Proof Your Dog Likes It When You Pet Them (Plus Their Favorite Spots)

Published November 9, 2022
Hands petting dog

What's the first thing you want to do when you spot a cute dog? Pet it, of course. Research shows that interacting with animals can benefit humans, but it's equally rewarding for pets, too. But why do dogs like being petted? Receiving affection in the form of gentle petting causes a surge in your dog's oxytocin, which is known as the "feel-good" hormone. Dogs may also appreciate a good scratch in areas they can't reach themselves. But before you reach for the first dog you see, it's important to remember not all dogs like being touched by strangers. Always ask their owner for permission first and learn the areas most dogs enjoy being petted, along with which locations are usually off-limits.

Why Do Dogs Like This Attention?

Dogs are incredibly social creatures, so they naturally crave interaction with members of their pack. According to many experts, that pack means not just other canines in the household but human family members, as well. Dogs nuzzle, rub, and lick each other to show affection. So, when you rub or pet your dog, it prompts a release of the same "feel-good" hormone, oxytocin.

A far less endearing reasoning behind why dogs like to be pet is that they don't have opposable thumbs. This means when they have an itch in a hard-to-reach place, they might really appreciate your petting. Dogs' fur can collect debris like dirt and dead skin cells -- not to mention parasites like fleas -- that can make your dog incredibly itchy. If your dog is excessively itchy, it's time to see your vet.

Have you ever been petting your dog, then noticed them start kicking their leg? You've found their "sweet spot." Dogs possess something called the scratch reflex, which is an involuntary response triggered by rubbing nerves in the skin. It's comparable to the way a tap on your knee at the doctor's office can trigger you to kick your leg up involuntarily.

7 Places Where Dogs Like to Be Petted

All dogs have their preferences for where they like (or dislike) being petted, but there are a few areas many dogs enjoy. These areas are packed with nerve endings, which is why they feel good when we rub them. Still, you should always read a dog's body language before touching any of these areas.

  • Base of the neck
  • Behind the ears
  • Between the shoulder blades
  • On the chest
  • Under the chin
  • On the belly
  • Base of the tail

Places to Avoid Petting Your Dog

Even though it might seem like a dog will willingly accept pets anywhere, there are also a few areas it's best to avoid, particularly if you don't know the dog well.

Head

Many dogs are "head shy," meaning they become fearful when they see a hand reaching toward their head. Going directly for the head can be seen as threatening. This could be due to a past negative experience, pain around the ears or head, or an unrelated reason. It's best to avoid petting a dog on the top of their head unless you know they enjoy it.

Feet

It's common for dogs to dislike their legs and feet being touched. The paws are very sensitive, and many dogs associate holding their paws with having their nails trimmed. So, even though it's best to avoid touching a dog's paws while having an affectionate petting session, it's a good thing to do as part of a training session to help them accept handling the next time they get a mani-pedi.

Face

Resist squeezing those cute, fluffy cheeks because most dogs aren't fans of being pet on their face. Not only is the face a vulnerable area, but it's also where a dog keeps their sharp teeth. Unless you know a dog well, it's never wise to put your fingers near their mouth. If you touch a sore ear or tender spot on their muzzle, they may unintentionally react with a snap.

Tail

Dogs use their tail for communication and as a counterbalance, so it's important for their function. For this reason, most dogs don't like their tails being touched or grabbed. Children, in particular, might feel drawn to a dog's tail, but it's best to stay away from it. Instead, focus on the area at the base of the tail, where many dogs enjoy being scratched.

How to Safely Pet a Dog

If you're curious about how to approach petting a dog, whether your own or a friend's dog, follow these recommendations.

Young woman petting golden retriever
  • Ask the owner for permission. Some dogs don't like being petted by strangers, whereas some owners may not want others to touch their pet, so always ask first.
  • Read the dog's body language. If a dog's body appears relaxed with their ears in a neutral position and their tail wagging, there's a good chance it's safe to pet them. But if the dog shows signs of fear or aggression, such as ears held back, raised hair on the back, or tail between the legs, the dog isn't happy, so it's not safe to pet them. Ask the owner for guidance if you're unsure.
  • Get on their level. Many dogs find it intimidating to be approached from above or when a person hovers over them, so it can be a good idea to kneel down to their level.
  • Let them sniff you. Slowly extend your hand so the dog can sniff you. Some people suggest making your hand into a fist because it resembles a paw, though this can also be a smart way to protect your fingers. Wait for the dog to approach you and give you signs they feel comfortable, like a lick or nuzzle, then go in for a gentle pet.

Use Petting to Strengthen Your Special Bond

Not all dogs like to be petted. Some dogs are afraid of humans or are only bonded with their person. Touching a fearful or stressed dog can only frighten them further. Always use caution when petting a dog that doesn't belong to you, and pay attention to the signs that they may not be in the mood for petting. But if you have a dog yourself, know that petting them is, in fact, mutually beneficial. Frequent affectionate petting can strengthen the special bond you two share.

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Proof Your Dog Likes It When You Pet Them (Plus Their Favorite Spots)