Help! My Pet Has a Problem with Petting

Behavior & Training

My oldest dog, Bashir, dislikes it when people pat him on the top of his head. He’s not unusual; many dogs put up with this type of handling but obviously dislike it. They close their eyes, tighten the skin on the mouth, and show in other ways that this is not their favorite way to receive affection from people.

Bashir, however, is not shy about showing his emotions, and when people try to pat him on the head he ducks his head and moves away. People then say, “Oh! He’s been slapped and hit!” No, he’s been my dog all his life and he’s never been hit. He just dislikes being thumped on the top of his head and I don’t blame him.

Why Do People Do Things Like This?

I was talking recently with another dog owner who pets her dog in a specific way and her dog dislikes it – to the point of moving away from her – and most recently, growling. I asked her why she continued to pet him in this way and she said, “Because I like it.” When I explained that petting should be something that is pleasurable to both the dog and the owner, she agreed but when I repeated my question as to why she continued to pet the dog in that manner, she had no answer.

Handling your dog’s body, especially petting, should be in a calm, kind manner your dog enjoys and welcomes. For example, let me compare my three dogs. Bashir doesn’t like being thumped on the head and he prefers not to be hugged. He does like being scratched under the collar and at the base of the tail. He enjoys body rubs and the rougher these rubs are the better. Sisko and Bones, however, both like to snuggle and like hugs.

Learn to read your dog’s body language and watch it as you pet him. Does he lean into your hands (good) or move away (not so good)? Are his ears loose and relaxed (good) or tight to his head (not so good)? Is his mouth relaxed (good) or closed and tight (not so good)? Does he wiggle under your hands and come back for more petting (good)? Or does he dodge away from you (not so good)? There is no other animal in the world that puts up with our touch as much as dogs do; therefore it’s up to us to make sure we do it right.

Hands Should Be Loving

Your dog should think that your hands are wonderful things. Even when you must do something he dislikes when caring for him, your hands should be calm and gentle. Cleaning a sore, infected ear is certainly a painful chore that many dogs protest. Working a mat out of the coat can be painful. Trimming toenails, cleaning the morning sleep out of the eyes, and many other things are potentially annoying. Your dog needs to accept these chores and hopefully he does.

Petting your dog, however, is a special situation. When you pet him, you’re communicating that you really like having him with you and that you enjoy his company. The way that you pet him then should express those thoughts. Pet him in a way that he enjoys so that he’ll come back for more. If he ducks away from your hands, there is a problem.