If you share your life with a dog, then you no doubt understand the magical affect of petting him. There has even been research to show the benefits to humans from being close to and touching pets.
The thing is that, while your dog no doubt loves you very much there are some times where a human touch just makes him uncomfortable. It could be that you are touching him in a place he does not like, or at a time when he is already feeling stressed. Maybe he is in a place where he feels crowded and unable to escape. For both bite prevention and overall strengthening your relationship with your dog, it’s important to know how to read his body language, how he indicates when he is stressed, and how he consents to being petted. Teaching your dog to enjoy being petted using positive reinforcement is also very important.
As much as I love our family dog, Sam, and as much as I know he enjoys being around me (I know this because he follows me around, runs to greet me when I arrive and jumps on my lap when I sit on the couch), there are still some times when petting him makes him uncomfortable. (Hugging does too but that is another topic.)
How do I know he is uncomfortable? Here are some of the signs I look for:
He looks away, backs away or walks away
He ducks his head away from my hand when my hand is outstretched
He may lean his body away from me
Hey may yawn or lick his lips
He may scratch himself or lift a paw
His muscles may be tense around his face
And if I did not understand dog body language and therefore did not listen to what he was trying to communicate, then he may resort to a growl. AND if I still did stop what I was doing when he growled, his last resort would be to bite me.
It’s important to stop and note that dogs do not bite without cause. They bite because their other means of communicating non-aggressively simply did not work for them to get a person or another dog or animal to back off. And, unfortunately, once they have learned that biting gets the trigger to back off, they will do that more often and not even try to communicate non-aggressively first.
That is why an important part of bite prevention is learning how dogs communicate. I have a document with some common forms of dog body language at this link.
Here is a video of what can happen if you do not allow the dog to communicate non-aggressively with body language.
So, how do you know if your dog DOES enjoy being petted ‘at that moment’? These are some signs to look for:
The dog will initiate coming into your space
The dog will have loose facial and body muscles
The dog will flop down in front of you
The dog will have an open, relaxed mouth
If you stop, the dog will solicit more scratches
Watch Sam and me in this video and note his body language. Do you think he is telling me he enjoys what I am doing or does he want me to stop?
Grisha Stewart has this 5 second rule for petting:
Wait for your dog to come to you.
Scratch the part that is closest to you first.
Pet for no more than 5 seconds. Stop and wait for the dog to ask for more.
Keep switching between petting and stopping.
If you are done but your dog isn’t, give a verbal cue or hand signal before stopping and do not continue after that point.
When in doubt, back off.
Here is a link to a video from Doggone Safe of which I am a member, on teaching your dog to enjoy being petted by children.