We’ve all heard of the many health benefits of owning a dog; from reducing our blood pressure and heart rate to increasing our immune system. Being in the presence of a dog or better, touching and petting a dog is both soothing and relaxing. But how does it feel to the dog? Can we be sure that our furry companion equally benefits from our friendly touches? Dogs use physical contact with one another to show affection, but also to provoke or intimidate, so how can we make sure we don’t send the wrong message? More studies today show that although dogs appreciate physical contact with us, we can often be rude in the way that we pet a dog, forcing our pets to put up with repeated discomfort. Even with the best of intentions, we can unknowingly trigger negative emotions in the dog. A pat on the top of the head, a belly rub, a scratch behind the ear, may all feel equally pleasurable to us, but they are certainly not experienced in the same way by the dog. In a recent study, the physiological and behavioral responses in dogs was measured to assess which touches feel good to the dogs and which ones do not (Kuhne & al., 2014).
As social creatures, we like being touched and hugged. Being hugged by a loved one or by a stranger however, feels very different. Just because we might appreciate holding our spouse’s hand doesn’t mean that we’d like to do the same with the neighbor. Why would it be any different for dogs? Not a day goes by without someone asking to pet my dog. When taking service dogs out in public places, kindly but assertively coaching people on how to interact with a dog is an intrinsic part of the job. Dogs are magnets to other dog lovers and since service dogs are expected to be friendly, many see an opportunity for petting. Few however understand the effects of their behavior on the dog. What does it feel like to a dog when a stranger leans over them and pets them on the head? The dog is rarely given the choice to interact or not and is expected to put up with the intrusive human.