Dog Petting Lessons

When petting a dog, there’s a fine line between being affectionate and being annoying.
By Jeannette Cooperman, May 2019, Updated September 2020
Susan Schmitz / A Dog’s Life Photography

Susan Schmitz / A Dog’s Life Photography

You can always tell a dog lover. At the sight of any four-legged, we light up, excited to meet and pet and please the pup. Ah, yeah, that’s the spot, right? You like that!

But so often, we’re wrong.

We touch a little greedily, eager for the validation of that unconditional return of affection. We’ve convinced ourselves that all dogs want to be petted. They love to be petted. They’ll like it. It’s good for them, too.

“When we meet humans, do we go up and molest them? No, we don’t.We have respect for their boundaries,” notes animal behaviorist William Berloni, who made history by training shelter dogs for Broadway and Hollywood.


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“With dogs, we want that tactile relaxation, so it doesn’t matter what you want, little dog.” Ouch.


Some dogs want the petting. Others endure strangers’ clumsy overtures with grace. But quite a few land somewhere between annoyed and totally freaked out. So why do these once-wolves, who are perfectly capable of sinking teeth into our smooth flesh, put up with it?

“Because they are better creatures than we are,” Berloni retorts. “We’d slap or kick or file a lawsuit;we wouldn’t be as forgiving.”

Feeling a little defensive—especially when I remember how many times I’ve been told that dogs don’t like to be petted on the head and have done it anyway—I ask how he meets a dog.

“I look at the dog and smile. ‘Hi, how are you?’ If the dog approaches, I’ll put my hand out, and if they solicit with more than a sniff, I’ll give it to them. But it’s all based on their cue. Some dogs, like Terriers, like to check you out for a while. Hunting dogs will sniff; they might not want to be petted, but they’ll put up with it while they sniff you.”

But what about the dogs who come bounding up, eager to interact?

“That’s like someone extending a hand. It’s the beginning of creating a relationship. But it has nothing to do with touching them. If you watch dogs interact, they’re reacting to each other’s signals: sniff, approach, play, attack.” Hearing the disappointment in my voice, Berloni says gently, “I grew up on a farm. My pets were my companions. I learned how to play their games so they would hang out with me.”

Trainer Marilyn Pona did the same, coaxing a surly neighborhood Chow into friendship. “If you really look at dogs, unless they’re having a moment of play, they don’t touch each other,” she remarks. “It’s something we can offer them that they don’t have in their world. And it does please them.”

Just not always, automatically, across the board.

Figuring out how to interact with a dog you’ve never met before isn’t that hard when you take a step back, according to Berloni. “When I meet a stranger, I don’t grab her. I don’t like my hair rubbed the wrong way when I’m trying to go to sleep. I don’t want you jumping on my back scratching vigorously; I want you to gently rub my muscles. And when I’m going to kiss somebody, I don’t grab them around the neck with two hands.”

That’s one of his pet peeves: “People take two hands, scrunch the dog’s neck, scratch their ears, thinking that is enjoyable to them. It’s too much! It’s like your aunt pinching your cheeks”— but worse, because you’re close to the jugular.

When Berloni trains a dog for someone else, he’ll say, “Okay, now you have to bond with them.” And what do they do? “They go down on their knees and rub the dog all over, and the dog gets silly. When we pet animals, we’re very vigorous with them. That’s an invitation to play, and it’s not relaxing at all. If you want to soothe a dog, [think about] what a mama dog does.She licks her puppies, gently and calmly, and she goes with the grain of the fur.”


Randy Grim, founder of Stray Rescue of St. Louis and author of Don’t Dump the Dog, winces every time he hears someone say breezily, “All dogs love me,” or “You just have to look at the expression on their face.” You’re gonna get bit, he thinks. “Leave reading the face to the experts. That takes a special knack. I’m good at it because I’ve been around them forever, in some of the worst situations in rescue. But it’s hard. If [a dog is] panting, people can mistake it for a smile when it’s really anxiety. That crinkled-face look can be curiosity, not aggression. Read their body, not their face. Does the dog seem approachable, maybe panting but with the tail wagging, the hackles down, the butt wiggling?”

Pona has experience with both ends of the willingness spectrum: support dogs and obedience-school dropouts, with a lot of rescued mutts in between.

“A lot of dogs are hand-shy because they’ve been over-touched,” she notes. “Fingertip touching, I think, is best. And look at your dog when you’re touching. It’s just the two of you communicating—not you petting him frantically while you talk to somebody else because the petting helps you focus your thoughts or forget your shyness.”

She cracks up when she sees someone being interviewed on television on one of those “Pet of the Week” spots. “They’re nervous and petting the dog more and more, and the dog is completely ambivalent. It’s almost like the dog’s saying, ‘If you need to do that, go ahead.’”

It’s an act of generosity, one more grace note in the cross-species relationship. But sometimes, dogs misinterpret the message. Pona’s son once called her, worried, saying their dog was becoming timid and developing separation anxiety. “He said, ‘When we’re leaving the house,he just sits there and looks so sad, and we pet him and try to reassure him that we’ll be back. I think he’s starting to get nervous about us leaving.’” She chuckles. “I said, ‘Well, I think I can help you here. Don’t look at him before you leave.’”

Pona’s default goodbye is a cheerful “Guard the house, I’ll be back!” Leaving doesn’t have to be a big deal, a wrenching separation with tearful hugs at parting. “Don’t stop and pet him and put anxiety into it,” she warned her son.

“I see that kind of petting a lot,” Pona says. “‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry I stepped on your paw!’ and they pet the dog. That’s a human instinct. But think about that.If you have accidentally done something, and you stop and apologize, the dog’s going to think you did it on purpose and you’re praising him for enduring it—or that whatever happened was a huge crisis. Just leave that moment alone. Or say, ‘Whoops, I’ve got to watch those feet!’” What drives Berloni crazy? “This whole thing of stress reduction, in offices and airports and college campuses, where they bring in puppies. How terrible is that, for a baby dog to be receiving all that negative energy all day long, exposed to one person after another who’s freaked out and petting to relieve their own stress? You should pet to relieve your pet’s stress, and thereby you will relieve yours, too.”


In addition to his Hollywood training gigs and the stage work he chronicled in his book Broadway Tails, Berloni has been the director of animal behavior for the Humane Society of New York for the past 25 years. “It resets my soul,” he says. When meeting a traumatized dog for the first time, he remarks, he’ll put his hand on the dog’s back and hold it there. “I’m saying, ‘I’m not going to move until you tell me to.’ Because if your hand is moving, they have to keep wondering where it’s going to go next. If you hold still, at some point, you feel them sort of push into it, and you know.”

He adds, “Others will never get past that point. They’ll be like Velcro in terms of being next to you, but you can’t pick them up. You can’t cure every trauma. But they’re perfectly happy if they can just be near you. I say, ‘I’m not going to touch you unless you want me to.’”

That’s for a dog you don’t know. What about your own dog? How can you tell if you’re over-petting or petting in a way that’s unwelcome?

“If your dog comes in close and wants to be touched, and when you stop petting, paws you or ducks their head under your hand and actually solicits your touch, you know they’re enjoying it,” says Pona. “If they’re not doing that, then maybe they don’t need it; they just need to be next to you. Where does the dog go when everybody else is relaxing? That will tell you a lot. Does she lie down next to you or bounce up on the sofa for petting?”

What about that ubiquitous thumping on the dog’s head— pat-pat-pat. Why do we do it? Perhaps because the spot’s so easy to reach? Berloni thinks so. “I also believe it goes back to the way humans study each other’s faces. That’s the first way we communicate. We’re very face oriented.And here’s a face we can actually touch while we’re looking at it.”

How can you tell if your touch is stressing your dog?

According to Grim, “The most obvious way a dog says Don’t is a growl.” “But you can also tell if their tail’s tucked or their hackles are raised, the hair on their back standing up.”

Pona has a checklist: “Is the top of their head tight? Are they rigid, are the ears held tightly? Is the stare fixed, rather than looking around the room? Is the mouth tight, with the tongue flicking out? That’s a calming signal; it shows they’re anxious.” A relaxed dog will have an easy, open-mouthed pant or grin, and when the tail wags, it’s loose, left to right, not just one direction or a tense back and forth in a lower position. “Tension travels from the top of the head down the neck, down the spine, to the tail. You really have to read the looseness of the skin and the relaxation of mouth and tongue and the rigidity that might go down the spine. If you see all those things relax, and their breathing is slowing, that’s perfect. But very few people know how to read their dogs.”

Why not? We spend hours with them, and they’re easy company; why aren’t we better at this by now? Maybe because our dominant way of communicating is to talk, Pona suggests, and they can’t talk back. “Touch is a substitute for talking,” and we often overdo it because “it bothers us not to have language with them. Yet it doesn’t bother them at all.”

In general, some breeds, like Golden Retrievers, “can’t get enough petting,” she observes. “Labs like to be with you, but Goldens want you touching them. That’s why they do well as comfort dogs. Terriers are more independent. There are many dogs who will find a place next to you and lie down, but without soliciting a pet. So don’t scoot to the edge of your chair and try to pet them.”

These preferences don’t always run by breed, however. Much depends on a dog’s past. “Dogs who have no suspicion level like to be touched,” Pona says. Some high-strung, high-energy dogs crave touch to settle them; others find it overstimulating, like a double espresso during a hurricane.

“People sometimes interpret a dog’s silence as enjoyment,” she adds. “Some dogs are just stoic.

And then they reach a breaking point and snap. Petting can be a cumulative annoyance: Okay,fine, touch me … Oh, you’re still touching me … For God’s sake, stop touching me already!

On the other hand, some dogs can’t get enough. Take Rocko, one of Grim’s dogs, who’s completely blind. “He’s a big Pit Bull with a big block head, and he’s with special-needs children and adults with autism all the time now. [People] can’t get over how sweet and kind he is. He knows he can’t see, so he comes up to you and paws you, and if you stop petting, he’ll paw you again to keep going. He just likes the touch, the human contact. It’s emotionally what he needs to survive.”


“If you’re feeling stressed and want to pet your dog, try it on your cat,” Berloni advises dryly.

He’s been vehement about this subject ever since he trained the first Sandy for the Broadway Annie. “Prior to Annie, animals were props. Sandy was the first animal playing a character the show depended on. How do I get dogs to behave onstage, live, in front of 2,000 people eight times a week? Because everything they experience is positive to them. That forced me to ask, ‘What do you like?’ You’re thinking about the animal first. And once you’ve done that, it opens up this door: They’re like, Oh my God, you get me. And with my rescue dogs, I’m the first person who’s ever gotten them.”

His tips? “Gently massage the neck; don’t grab on both sides at the same time and squeeze! The favorite spot I like is right at the base of the tail—but not scrubbing it, just scratching gently.” He avoids skull-thumping, but he does stroke between the dog’s eyebrows. “If you do that very gently, they will just close their eyes. Then I work behind their ears. There are two muscles that connect the neck to the skull, and because of the way they hold their heads at an angle from their body, their necks are always tense. I also scratch very gently inside the ear, where they can’t reach.

“Anything around the whiskers is not fun,” he warns. “Anything around the eye sockets is not fun. On human faces, there are a lot more places you can touch, like the jaw or the temples.” Berloni does have a favorite tease, though.

“Dogs are ticklish on the hair between their paw pads. Also, there’s a pressure point in that soft, fleshy area between the toes. But if your dog’s not accustomed to that and they pull their paw away really quick, let them.”

Long, even strokes down the back, with calm energy, are usually welcome. “A lot of times, I just put hands on,” Berloni says. “I put my hand on their back and send quiet energy through my body.”

“Dogs often like touch below the ears, on their shoulders and neck, and under the jaw,” Pona says. “For some dogs, a little scratch on the nose with the side of your finger is all they want, and then they’ll go lie down. Some dogs like their ears touched; others are very sensitive about it.

“People can never get over the feeling that they must be touching the dog. The biggest mistake is when you reach for them and they drop and roll, exposing their belly. That is submission; they are afraid. That’s when I particularly don’t pet them. As we grow as a team, the dog dog might jump up on the couch and let me know he’s soliciting a tummy rub. Great! But if it’s a new relationship, you really have to pay attention. I’ll back up and stay in my own body space, so he has to come in and solicit those pets.”

For a calm dog, the belly rub is a nearly universal source of pleasure, Grim says. Another of his rescued dogs, a Pit Bull named Baxter, “basically jumps on me and then flips over: Okay, I’m ready! And if I stop, he’ll hit me, so I have to keep going until one of us falls asleep. The belly rub is a dog’s Nirvana.”

Berloni’s had dogs who weren’t Baxter, dogs who, after a period of rubbing along the ridge of their chest, will “roll over and sigh like they’re done: aaahhhhh. Watch for that. It all goes back to petting to relieve the dog’s stress and not your own.”

In most cases, Pona says, “dogs like hair-level touching, not vigorous massage, although they can learn to enjoy massage if they have sore muscles. But usually, you’re not moving the skin around, just touching the top. And I’ll do massage with my fingertips— they love that. They’ll go into an open-mouthed, relaxed pant.”

With puppies, it’s easy to overstimulate their wriggly little nervous systems, so touch only for a while, very deliberately, noticing what the puppy likes but not letting the session go on so long that the pup gets hyper and wants to try out her sharp baby teeth. “Sometimes, it’s good just to read a book to a puppy, so she’s learning to be with you and look at you.”

Grim’s noticed that when they’re trying to relax, dogs like the same things we do: quiet and low lights. There’s a magic period in the afternoon, “the lull of the day,” when they most enjoy petting and naps, he’s found. “Also, when it’s time to go to bed. We have classes on this—decompression for the night, especially if the dog has aggression or anxiety. But I think it’s good for any dog.”

Even dogs who don’t start out craving cuddles can learn to enjoy them—or to enjoy their person’s enjoyment of them. “It’s the emotional support dogs want to give their people,” says Grim.“I think it’s their way of showing how much they care about you.”

Asked about the times dogs humor us, Berloni grins. “No other species would put up with what dogs do. We are so lucky to have another species that cherishes us so much.”

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 97: Spring 2019

Dog on Back: Photo by adogslifephoto

Jeannette Cooperman just had her first mystery published—A Circumstance of Blood (Endeavour Press, 2015)—and yes, there’s a dog in it. She is a staff writer at St. Louis Magazine, she goes home to a century-old farmhouse in Waterloo, Ill., where she and her husband live with Louie.

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