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Why You Should Never Pat a Dog on the Head: Reasons & Understanding Canine Behaviors

Written by: Ashley Bates

Last Updated on April 9, 2024 by Dogster Team

Owner Patting Dog Head Smiling

Why You Should Never Pat a Dog on the Head: Reasons & Understanding Canine Behaviors

It’s a classic first response to see a dog and immediately want to give it some head scratchies. The pups seem to evoke reactions in humans that make our cuteness meter go off the charts.

But how we interact with our canine companions is quite different from how they interact with one another. Sometimes, our boisterous physical touch and other mannerisms can be confusing to dogs—so let’s talk about patting a dog on the head in particular.


Patting a Dog on the Head

You may have heard that you shouldn’t pat a dog on the head. But have you ever wondered why? If you have a doggy that soaks up every single bit of physical affection they can get, you might think this is an outright lie. After all, Fido seems to enjoy this type of interaction as well as any other.

But not every pooch will react the same way. We’ll explain why there might be better methods of physical interaction with your furry best friend.

aggressive angry dog and female owner
Image By: IRINA ORLOVA, Shutterstock

A Head Pat Is Threatening, Studies Find

Sometimes, our dogs show us affection by bringing us their favorite toy—or licking our faces every chance they get. Then, they get confused if we refute their gift or love language. Similarly, we do things that may seem like loving behavior, but our dogs don’t perceive it that way.

Studies find that when you pat a dog on the head, it can cause unwarranted fear. According to animal expert Sarah Barlett, it can be intimidating and threatening when you go over a dog’s head (especially a strange dog).

How to Approach a Dog Appropriately

So, you shouldn’t pat a dog on the head—now what? Instead, Sarah recommends this method.

  • Approach the dog from its side, crouching down to meet them where they are.
  • Do not move, allowing the dog to approach you if they want to.
  • Extend your hand, allowing the dog to sniff and familiarize themselves.

Where Should You Pet a Dog Instead?

Instead of approaching a dog and immediately patting its head, try to focus on the back area, shoulders, and sides. It also helps to get down to the dog’s level as they approach you instead of towering over them.

Importance of Understanding Canine-Human Behaviors

Since we have different ways of communicating, bridging the gap between us can be challenging. We count on comprehending the body language of our canine companions to ensure we give them proper love and care.

Doing something that makes our pups uncomfortable can put a damper on the relationship—or confuse them at best. Interactions can go much smoother if you just get on a dog’s level.

After you establish a relationship, learning how to read body language makes things a lot easier.

owner hugging his dog
Image By: Lizardflms, Shutterstock

Does Every Dog Hate Head Pats?

As with anything else, every dog is an individual. That means one dog might find head pats to be upsetting while another will demand it. Reading the room can help a lot. If it’s your dog, you might know very well that they enjoy or prefer it.

However, when meeting new canines or interacting with other dogs, it’s best to keep hands off the head directly. Instead, allow the dog to smell you, lick you—whatever they want. Then aim for the side or down the back rather than going right for the top of the head.



When you first meet a canine, you want the interaction to swell. Remember, all dogs just want to inspect, so get on their level and let them sniff around. If they seem like they want physical affection, remember to avoid the mouth, snout, and head, focusing more on the back and sides of the body.

After you establish trust with a dog, they might enjoy massages on the head, but this can vary from dog to dog. Anytime you approach a new canine, it’s best to warrant caution until they show you how they prefer physical interaction.

Featured Image Credit: Bachkova Natalia, Shutterstock

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