How to Pet a Dog the Right Way

woman petting dog
Success comes down to trust. Aleksey Boyko/Shutterstock

If you're a dog lover, it's hard to resist reaching out when you see a pup at a park or on the street. You just want to scratch that cute little guy. But think twice before you do. Even though you've likely been petting dogs your whole life, you may not be doing it the best way.

In a small study published in Journal of Veterinary Behavior, researchers observed 28 dogs of different breeds, ages and backgrounds. The dogs wore heart rate monitors and were observed when a stranger was brought into the room while their owners were present, but ignoring them. The strangers were told to pet the dog in nine different ways — including on the top of the head, the chest, shoulder, neck, base of tail and holding a paw — and researchers observed their responses.

When the dogs were petted on the head or paw, they showed what are known as "appeasement gestures" such as lip licking and yawning to indicate they were stressed. They also had elevated heart rates. They were least stressed when they were stroked on the chest, shoulders or on the base of the tail.

The dogs in the study were being approached and petted by people they didn't know. Obviously, your personal dog will tolerate a lot more from you than dogs that don't know you. But whether it's your four-legged buddy or a pup you meet on a walk, here are some tips for making every dog more comfortable.

Avoid eye contact

Maybe your dog stares lovingly into your eyes, but direct eye contact can make dogs feel uncomfortable and can come across as aggressive and domineering. It's something that humans tend to do all the time that dogs really hate.

Instead, approach a new dog with your eyes slightly averted and your body angled a bit away. Speak gently and walk slowly.

Invite him to greet you

dog sniffing hand
Let a strange dog smell your hand before petting him. aswphotos134/Shutterstock

Instead of being the one to make first contact, squat down to the dog's level and see if the dog is interested in greeting you first, suggests author and trainer Mikkel Becker in Vetstreet.

Put out your hand. If the dog sniffs it and walks away, that's a pretty clear sign he's not interested in any interaction writes Zazie Todd, Ph.D. in Companion Animal Psychology. If he sticks around and nudges you, then let the petting ensue. (You may want to keep your fingers curled in case the dog feels threatened and snaps at your hand, suggests Mental Floss.)

Best petting spots

As the study found, it's best to avoid reaching for a dog's head or face. You might notice that even your adoring family pup doesn't enjoy being touched on the face or patted on top of the head. It can be a threatening gesture and an invasion of personal space.

Instead, stroke a dog's chest, shoulders and base of the neck. Avoid reaching over the top of the dog to pet him. And don't touch a strange dog's belly, which is a vulnerable area. A dog could be on his back to show he's being submissive or fearful, not because he wants his stomach scratched.

Pet gently

Be calm and slow with your petting, rubbing in the direction that the fur grows. Don't get all rough and tumble unless you know the dog and that's the way you know he likes to play.

"Petting should be calming and therapeutic for both dog and person, both reaping the mutual benefits of shared contact," says Becker. "When you pet a dog in a relaxed, slow and gentle manner, he is likely to lean in tight for more."

Look for signs of stress

dog wanting attention from woman
Read a dog's body language and you can tell when he wants attention. Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Fortunately, dogs are great at sending signals about how they feel. If you're petting a dog and he's leaning into you and loosely wagging his tail, he's likely enjoying the interaction. But if he's yawning, licking his lips, looking away or has his ears back, he's telling you he's stressed, says veterinarian Karen Becker of Healthy Pets. If a dog shows any signs of stress, stop petting him and back off.

"By observing your dog's reaction to physical contact and following his lead, you can enhance your bond with him and forge a more positive relationship," Becker says.

Don't hug

It's the way we often show our love and affection. Even the tiniest of toddlers hug their parent's leg. But although people love hugging, for the most part, hugs make dogs uncomfortable.

You probably know how your personal dog feels about hugs, but it's never a good idea to see if a strange dog will tolerate a squeeze. It's threatening and a bad idea. Instead, find a spot that a dog seems to like and stroke gently instead.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our dogs, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.