Signup for The Your Dog Flash

Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features October 2019 Issue

How to Pet a Dog

We know you know how — but you can do it better.

© alenkasm | Bigstock

He’ll accept this from you because he knows and trusts you, but a hug is not his favorite way of receiving affection.

We do all kinds of things to our dogs that let them know we haven’t been to canine charm school. We pet them on the top of the head; we walk straight toward them rather than in a banana-shaped arc; we look directly at them; we hug them. These gestures are much too forward in the world of dog etiquette, too aggressive — equivalent to getting a kiss on the lips when all you expected was a handshake. In some cases, our good intentions might even be perceived as a physical challenge to a dog.

Yet our dogs forgive us our transgressions. Although our clumsy, misguided attempts to show affection might seem distasteful and even threatening to most dogs, our own pets are clear that we love them and just don’t know how to express ourselves properly. They have developed trust in us because they spend so much time studying our behavior and our body stance and can distinguish between well-meaning and pushy.

But imagine how great your pet would feel if you showed him affection according to his rules. It becomes even more important when you’re greeting a dog on the street who’s not familiar with you. You don’t want to make a dog feel frightened or, worse, like he has to protect himself. With dogs’ emotional comfort in mind, here are some tips for petting and greetings in general. They’re standard for a dog you meet on the street, but if you try them on your own dog, you’ll also see very satisfied responses.

Not the top of the head. Standing directly over a dog and touching the top of his head is an aggressive move of one-upmanship in the canine world. What a dog really loves is to be stroked on the cheeks and along the sides of the neck.

Go with how his hair grows. Dogs prefer longer strokes in the direction their hair goes — backwards from the neck to the tail, and down the sides from the back.

The belly. Yes, by all means with your own dog and any other dog who feels comfortable enough with you to offer his tummy, belly rubbing goes a long way.

Avert your eyes. This is more for the dog you want to win over on the street rather than your own dog, who already knows you’re in the dark when it comes to canine manners. Direct staring is literally considered hostile in the canine world, especially if it’s sustained.

Approach indirectly. Again, this is for a dog you don’t know, or don’t know so well. Making a bee-line for a dog is perceived as an act of aggression. Better to approach gently by making a slight arc in your path and coming up from the side. It gives him more time to size you up without feeling a direct threat.

Comments (6)

Great article! Thank you.

Posted by: Arcana | October 8, 2019 11:19 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: mbaptiste | October 8, 2019 7:36 AM    Report this comment

This is my true story and may make up for some critical remarks I see in the Oct,19 edition of YOUR DOG. In the early 2000s, I maintained a file of YOUR DOG newsletters which I still have today. At the time I had 5 Shih Tzus all wonderful, all lapdogs and terrific trusting BFFs. This same description has been true from the '70s when I was given my first Shih tzu and through today with my 8th little guy, now 9yrs old. when he was about 3 he began what I now know was Owner Aggression. I know that because of an article I found in my files from a 2003 copy of YOUR DOG that has saved me from unexpected attacks, becoming afraid of my own dog, serious tears, and copious amounts of bandages, antibiotics, et al. It was a horror for me since I had always owned dogs and had never even heard of such a thing. It went on for 6 years and, no, I could not bring myself to put him down. Last year I moved and in down sizing "found" the YOUR DOG file and a life saving article to save both our hearts, The title is "Who's the Boss Here" by Arden Moore, Oct 2003, Vol IX #10. I read it over and over with prayers that I might have found a solution which didn't require more scars on me or euthanasia. So, while your articles may not apply to all dogs or owners, they are a genuine Godsend for folks who need them. I will be forever grateful. By our relationship today and your training of ME to correct the dominant behaviors I allowed by being too indulgent, you literally saved 2 lives, Your healing advice has been a total success. Gabriel and I can't thank you enough.I am once again a subscriber and will never let that lapse again.

Posted by Deborah, 10/8/2019 1:22 am

Posted by: zellie | October 8, 2019 12:14 AM    Report this comment

I see you deleted my reply

Posted by: gapratt | October 7, 2019 6:35 PM    Report this comment

I am 79 yrs old and have dogs all my like. Sometimes when I read some of your items I feel like I am such a dumb sh--,Thats the way they make me feel. Not all of your items are on target for all dogs.

Posted by: gapratt | October 7, 2019 6:33 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: Maggie | October 7, 2019 4:22 PM    Report this comment

New to Your Dog? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In