Dogs like being pet because it feels good. And humans like petting dogs (or other furry animals) because it feels good to us too. It’s not just a matter of personal preference either. Science has shown that petting:
- Increases oxytocin levels (the love hormone) in both dogs and humans
- Lowers canine cortisol (stress) responses in aversive situations such as vet visits
- Is inherently rewarding and promotes social behavior in dogs
Don’t worry if your dog seems disinterested or moves away–like humans, dogs can crave alone time or not feel like being touched. When they’re ready for some attention, they’ll let you know!
Food vs. Affection
Which do dogs prefer?
This is an age-old question that has worried dog owners, probably since the beginning of canine domestication.
An observant dog owner already knows the answer: it depends.
Once free-ranging dogs in India learned to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar humans, they avoided unfamiliar humans with food and approached familiar humans to solicit attention and affection. Researchers concluded that dogs develop trust through affection, not through food.
However, another study demonstrated that pet dogs in the US choose food over affection, whether from their owner or a stranger.
Do these results contradict each other? Not really. Your dog’s preference adjusts based on scarcity. A happy and secure dog knows that affection is freely given and available, whereas food comes only at certain times and has a limit. But leave for a few days and you’ll find that your dog quickly changes their tune–walk back in through the front door and your dog will undoubtedly glue themselves to your side!
Positive reinforcement training understands the value of using both food and attention as reinforcers. Food is a great tool during targeted training sessions and easier to deliver consistently. However, remember that your dog is always watching and learning, and will repeat behaviors that elicit responses they enjoy seeing from you.
How to know if your dog enjoys being pet
Perform a consent test.
- Pet your dog for a few seconds, then stop and pull away
- If they re-initiate contact: resume petting
- If they lick their lips, avert their gaze, or move away: give them space
When you’re handling an unfamiliar dog, always let them take the first step. You can make yourself smaller and more inviting by sitting or squatting down and turning your body to the side. Don’t loom over their heads with your hand outstretched–this is very intimidating!
If they come up to sniff, they are not extending an invitation to be touched. Instead, they’re on an information-gathering mission, so let them finish their task and make up their minds. Check their body language when they’re done. Look for soft eye contact, loose body language, and a wiggly or waggy tail moving in broad sweeps.
If the dog lies down and shows their belly, remember that this may not be an invitation for a belly rub.
Always be gentle–no vigorous rubbing or smacking! Little kids may need guidance on how to greet and pet a dog nicely.
Where do dogs like being pet?
If they’re just getting to know you:
These are general safe zones that most dogs enjoy having touched.
Once you’re officially friends with each other:
- Base of tail
- Underneath the chin
- Around any collar or harness straps
- Plenty of dogs like these spots as well, but may want you to buy them dinner first.
Keep your hands away from:
- Legs and paws
Dogs typically need to be trained to tolerate being touched here. If they’ve been handled since puppyhood, they may have no issue or even enjoy these spots. Other dogs are more sensitive and may tense, back away, or warn you to stop. Always respect their boundaries!