Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

How to Touch Your Dog

Different ways of touching a dog result in different emotional responses.

How many times have you seen a person that a dog is not familiar with reach out and pet the dog on its head only to have the animal respond by cringing and appearing to be uncomfortable? Science is finally catching up to the fact that there is a right and a wrong way to interact with a dog in everyday situations. It was only recently that researchers explored the question of what is the best way to greet your dog (click here to read about that). Now researchers have gone on to explore a much more basic question, namely what is the best way to pet and touch your dog.

In a research report just recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Franziska Kuhne1, Johanna Hößler and Rainer Struwe, a team of German researchers, explored how dogs respond to various forms of physical contact. They analyzed video tapes of an unfamiliar person interacting with a dog and at the same time they recorded the dog's heart rate. The report might not be easy for the average person to read because the heart rate was statistically analyzed in a complex manner in order to not only determine the dogs' level of excitement but also to determine whether the dog was responding positively or negatively and how the autonomic nervous system might be involved.

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The experimental setup was fairly simple. A total of 28 dogs were individually tested. The participating animals had an average age of around five years. All the dogs were privately owned pets with a hodgepodge of breeds, life histories, and presence or absence of obedience training. A heart rate monitor was strapped onto each test dog who then was brought into an office-like space. Once there, while the dog's owner acted indifferently to what was going on, a stranger interacted with the dog. There were nine different ways in which the dog could be touched.

1) Petting the dog on the shoulder.

2) Petting the dog on the side of its chest.

3) Petting the dog on the top part of its neck.

4) Petting the dog while it was being held in a down position on the floor.

5) Holding one of the dog's front paws.

6) Petting the dog on the top of its head.

7) Scratching the dog at the upper part of the base of its tail.

8) Holding the dog by its collar.

9) Covering the dog's muzzle with one hand.

dog canine pet human animal bond touch petting contact communication
The video recordings of the experimenter's interactions with the dogs tried to focus on behaviors that indicated stress or discomfort on the part of the dog. Not just freezing or withdrawing when touched, but also subtle signals of anxiety such as air licking, paw lifting, yawning and so forth.

The different types of physical contact did make a large difference in the dog's heart rate measures and behavioral responses to being touched. I think it should not be surprising to most people who are familiar with dogs to find that the types of physical contact that involved restraint of some sort (holding the dog down while petting it, holding the dog by its collar, or covering the dog's muzzle with a hand) produce the most consistently negative responses. Less onerous to the dog, but still apparently negative was patting the dog on its head or holding one of its paws. The most favorable touches involved petting the dog's chest or shoulder, or scratching the dog at the bottom of the spine just in front of the tail.

It is important to remember that these were the responses that the dogs gave to somebody who was unfamiliar to them. Dogs tolerate a lot more from those who they recognize as familiar, friendly, or part of their "family". My old dog, Dancer, will not leave me alone when I awaken in the mornings until I vigorously touch him, with a scrubbing motion on his flanks. My younger dog, Ripley, finds a gentle stroking on his side to be calming. Flank and side touches were not included in this experiment, but my guess is that they would not be all that well tolerated if a dog was receiving them from an unfamiliar person.

In any event, this study is a start toward greater understanding of the ways in various forms of physical contact that we make with our dogs affects their emotional state. It also reinforces what we have been telling children for years that it is a good idea to suppress their desire to try to pat an unfamiliar dog on the top of its head.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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