Being Touched Is Fine For Some Dogs, But Not for Others

Dogs touch the world when they walk, play, sniff, and when we pet and hug them.

Posted Mar 02, 2019

In two previous essays — "Dogs Should Be 'Unleashed' to Sniff to Their Noses' Content" and "Oh Goodness, Why'd My Dog Erin Just Eat Something So Foul?" — I discussed dogs' senses of smell and taste. Here, I focus on touch. Touch, like the other senses, has many facets. In Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, Jessica Pierce and I consider touch very broadly, so that it includes not just dogs’ physical contact with the world, but also their interactions with their physical environment and with other dogs and people.

Dogs touch the world, quite literally, when they walk, run, play, and sniff. Part of this exploration of touch, then, involves physical activity, such as going on walks, romping around a dog park, and riding in a car. Dogs touch noses when they say hello, they may touch nose-to-butt to gather information about one another, and they touch us when they rub against our legs or curl up next to us in bed. And, of course, we touch our canine friends when we pet, groom, and hug them.

We know less about the canine sensory experience of touch than we do about their sense of smell or taste. We know little, for example, about how dogs perceive human touch and why some dogs seem to like being touched while others don’t. Does an aversion to touch develop during the socialization process, and what kinds of early experiences might lead dogs to feel uncomfortable rather than soothed by human touch? Why do some dogs simply seem to dislike human hands? In cases where a dog has an aversion to being touched, this needs to be honored, and we should always touch dogs on their terms, not ours. As with human-human touching, consent is important. 

It's rare when dogs only experience the sense of touch absent sensory input from other modalities. Touching often accompanies close encounters between and among dogs, and it’s possible that it can add or detract from the messages that are being shared. We’ve seen a dog slowly walk over to a stressed dog, lie down next to her, and lay a paw over her back as if saying something like “all’s well” or “I’m here, so relax.” On occasion, dogs will groom one another, and often they sleep belly to back, feeling comfortable as they spoon. Touching can also lead to potentially explosive encounters, such as when, for example, one dog roughly puts his feet on the back of another and gets a quick and forceful rebuke. If you watch dogs playing at the park, you can see just how unique each dog is in how they touch other dogs, other people (friends and strangers), and their surroundings.

In Unleashing Your Dog, Jessica and I consider the following general topics that involve touch: Collars and Leashes: The Balance between Control and Freedom; Walking the Dog: On Exercise, Shared Time, and Power Struggles; Unleash Your Dog: Give Ample Off-Leash Time; Nurture Your Dog’s Friendships; Know Your Dog’s Petting Preferences; Signs of Affection: Hugging and Licking; Whiskers Are Sensational; and Dogs Dig Together Time; Dogs Also Need Alone Time.

Here I'll focus on collars and leashes, dog walk time, petting, hugging, and the importance of dogs' whiskers to how they sense the world.

Collars and leashes: The balance between control and freedom

One of the most universal ways in which dogs are touched involves our leashing or otherwise tethering them. We mediate and control access to the physical and social worlds of our dogs quite a bit. We do this by deciding when, where, and for how long dogs get to be outside each day and, perhaps more subtly, by imposing the physical constraints of collars and leashes, which guide the speed and direction of a dog’s movements. These tools of control are often necessary, but we should remain alert to the diverse ways in which they can inhibit a dog’s freedoms and the ways these devices can themselves be harmful. Our goal should be to use these tools to facilitate access to a wide variety of positive physical and social experiences and to allow our dogs as much agency as possible. They should be leashed more for their safety, rather than for our convenience.

Let’s consider collars first, as they make direct contact with a dog’s neck. Many different types are available, and the type of collar makes a difference to a dog. Flat collars are by far the most common. They are what most dogs wear around their necks with ID tags attached. Flat collars can be okay for walking with dogs who never pull and don’t unexpectedly try to chase or bolt when on leash. But it is a rare dog who never jerks or pulls. A dog’s neck is delicate and can be injured by violent jerks on a neck collar and even, presumably, by sustained hard pulling. Most of us have seen dogs straining so hard against their collar in their excitement to move forward that they can hardly breathe and sound a bit like Darth Vader. For this reason, more and more trainers and veterinarians are recommending that a dog be walked or run on a chest harness. 

Choke collars and collars with sharp prongs, which are designed to make pulling painful, can also do serious damage if not used with extreme caution and under carefully controlled conditions. Many trainers advise against these types of collars altogether, in part because the risk of injury to dogs is significant. Contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t have really thick skin on their necks, nor does their fur protect them from pressure on the neck. The San Francisco SPCA’s website points out that the skin on a human’s neck is ten to fifteen cells thick, whereas the skin on a dog’s neck is only three to five cells thick. “So,” they write, “if you think wearing a prong collar would hurt, imagine how your dog feels.” Along these lines, Dr. Zazie Todd, who operates the Companion Animal Psychology website, notes, “We tend to think that since dogs have fur they must be more protected from these things than us with just our skin. But a dog’s neck is a very sensitive area. If you think about the anatomy of the neck, it contains essential things like the windpipe. Applying pressure to the windpipe is not good for any dog, but can be especially serious in brachycephalic dogs that already struggle to breathe.” Prong and choke collars are typically placed on dogs with serious pulling issues. Many dogs will still pull, despite the discomfort, and are at risk of injury to their necks. Chest harnesses that clip in the front are thought to be a better choice for hard-pulling dogs, since dogs generally dislike the sensation of being pulled to one side.

Shock collars that allow a human to administer an electric shock to a dog’s neck from a remote controller are widely considered problematic and are coming under increasing scrutiny by veterinarians, animal protection activists, and trainers. (See "Is It Time to Ban Shock Collars for Dogs In All Situations?" and "What and Who Dogs Want and Need: Love, Not Shocks.") Especially as “e-collars” become increasingly cheaper and more available in pet stores and online, the concern is that dog owners will use these collars without sufficient background in dog training techniques or dog behavior, and so these collars will be used in ill-advised and harmful ways. In the hands of novice users, these collars are very bad news for dogs, though arguably, shock collars are bad news for dogs no matter what. In February 2018, Scotland announced a ban on the use of electric shock collars, citing concerns about the wide availability of these devices and the growing consensus that use of these collars is both ineffective and cruel. Scotland joins a growing list of countries—which includes Germany, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, Wales, and some states and territories in Australia—where the use of shock collars has been banned. We hope more will follow.

Ultimately, a leash is simply a tool, a kind of umbilical cord between human and dog that can be used well or poorly. Used well, it gives dogs access to their world and can be a critically important freedom enhancer. Without leashes, dogs wouldn’t be able to go many places with us. Used poorly, the leash can become a source of severe physical and sensory deprivation and harm. We need to be responsive to what’s happening on both ends of the leash, and a walk should involve ongoing negotiations and mutual tolerance between dog and human. Leash pulling is certainly one of the most frequent points of contention between human and dog, and it may be one reason that many dogs don’t get walked: It can become a real headache for someone to try to walk a dog who constantly tugs and pulls and strains. Walking on a leash is not a natural behavior for a dog, and indeed it goes against their natural instincts to run and explore. This is why we often need to devote considerable time and attention to training dogs how to walk nicely when on lead. This leash training is extremely important for puppies, but even adult dogs who haven’t been properly schooled in polite leash walking can learn to accommodate their human. For their part, humans will be well rewarded for time spent helping their dog understand the how and why of leashes with many happy miles of walking together as a team.

Walking the dog: On exercise, shared time, and power struggles

Leashes, collars, and dog walking often go hand-in-hand. For humans who live with dogs, walking is both good exercise and a good way to develop and maintain strong social bonds with their canine companion. Yet it can also become a power struggle with negative consequences for both. When such a struggle ensues, it’s usually the dog who gets the short end of the leash. 

3dman_eu, Pixabay free download
Dog carrying their own leash.
Source: 3dman_eu, Pixabay free download

People often want to know how much physical and sensory exercise a dog needs each day, as if one could write a prescription: “Walk dog 30 minutes a day, morning and evening, x 7.” While it’s a good question, unfortunately there’s no gold standard for how much walking a dog needs because this will be different for every dog and at every life stage. Puppies typically need a lot of play and exercise time, but they shouldn’t be walked or run excessively, since their muscles, tendons, and bones are developing. Older dogs still need to stay active, and it’s extremely important for them to get exercise that’s appropriate for them. Of course, as they age, some dogs may need shorter and easier walks, with perhaps even more time for sniffing, and it’s wrong-headed to assume that older dogs don’t have much zest for life or don’t need any walks.

Obviously, dogs need physical exercise, but there are limits. Yes, too much of a good thing can be harmful. We need to set safe limits and pay close attention to what works for them. There’s no shame if a dog balks at a long hike or run and simply wants to rest. If a dog with their behavior tells us, “Honey, not today. I’m tired,” we should respect this request. Most pet dogs don’t get enough exercise and don’t get to spend adequate time outside of their homes and yards exploring the world. A common figure thrown around by dog trainers is that an hour of exercise in the morning and an hour in the afternoon or evening is a good goal. Yet very few dogs are lucky to get this much walking or running time. A recent survey of dog owners in the United Kingdom, for example, found that, on average every day, 20 percent of dogs are walked for an hour, 43 percent of dogs are walked for thirty-one to fifty-nine minutes, 34 percent are walked for eleven to thirty minutes, and 3 percent are walked ten minutes or less. These percentages only refer to dogs who actually get walked.  Believe it or not, the survey found that about ninety-three thousand dogs in Britain are never walked at all, ever.

However, for many people, sharing your life with a dog means taking some sort of daily walk, and this often becomes a set routine: same time, same place, same route. That said, despite this sense of routine, the walk itself can be many things, and each day it can be something different. There’s always far more going on than simply snapping on a leash and heading out the door. Sometimes we may treat the dog walk as a necessary chore, and sometimes as a chance to get some exercise ourselves. Sometimes we hurry our dog to do their business quickly, and sometimes we let them linger. Sometimes we may walk with our dog, treating the activity as sacred time together and a chance to enjoy each other while enjoying nature. Other times we may only walk for our dog, letting our dog do whatever they want while we daydream, send texts, talk to friends, and are mentally elsewhere.

In one study, researchers Thomas Fletcher and Louise Platt found people referring to the individual characteristics of their dog, listening to their dog’s unique preferences, and expressing a commitment to making space for their animal’s agency. This is the ideal we suggest striving for: Treat the walk as a way to help dogs be dogs within the constraints of human environments— to take them to wild places and to give them space to run, sniff, chase, roll, mark, and interact with other dogs and people, or not, as they prefer. 

However, just as a walk can be a way for dog and human to share experiences and strengthen their bond, a walk can also be a time of anxiety, stress, power struggles, and unpleasant interaction. Stress can arise between dog and human, which can be expressed through what we might perceive as “bad behavior” on the part of the dog: lunging at other dogs or at people, barking and growling, acting distressed or obnoxious, pulling hard on the leash. When a walk becomes a power struggle, with the dog pulling one way and the human pulling the other, no one really enjoys the experience. When this happens, our advice is to ease up on the leash and negotiate a peace settlement. Needless to say, the more time a dog can be unleashed and choose what they want to do, the better. 

Petting and hugging: If your dog likes to be petted or hugged, do it, and if not, don't

"Hugging is usually okay if it’s done on the dog’s terms, and the best advice is to err on the side of caution: When or if you’re unsure, don’t hug. As always, pay close attention to the personality of the dog. Understand their preferences and signals of consent."

You may not sit around thinking about what it means to have a pet dog. But the origin of the term pet captures something important about the human relationship to companion animals. The word pet, first recorded in 1508, is from the Middle English pety, meaning small. The term has been applied to both nonhuman animals and women and can mean (as a verb) “to stroke or pat affectionately” or (as a noun) “something one feels affection for” and “an animal kept in the domestic setting whose function is personal companionship or entertainment.” Although the word may have insulting connotations, it also points to one of the positive components of our relationship with dogs: the physical touch that brings us together and forms the glue in the human-animal bond.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that many, if not most, dogs like to be petted or hugged. However, some dogs simply don’t like being touched, while some don’t like being touched by strangers or certain types of people. Such dogs are often labeled as “cranky,” “mean,” or “standoffish,” but this isn’t fair. These dogs may have good reasons for not liking to be touched, such as having had negative experiences with rough touching or physical punishment, or this may just be who they are. We should respect their desires, either way. (See "Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care.") 

It's well known that many dogs are hug magnets, and children seem particularly drawn to throw their arms around the furry neck or torso of a dog. That said, as with petting, remember that some dogs find hugging uncomfortable, even frightening, and all dogs might have moments when they do not want to be hugged. Since hugging requires even more closeness than petting, an unexpected hug might make a dog nervous, and they may respond by snapping or even biting. Again, hugging is usually okay if it’s done on the dog’s terms, and the best advice is to err on the side of caution: When or if you’re unsure, don’t hug. As always, pay close attention to the personality of the dog. Understand their preferences and signals of consent.

Whiskers are sensational

Dog whiskers are undeniably cute, but they’re not simply cosmetic. Whiskers, or vibrissae (from the Latin vibrare, “to vibrate”) as they are technically known, are specialized hairs that help mammals interact with others and with their environment. Whiskers are different from pelage hair. Pelage is the hairy, woolly, or furry coat of a mammal, which serves its own important functions: It insulates, conceals, signals, and protects. Whiskers are longer, thicker, and stiffer, and they are exquisitely sensitive to touch. Each vibrissae follicle is distinctly represented in the sensory cortex of the brain, and each follicle has its own blood and nerve supply. In dogs and some other mammals, vibrissae are localized to the facial region, but some animals have vibrissae on other parts of their body, such as the forearms. Dogs have four sets of vibrissae: on their upper lips, their lower lips and chins, above the eyes, and on their cheeks. Take a moment right now to get a good look at your dog’s whiskers and find the four different sets.

Whiskers are an important part of a dog’s sensory interaction with the world.  Dog groomers will often trim whiskers, if not specifically asked to leave them intact. Dogs used for show will often have their whiskers trimmed to achieve “clean lines” on the face, but the American Kennel Club discourages whisker trimming in most breeds. They recognize that whiskers serve important functions and, as in the case of the Pekingese, “add to the desired expression.” Because vibrissae are made of keratin, like pelagic (dense) hair, cutting them isn’t physically painful to a dog, though plucking them is. Nonetheless, trimming the whiskers removes or blunts an important sensory modality for dogs. Hopefully, breed and grooming standards will continue to evolve to embrace the beauty and functionality of dog whiskers.

Listen to what a dog is telling you and respect and honor and their preferences: Some dogs are touchy about being touched

All in all, touch should always happen on the dog’s terms and with the dog’s consent. We need to practice reading a dog’s body language for cues about consent and about when, where, and how they want to be touched. For example, if a dog moves away from you or their body stiffens, this is a good sign they do not want to be touched. The better we understand the behavioral repertoire of dogs in general, and our own dog in particular, the more we will be able to respect their choices. To this end, closely observe some interactions between your dog and new people (and even make an ethogram) and watch for signals the dog gives about their interest in meeting and being touched by an unfamiliar person. What do you see happening to the tail, the ears, the eyes, the facial expression, and the position of the body? This'll tell you how the dog feels.

You can look, but you better not touch. I like to think that for some dogs, it's perfectly okay to look at them, but it's best not to try to touch them. It seems like many, if not most dogs, like to be touched in different ways. However, there aren't any data of which I'm aware on what percentage of dogs fall into either category. And, it's simplistic to think there are only two options, because some dogs might like to be touched by some people in certain situations, whereas others are pickier and far more selective about who's allowed to touch them and when. Some dogs are touchy about being touched. 

The bottom line is simple. Always, pay close attention to the personality each and every individual dog and what they like and what they don't like and pay careful attention to what they're telling you. By understanding and honoring their preferences and signals of consent, we can respect their individuality and not trespass into their personal space.

Learning the preferences of individual dogs is a key to giving them the best life possible. Even a leashed dog can be "unleashed" when we allow them to tell us what they want to do and we let them do it. Of course, there frequently are power struggles. However, when there is give-and-take and when we strive for mutual tolerance and respect for each individual's needs--human and dog--these on-going negotiations can make living with a dog more pleasant and win-win for all. 

Some of the above is excerpted from Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. I thank Jessica Pierce for her collaboration on this and other projects.