How to Pet a Dog Properly

A baby petting a dog in a field. Photography ©Monkey Business Images Ltd | Thinkstock.

I love petting my dogs, and I love it when I know my dogs want some petting. Sometimes, they’re so eager for affection that they shove their bodies against me, waiting for their pets. Not all dogs start out eagerly seeking affection, pets or otherwise. When I first adopted my German Shepherd Dog, River, she didn’t like if I tried to pet the top of her head, and it took a long time before she would let me hug her. (With Forest, I’ve had him since he was a puppy, so it was normal to be touched, hugged and petted.) It took a long time to build that with River, and it helped that I know how to pet a dog properly.

Wait — there it is again. How to pet a dog properly? Yes, there is a right and wrong way to pet a dog. Unfortunately, many of us just dive right into petting dogs we just met or don’t even know. Or, we fail to read our own dogs’ body language when they’re telling us “please stop.”

So, how do you pet a dog and learn to read his body language to see if he’s OK with petting? And how do you pet a dog you don’t know? Let’s find out.

Dogs typically accept being petted by their owners, but strangers are a different story 

A woman petting a dog on the head.
It’s instinct for humans to go right for the head when petting a dog — but most dogs actually don’t like it! Photography ©fcscafeine | Thinkstock.

Thankfully, dogs are pretty accepting of our pets and hugs … but won’t necessarily want the same affection from a stranger. “It’s just like us,” explains Susan Newell, owner and lead trainer of Animal Minds Behavior and Training in Rancho Cordova, California. “A friend giving you a hug is much different than a stranger coming up and giving you a hug.”

However, if you’re like me, sometimes you don’t want a hug, even from your friends. Your dog could be the same way. So how do you know if your dog wants some pets? Let him tell you. “If your dog is initiating the interaction, or licks your hand, that’s typically a good starting place to begin petting,” Newell says.

How to pet a dog starts with how you approach a dog

When it comes to another dog you don’t know, definitely don’t try to start petting him until he hints that he’s OK with it. And don’t offer him your hand to sniff — despite what a lot of us were taught, it’s not a good idea, Newell says.

“I can’t tell you how many dogs I run into that have learned to start biting hands because of that,” she says. Instead, she adds, “The best thing you can do is let a dog come up to you and you not do anything that’s not invited.”

Your body language matters when petting a dog

You also need to watch your body’s position and language, Newell says. Specifically, we shouldn’t hover over dogs, as they might perceive it as a threat. We also need to watch the amount of eye contact we make while petting dogs. While it’s natural for us to want to lovingly stare into a dog’s eyes, a dog might not interpret it the same way. “It’d be like if someone came up to you, shook your hand and stared at you,” Newell says. “You’d be creeped out.”

The general rule of thumb is not to make too much eye contact, specifically any hard stares, when you meet a dog you don’t know. Just glancing at a dog, or keeping your eyes averted are best practices when petting dogs you don’t know.

Dogs and hugs

A woman hugging a dog.
Should you hug dogs, and how should you do it? Photography ©DAJ | Thinkstock.

A lot of dogs don’t like hugs. It depends on the individual dog, but to be safe, don’t hug a dog you don’t know. Your own dog might learn to tolerate hugs or even like them. However, it’s best to not let a stranger hug him or for you to hug any dogs you just met.

Where should you pet a dog?

There are specific areas dogs that dogs usually don’t like to to be pet: Their legs, paws, muzzles, tails and ears. (But behind their ears they tend to love). Another place dogs don’t like being touched? Their heads. Ironically, it’s almost instinctual for us to go right for the head. And while many dogs learn to tolerate it, why do it? There are plenty of better places to pet dogs that they seem to universally love.

Instead of the head, pet your dog under his chin or stroke his neck. Come in from the sides to scratch behind his ears, or wait until he rolls over so you can rub his belly. A dog who’s really into petting will often start moving his leg like he’s trying to scratch himself. The back of the neck, and the rump also seem to be popular spots for petting. 

Training your dog to be pet by strangers

It’s not a bad idea to teach your dog to tolerate being touched and petted in places he doesn’t like — both by you and a stranger. The American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen exam specifically states that a well-trained dog should permit being petted by a stranger, as well as having his ears and legs examined.

The best way to do that is to ease your dog into it. I play with my dogs’ paws and ears here and there so they learn to tolerate it. I also taught them to let me hold their muzzles and examine their teeth and eyes, much like a veterinarian or groomer might.

While teaching them these things, I liberally rewarded them with treats so they learned to associate uncomfortable actions with their favorite foods. I did the same thing with strangers — my dogs learned that treats are close at hand when they accept a pet on the head from a stranger.

Read your dog’s body language

It’s good practice to teach your dog to tolerate petting he might not like. That’s especially true when  you run into that person who swoops in and pets your dog without asking you, let alone establishing any kind of permission with your dog. It’s in those moments that you’ll be glad you taught your dog to put up with people.

That being said, you need to read your dog’s body language so you know if he doesn’t like something or when he’s had enough. This is especially important around other people: You don’t want to push your dog so far that he reacts negatively, Newell says. “Not every dog knows to take himself away when he’s done,” she explains. “You need to take him away from a situation. Most of the time, I’ll back up and encourage the dog to come with me.”

Backing up is key, because it not only gets your dog away from a person, it doesn’t bring him closer to a person like it would if you walked forward. This move is good for another reason: You don’t have to rely on a stranger to stop what they’re doing. Most people will become offended or ask why if you request that they stop petting your dog. Instead, just move backward and bring your dog with you. 

What are the signs that a dog doesn’t like being petted?

“Body stiffness is huge,” Newells says. “If your dog holds his breath or his whole body goes stiff, that’s your first clue that it’s time to stop. If your dog’s ears go down, or his tail tucks under him, [these] are other important signs.”

Tell us: Where does your dog like to be pet? Where does he hate getting petted? What advice do you have for others on how to pet a dog?

Thumbnail: Photography ©Monkey Business Images Ltd | Thinkstock.

Jessica Pineda is a freelance writer who lives in Northern California with her two German Shepherds, Forest and River. Check out her dogs’ Instagram page at @gsd_riverandforest.

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15 thoughts on “How to Pet a Dog Properly”

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  4. I agree with the idea that a person probably shouldn’t push his (or her) hand or face into the face of a dog he doesn’t know; after all, if a stranger walked up to you and stuck their hand in your face or tried to get nose-to-nose with you, you’d probably feel very invaded. However, your description of petting a dog you’re meeting strikes me as a little vague. At first meeting, I find that other dog owners appreciate it as much as I do when asked first if it is okay to pet their dog. Speaking calmly to the dog (no squealing or shrieking, even at a cute small-breed!), making “soft” (intermittent, non-threatening) eye contact, and holding both open hands, palms forward, down in front of me, generally seems to serve well as an invitation to meet, just as a hand extended for a handshake invites a person to meet. If the dog comes forward, my hands are then in the perfect position to slip forward for a behind-the-ears scratch or down for a chest scratch. As with any invitation, “no” is sometimes the answer; if the dog doesn’t come forward, I’m not going to advance on him.
    Just glancing at the dog, and generally keeping your eyes averted, might inadvertently communicate to some dogs that you are “up to no good,” triggering their protective instincts. People who have never practiced “soft” eye contact might want to think of it as looking at the dog’s nose or front paws. It avoids direct “staring” into the eyes, and also avoids the “shifty-eyed” issue.

    1. Good advice! I agree with everything that you said. As another experienced dog lover, I am happy that you added important information to the article.

  5. I adopted my Labrador Retriever at 4 1/2 months. He is now an 84lb, ebony black dog with beautiful muscle structure. Not too many people would approach him to pet him. He looks fierce yet he is a big, loving baby.

    When I first got him I made a point of gently touching what would be trigger points, head, tail, ears and paws to make vet visits less problematic. At the vets he buries his head into me and closes his eyes. Stands still and waits for it to be over. So start them as young as possible. My Lab loves to be pet, hugged, and get belly rubs. He tolerates paw touching but allows it when necessary. I buy the tiny mini baked treats so he can be rewarded frequently during the day. I also treadmill my Lab on occasion for extra exercise and fenced the yard so he has a really big play pen. All the little things add up to a loving, very well adjusted Labrador Retriever who is a joy to live with. And yes, he does enjoy ripping into a stuffed toy on occasion.

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  7. It was interesting to read, & informative. I have a question, & I don’t know how to send it separately. My buddy likes to do what I call the happy dance. He does it every night. It’s embarrassing. I tried to get his mind off of it, & onto something else, but that didn’t work. Do you have any suggestions that would work?

  8. Whoa… a lil drama there… On Dogster no less !!! Hmm ???? Thanks for the article… will keep all this in my mind while I can’t keep my hands off my Dexter and as for strange dogs, its just good practice to not touch a strange dog and most importantly, never without permission… and that permission is by both owner and the dog ????

  9. This is a great article; very helpful. I think it is very well-written and is worth repeating so that the message gets out there. I’m happy to say that almost all people ask first before trying to pet my dogs. I cringe when they go for the head though. Most dogs clearly don’t like it. My dog Sunday’s head is hard to resist though because it’s the softest part of her. I still pet her there and kiss her there so it doesn’t become “off limits”.

    I worry about people, especially children, putting their faces too close to my dog’s face. I politely tell them “don’t get too close to his face”. Little dogs, I’ve found, including mine, do not like people in their face; including me for the most part.

    Leo and Sunday both like being PETTED on their bodies and behind their ears and on their chest and the base of their tail. Neither likes being PETTED on their head.

    I won’t allow either of my dogs to be PETTED unless THEY approach the person. I allow them to be PETTED by simply telling the person asking, “sure, if he comes up to you he is interested in being petted. If he doesn’t then it just means he’s not feeling social right now. Don’t take it personally”. A person has to be willing to be patient and wait for the dog and you illustrated this point perfectly by associating their emotions with our own. I don’t like being stared at or shown physical affection in most situations by strangers and it makes sense that our dogs would not be wild about this either.

  10. Please stop abusing the word, “pet.”

    verb: pet; 3rd person present: pets; past tense: petted; past participle: petted; gerund or present participle: petting

    “Tell us: Where does your dog like to be PETTED (not “pet”)? Where does he hate getting petted? What advice do you have for others on how to pet a dog?”

  11. I would also say to be very careful about your face. I have had dogs all my life (a very very long time) and I have been a dog sitter/walker for 7 yeas. Even when holding my own dogs while nails get clipped or something they don’t like, I know they can get scared, so I hold them tight but always keep my face and eyes out of the way as in behind the head. One never knows. They don’t mean to hurt but when they are afraid or in strange circumstances, they might lash out and your are not the rage, just in the way of their fear or discomfort.

  12. I would also say to be very careful about your face. I have had dogs all my life (a very very long time) and I have been a dog sitter/walker for 7 yeas. Even when holding my own dogs while nails get clipped or something they don’t like, I know they can get scared, so I hold them tight but always keep my face and eyes out of the way as in behind the head. One never knows. They don’t mean to hurt but when they are afraid or in strange circumstances, they might lash out and your are not the rage, just in the way of their fear or discomfort.

  13. My little Yorkie thinks he is Napoleon Most dogs who are dominant dont like being petted on the head. He loves to be pet behind the ears and on the tummy though. With strange dogs, it is better to ask the owner if you can pet the dog.

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