Interacting with your canine companion is a great way to show them love and affection. Petting your pup is one of the most common ways to do this, but why do dogs enjoy being pet on the head? Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, explains that stroking the head of a cat or dog gives the animal the attention it might want. However, most dogs don't want you to touch their heads, at least not the top.
This is usually because dogs feel vulnerable in that place and, if they don't trust you, they may worry that you will hurt them by touching their heads. The best way to interact with your pup is by gently stroking their back or sides. Avoid patting them and definitely don't settle on their face. If you really want to reward your pup, rub their back next to their tail; that's their favorite place to be caressed. A tummy massage, a little ear massage, and a scratch on the bottom of the chin, the front of the neck, or the sides of the thighs are sure to make your pup happy. Your pup loves being petted because it feels good, it's a form of connection and it tells them that you're theirs.
They also like having their shoulders, chest and back of their neck caressed, and they appreciate it when you use your hands that are slow and firm in the direction of their coat. You can pet your pup to create emotional bonds and reinforce desired behaviors. Be careful not to pet dogs you don't know or dogs that are restrained. Try not to pat your pup's head, tail, or feet, and avoid hugging or stroking their belly if they present it while they are meeting you in a submissive way. If your pup is shy, looks away, or licks their lips, they may not want to be petted. Take a break from petting your pup to make sure they're still interested.
Do not pet them if they have misbehaved, are barking, or are anxious. In general, petting your pup will get them excited. However, owners often don't realize that in some cases, the dog perceives the pat on the head as something aversive and not as something rewarding (Farricelli, 201). If your pup doesn't like being caressed on the head, try stroking them somewhere else such as on the side of the neck or chest (Gormly). Instead of making contact first, always let your pup make the first move.
Avoid reaching out to or over your pup to pet them and don't hug or otherwise restrain them (Becker). Take a conservative approach when petting any anxious dog and focus on the areas of the dog's body where they are most receptive to being caressed. While most dogs love being petted, it's important to observe your pet's reaction to being petted and where they prefer to be stroked. Petting your pup makes both you and your pup feel good but it's important to keep in mind that there are times when it's beneficial and other times when it's not appropriate.