“Oh, Pumpkin just loves to stroke, doesn’t it, Pumpkin?” Martha said, patting her cocker spaniel on the head as he tried to examine the office. Pumpkin ‘s guardian had come to me for advice on behavior problems and was clearly a woman who loved her dog as we all, human or dog, would like to be loved. The only problem: Although Martha was beaming with affection, Pumpkin didn’t seem quite so happy. In truth, he looked downright miserable. He kept turning his head away from Martha’s hand, trying to avoid her touch, no matter how loving she might have been.
This is not an uncommon scenario: a responsible, caring guardian pats a dog that is supposedly adoring it while the dog moves heaven and earth and tries to get away. Ask any dog trainer or behaviorist – we see it every day in the office, in class, and on the neighborhood streets: people happily patting their dogs while the dogs look miserable.
Carry me here I’m not saying dogs don’t love to be petted. Most of them do. But then … don’t do it. Honest. Dogs love petting and they don’t love petting, and both statements are equally true. Ironically, the explanation for this apparent contradiction lies in the behavior of those who actually pet.
Lie in your dog’s paws for a minute and it will all make sense. Like most people, you probably love a good back massage. Just thinking about one can make most of us smile. But you don’t want one every minute of every day, do you? What if you argue against another ridiculous diminutive order from your boss in an important meeting? How about playing softball in the quarterfinals of the league? Do you want your honey to rub your neck when you’re ready to hit? I do not believe that. What if you want a back massage but your potential masseuse is pounding on your head like a woodpecker? Feel well? No
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My dog doesn’t want to be touched
Dogs are just like us – their pleasure in touching depends on when it’s offered, how it’s done, and where it’s directed on the body. I’ll talk about context first, as this is the variable that guards most often ignore.
Would you like a massage now? I am currently writing this column. And I don’t want one when I’m training my dog, giving a speech, or trying to figure out why my computer does one of the inexplicable and irritating things it does when I’m in a hurry. But I would love it later when I turned off the computer and got the chores done and settled in for the night. Dogs are no different: They prefer to be petted in quiet times, when the pack has settled in the living room or bedroom and the outside world is closed for a while. They enjoy the least petting when they are in high excitement game mode. Watch a dog called off a boisterous play session and “rewarded” with a pat on the head – most of them turn their heads and move away. I swear I can practically hear her say, “Awww … Mommmmmmm.” Also, most dogs don’t enjoy being petted while greeting other dogs, having dinner, or otherwise engaging in something that requires focus.
And just like humans, dogs vary tremendously when it comes to who to touch. Some are true street runners who like to cuddle their hands while others feel uncomfortable when strangers touch them, at least on their first date. We generally expect dogs to tolerate being touched by anyone, but that doesn’t mean they like it. You are usually not able to do much about it.
Dogs are also like people in whom they like to be touched. Your favorite places may be different from ours – I’ve never seen a person with glassy eyes and slapping their leg when they scratch the tail bone – but we don’t enjoy it equally on every part of our body.
As I write this, the thought occurs to me: Everyone knows this, why use up precious space to talk about? And then I think of the thousands of times I’ve seen people hit their dog on the head or hug the dog until its eyes start to bulge, and I’m convinced it has yet to be said. In general, dogs touch the sides of the head, ears and chin, chest and the base of the tail the most. While some dogs turn inside-out with every touch, most don’t like their paws being handled, dislike anyone playing with their hind legs or genitals, and downright hate sloppy pats on their head. Of course, every dog - like every human – is different. Some people attach particular importance to where they want to be touched, others like to make contact with another warm body as best they can.
How you pet your dog also makes a big difference, and individual preferences are just as important in dogs as they are in humans. In general, most of us enjoy gentle but firm movements and friction. I wish we’d use the words “rubbing,” “caressing,” or “massaging” instead of “caressing,” which is close enough to “knocking” to cause endless problems. The knocking, especially fast and repeated, on a dog’s head is more likely to deter it. (Remember, the 560th time your Border Collie drops the ball in your lap. You might as well use this to your advantage!)
This shouldn’t come as a huge shock to people of our species – how much would you like it if a stranger came up to you and patted you on the head? Still, people do it with dogs all the time. When I was taping the Animal Planet show Petline, a veterinarian who became a seller asked Cool Hand to borrow Luke for a dental care demonstration. Luke and I had just finished a segment talking about how much dogs hate being patted on the head and drawn the audience’s attention to Luke’s disgusted look when we did it to him. Sure enough, after tearing Luke’s mouth open several times (as if she was cleaning clams), the women said, “Thank you, Luke,” and gave him three short, bouncing pats on his head. We had to stop filming because the camera crew laughed so hard that they couldn’t continue filming.
When and how to pat your dog seems like a trivial problem. I don’t expect to see it on CNN anytime soon. But it actually matters, given the suffering humans and dogs go through when the relationship between them turns sour. Dog lovers patting their dog on the head as a reward for a good recall, everywhere thinking they are using positive reinforcement, but what they really teach the dog – with amazing effectiveness – will not come when called. Before you know it, the dog is at the local animal shelter because “he just doesn’t listen to me”.
Touch is vital to the physical and mental health of both of our species and can even be used therapeutically, as TTouch practitioners and other skilled therapists know. We’ve learned the hard way that babies just curl up and die if not touched, especially in their first year of life, and I see little reason to believe that an animal as social as a dog would be any different.
Of course, comparing an animal to a human can be dangerous – Heaven knows we have all heard the terrible warning that the road to hell is paved with anthropomorphism (the association of human characteristics with animals or objects). However, the truth is that it can serve us well too. Some of us in science (including primatologist Frans de Waal and the late cognitive specialist Donald Griffin) argue that if we are not anthropomorphic, we make as many mistakes in animals as if we use them as a strategy. The key is to be objective and analytical and to use whatever information we have about the species in question, along with our own perspectives, to try to understand another animal’s experience.
After all, we rarely know what’s going on inside our own family’s minds, and they’re at least members of the same species. But I bet you don’t greet your spouse or partner with happy slaps, do you?
Sit in your dog’s place. Who knows, maybe it will be fair to turn around – one day dogs will find that special sweet spot that will make us grin like idiots and hit our back legs.