two, brother and sister, half fox terrier and half Italian greyhound and hey love pretty much everything that happens. One odd thing; my boy, Rascal loves playing bite games. He’ll hook his teeth into my bent finger and pull. If I stop, he grins at me all happy and reinitiates the game. It’s his favorite. Was just curious if u had heard of that anywhere else

    • Hi Dane!

      Frankly I don’t know what to say about your post. Hard to know without seeing the behavior. But to answer your question, I don’t think I’ve heard about that. But something about the hooking the teeth around the finger seems familiar to me. I may have had a little dog who did that once. It sounds like you are careful and the game is well controlled, so that’s a good thing. (I know people who teach the “hold” part of retrieve by teaching the dog to hold their finger sideways.)

      Thanks for commenting! I bet I would love your dogs. Sounds like an attractive mix.

  34. Christine says:

    So this follows into one of the points you mentioned – lip licking. I learned a while ago that lip licking is a sign of stress and a behavior the dog does not enjoy. there are times however, where my dog will come up to me and get as close to me as possible, and i will pet him. and then he will go between slowly licking his lips to panting with his eyes partially closed. and if i stopped petting him while he is doing at this he whines and takes his paw and starts pawing at me like “more please, why did you stop.?” Do you think he genuinely is unhappy, or could it be his way of displaying pleasure? Normally, if he isn’t in the mood to be pet, he will either duck his head away, or move away from me or whomever else is trying to pet him. he also isn’t a licker, so i am wondering if this might be a hangover from wanting to lick and give affection?

  35. Don says:

    My dog pats my arm to pet him, but when I do, he sometimes yawns and looks away, and gives other indications of ambivalence. When I stop petting him, however, he pats my again to get me to pet him again. *I* am confused. I don’t want to stress him, but I’m not sure what I’m doing here that I should be doing.

    • Don, I sure don’t know. Dogs certainly show what we could call ambivalence sometimes. You might want to try the Canine Behavior Interpretation and Observation group on FaceBook if you are on there. Or perhaps one of the force free training groups, like Modern Dog Training and Behavior Advice. They are interested in body language stuff too. If you could provide a video, I bet they would provide opinions! I guess if it were me, I’d be experimenting with different ways of touching him. From his back maybe, in case you normally reach over his head.

      Good luck, and sorry I can’t be more help. Good for you for doing your best to figure out what your dog prefers.

  36. Sue Fryer says:

    I have just come across this on facebook Eileen and I would like to say thank you for spending time to study this and write so eloquently and clearly on this subect. I am always on the look out for educational articles and videos for my Clients. I have shared on my fb page and will save to use for educational purposes if that is ok. If people just understood theirs and others dog’s signals there would be alot less bites and happier dogs. Well done x

    • Thank you so much, Sue! You are very kind. I love to know when my things are helping dogs and people. In case you didn’t find it, the page called Video Examples for Teachers has some things that people find helpful. For example, a real life video on what can happen when the trainer lumps. My little dog Zani told me a thing or two. I have quite a few vids showing something I did really wrong, and how I fixed it. Anyway, thank you for your kind words and I’m glad you found the blog.

  37. marie ng says:

    Great video, Eileen. It’s definitely made me more aware of what my little guy is telling me. Thank you!

  38. Matthew Fero says:

    This is a nice video. The consent test is so easy, that once you try it, then it will just come naturally.

    I would venture that not all dogs communicate the same way (e.g. I’ve never seen my terrier lick his lips when he wasn’t eating) but its still good to watch their body language. If a dog doesn’t actively seek out your hand, then does it always mean that they don’t want to be petted? Can it be that they are just a little less assertive about it, or else they are indifferent? Probably if you persist in an activity that to which they are indifferent, then it will eventually annoy them and they’ll start to show it. Perhaps Zani wants to please you and that’s why she endures your petting so patiently. Like people, a dog might have mixed emotions about something, or be a little uncertain at first.

    • Hi Matthew, what good points. Agree with all you said. Dogs actually put up with a lot from us uncomplainingly. Zani didn’t hate being petted, just would have preferred not to be. I would guess that she stuck around because the signals were similar to a training session and she kept thinking we were going to do something fun. (That also may have been part of why she didn’t want to be petted.)

  39. Rina says:

    Hi, Eileen, we recently adopted a puppy and I am SO GLAD to have found this post and video, because I had no idea my dog actually hasn’t been enjoying being pet!!! You mention that dogs can be conditioned to like being pet, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that, or point me in the right direction? Thanks!

    • Hi Rina,
      Good for you for noticing what your pup likes and doesn’t like. There is a process called classical conditioning or counterconditioning that can be used to get your pup not only tolerating but enjoying being handled. They learn by association that humans hands approaching and touching them predict great things. I am going to write about it as soon as I ca, and also I am working on a video. For now, here is one by a friend of mine. It’s kind of long, but you can get the idea: Handling and Grooming Counterconditioning. (Just to mention: if you go at the dog’s pace and the conditioning is done correctly, you won’t have to use treats forever. The will generally learn to enjoy touch on its own.) In the mean time, an important thing to do is keep observing your dog and try to eliminate all unnecessary handling that he or she doesn’t like. Lots of times when dogs are given more control over being touched they may end up getting “cuddlier” on their own. Good luck, and check back with the blog!

  40. Carolyn Hasler says:

    This was very interesting. I was worried I might be petting my dog too much, thats how I ended up here. This just confirmed that he like it. He always comes up to me and pushes his face into my hand until I pet him. If I stop petting him he pushes his face into my hand until I start petting him again.

    • That’s great, Carolyn! Sounds like a good sign. It’s when they start ducking away that you usually have to worry. And so many dogs do, that it can get to the point where some of us don’t even notice it! Glad your guy is comfortable with touch.

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