How Dogs Feel
Like you, your dog’s sense of touch works primarily through their skin. They can experience:
- Body movement and position
They also use touch to communicate and play.
When your dog is a newborn puppy, their sense of touch is the first to develop. Frequently, their first experience in life is the sensation of their mother licking and nuzzling them. That same sense of touch helps them burrow towards warmth and nourishment, while instinct drives them to paw at her and trigger milk to flow. Through this simple exchange, your dog and their mother form an early emotional bond—and we use that same sense of touch to forge similarly powerful bonds between us and our dogs.
Although the canine sense of touch hasn’t been widely studied, we can grasp intuitively that it functions similarly to ours. We all know that our dogs are more sensitive in some areas than others, and that preferences can vary between individual dogs—again, just like us.
With that said, it’s important to keep in mind some key differences.
How Your Dog’s Whiskers Work
Concentrated primarily around your dog’s muzzle, lips, chin, and eyes, these long, thick hairs—whiskers, also known as ***********vibrissae—*transmit information about objects near your dog’s face. The root of each whisker is filled with blood vessels and nerves, making them extraordinarily sensitive to minute changes in the environment.
Whiskers might seem mundane, but they serve another important function: communication. Your dog is capable of moving them to communicate a wide range of emotions. While these movements appear subtle to the human eye, to another canine, these minute shifts are as obvious as the nose on your dog’s face.
In short: your dog’s whiskers help them detect when they’re about to touch or be touched by something, and react accordingly.
Do Dogs Feel Pain?
Yes, your dog can definitely feel pain. Your dog’s sense of touch is very acute. With that said, dogs have inherited an aversion to showing any pain or weakness from their wild ancestors, leading to the now debunked myth that dogs don’t feel pain.
Because we humans communicate primarily through words and sounds, we zero in on our dog’s vocalizations—or lack thereof—as evidence for whether they are or aren’t in pain. However, dogs communicate through body language and can express pain in very subtle ways.
If your dog is in pain, they may:
- Lose their appetite, be disinterested in normal activities, and act out of character
- Become uncharacteristically vocal: whining, howling, whimpering, or groaning
- Sit hunched over or in an unusual way, or lie down on their side
- Grimace, pant while at rest, or have an otherwise unusual facial expression
- Stop grooming themselves
- Lick, bite, or scratch themselves to the point of injury
- Hide or avoid contact
One important sign of pain in dogs is aggression. If a previously friendly dog becomes aggressive—or growls, pins their ears back, and displays hostile body language—they may be in pain. They may also do this to avoid being picked up or touched in certain areas where they’re hurt.
How to Perform a Body Scan On Your Dog
Performing regular body scans helps you familiarize yourself with your dog’s body and pinpoint the location of any hidden pain. The more information you have, the faster your vet can make a diagnosis.
- Place your hands on your dog’s snout. Watch their reaction. It’s normal for your dog to be startled or uncomfortable, especially if this is the first time you’ve done this.
- Examine their nose, gums, and mouth. Run a finger along their teeth. Is there any dryness? Cuts, discharge, or anything that looks unusual? Any color changes to the gums or changes to the teeth? Lumps, bumps, or warts?
- Look at your dog’s eyes. Any unusual redness, discharge, or discoloration? Any cuts?
- Check your dog’s ears. Do they smell bad? Any redness or excessive amounts of earwax? Is your dog sensitive about having them handled?
- Move your hands down your dog’s neck. Feel for any lumps, matted hair, scratches, or anything else that might be unusual. Does your dog flinch when you touch them?
- Run your hands over your dog’s legs and paws. Is there anything stuck to their nails? Check in between the toes. Are their paw pads red or have an unusual odor?
- Run your hands over your dog’s torso, looking for cuts, lumps, matted hair, or anything unusual. Does your dog flinch or move away?
- Move your hands along your dog’s spine and over the length of their tail. Does your dog seem uncomfortable or in pain?
- Check under your dog’s tail and check their butt. Are there any unusual or especially bad smells? Is there any swelling, discharge, or redness?
If you’re ever concerned about a change in behavior, take your dog to the vet to make sure there’s no underlying injury.
Do Dogs Enjoy Being Pet?
Yes! Petting is an unconditioned stimulus—they prefer it over being praised. (Although dogs almost universally prefer food over petting…sorry to break it to you!)
In the simplest possible terms: your dog likes being pet because it feels good. Petting increases oxytocin levels in both you and your dog, lowers canine cortisol (stress) responses, and is a way to promote social behavior and bonds.
The relationship between you and your dog can influence the strength of their response to your touch. One study found that being stroked with grooming devices lowered the heart rates of greyhounds, while ungroomed greyhounds had higher heart rates overall. However, the effect depended strongly on each dog’s individual level of familiarity with their handler and overall socialization. In conclusion: it’s always worth strengthening the bond between you and your pup.
Every dog is different. Most dogs are more sensitive around their head, belly, and paws, and don’t like being touched there by strangers. Instead, try around their chest, shoulders, and neck. Plenty of dogs like being scratched at the base of their tail, underneath the chin, or around their collar or harness.
Your dog may even enjoy being massaged, especially around the hips or neck. Stroke in smooth, circular motions from the neck to the base of the tail, paying attention to see they respond more in one area than another. Use gentle pressure. Regular massages can alleviate stress and anxiety while providing another opportunity for bonding.
Play it cool at first and let your dog tell you where they want to be pet. And if they move away or otherwise indicate disinterest, don’t worry—everyone needs a little alone time. They’ll come back when they’re ready for a cuddle!
Why Do Dogs Kick Their Leg When You Rub Their Belly?
Your dog kicks out during a good belly rub session due to the scratch reflex. Your dog has a cluster of nerves on their stomach that, when activated, send out a signal to their brain that they better start kicking to get rid of something. The scratch reflex protects them from fleas, ticks, or other sources of irritation.
Does that mean your dog views you as a parasite? Of course not!
Even if it’s not a sign of deep enjoyment, that doesn’t mean your dog isn’t enjoying the belly rub. If they don’t like it, most likely they’ll get up and leave, or nudge you to a different spot. If they keep asking for more, scratch away.