To Pet or NOT to Pet, That is the question

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Yesterday I wrote about the rules that we has humans (and especially children) need to follow when interacting with dogs to keep things as safe as possible.  One of the rules is to Ask first, Ask twice; the second part of that is to make sure you ask the dog if he/she would like to be pet.  The question then is, how can one tell if a dog would like to be pet, or would not like to be pet.

I want to first just throw out a few examples of body language that is often confused and misunderstood.  When you see them beside one another it helps in being able to see the subtle differences.

There are many many people who would say that when a dog rolls on his back/side and shows his belly that he is being friendly and wants a belly rub.  Unfortunately, there are many other people who can tell you that when they pet a dog who was showing his belly that they were ultimately bitten.  Let’s take a look at these two photos for a moment….

FYI Shayne was not heavily stressed to get the picture and was rewarded a moment after I snapped it.  She was in the bathroom and I pointed at the tub (she came to me like that so to not stress her out like this, I put hop in the tub on cue).

Which dog do you think wants a belly rub? 

Dexter, on the left, has bright eyes, relaxed face, relaxed mouth, upright ears, relaxed tail, and looks like his body is pretty loose.

Shayne, on the right, has a tightly closed mouth, a slight whale eye, dilated pupils, her ears are pinned back,tail is slightly tucked, and she’s completely looking away from me.

Of these two dogs, Shayne’s body language says that she is much more likely to bite someone.  In her photo, Shayne is really saying “please no, I do not want, just leave me alone.”  If someone were to pet a dog who looks like Shayne, there is a reasonable chance that the person would get bitten.

Now, I know I’ve spoken about a submissive grin when I wrote about Denver the Guilty Dog.  So what is the difference between a submissive grin and an aggressive tooth display.  Just so happens a friend, Crystal has a great picture of her dog Sally to compare.

Which dog is more likely going to bite?

Denver is showing a full display of teeth, commissures (corners of mouth) pulled back a little, whiskers look like they are aren’t pushed all the way forward, soft eyes, avoiding eye contact (looking away from person), and ears pulled back.

Sally is showing a full display of teeth, commissures pulled in forward, whiskers very forward, hard eyes, furrowed brow, very forward posture, and a very strong stare at Toby (the other dog).

Of these two dogs, Denver is giving a submissive grin and Sally is giving a very toothy warning to Toby who apparently licked her as she had a toy.  Denver’s body language is very defensive “oh please don’t hurt me, I don’t mean any harm” and Sally’s body language is saying “lick me again and I’m going to rip your face off” (only she’s all threat no follow through).

With such subtle differences, it’s important to be picky about what dogs you start petting, if you are at all unsure what the dog is trying to say, DO NOT PET.

I want to show some examples of “pet me!” vs “Do not want pet!”

PET ME!

Rio is sitting (not that you can see that part), he has a very relaxed face, ears are up but not super forward, eyes are soft, mouth is open and smiley, not panting, and is interested but not crazy focused on the person approaching (ie me with the camera).

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PET ME!

Shayne is laying down, with very soft almond shaped eyes, ears forward but not intensely forward, relaxed facial expression, slightly open jaw, with no panting.

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Do not want pet!* If a dog looks like this and licks their lips,  pants (when it’s not hot), or if they look away from you

Shayne is tight jawed, really forward ears, slightly furrowed brow, staring, and a forward leaning posture.
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Do not want pet!

Risa here has a tight jaw, is licking her lips, is giving a moderately hard stare to Rio (who is causing her discomfort), ears middle of the road pulled back (for her), with a moderately tense face, and forward whiskers.

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Pet Me!

Luke is sitting, relaxed brow, ears neutral, relaxed sit on one hip, interest but not staring at oncoming person, relaxed jaw and soft eyes (for a BC)–slight panting was related to the weather

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Do not want pet!

Murphy is  turning away from the oncoming person, avoiding eye contact, and is licking his lips.

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Do not want pet!

Baby Girl has a low hung head, is showing a whale eye, her eyes are dilated (may be because of dark room), ears back and to the side, her back is sort of arched, and her weight looks like it is backwards ready to run.

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PET US!

Delta and Doc are sitting, soft eyes, neutral ears, closed but relaxed jaws, relaxed facial muscles, looking (not staring) at the oncoming person, both are in a solid sit–not leaning forward like they want to advance or backward like they want to flee.

Do not want pet!

Leila has a tightly closed jaw, is showing a slight whale eye, her head is low, she is avoiding eye contact, her ears are back

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Pet me!!!! (who could resist this cute face?!)

Cuba is sitting calmly, is very interested in the person who is in front of him but is not straining to get to the person, he has very soft eyes, relaxed face, slightly open and relaxed mouth, ears are HUGE–eh i mean, they are neutral in position. 


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Pet Me!

Risa has perked up (but not intense) ears, soft eyes, relaxed face, is looking toward the person with interest, and an open and relaxed mouth (no panting)

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About Success Just Clicks

I'm a dog trainer and enthusiast who moonlights as a blogger and custom tug-toy maker.
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17 Responses to To Pet or NOT to Pet, That is the question

  1. Anna says:

    Great post. I wish people had to take a course in dog body language before they could get one. Even dogs seem oblivious to cues now so I have to step in and stop dogs because they lack the manners and sense to pay attention to whatever instincts they have left. But I will hush. Thanks for taking the time to create this post. I hope you will archive it somewhere as a reference. I used to have a link to a great website where this is what it was all about. It posted a picture and had people try and guess what the dogs were saying with their body language then the host would come in and clarify anything. Maybe I will look for it again.
    Anna
    http://www.akginspiration.com

    • I couldn’t agree more!!! I hand out body language sheets to all of my students in obedience classes and it’s so very shocking how many people are simply unaware of even the most basic of body language. I’ll send you an email with direct links to each of these posts if you are interested so you can have a direct link to them.

  2. gotspots says:

    GREAT post. I love illustrations to help people understand. I’m a visionary type of person I suppose. :) Delta and Doc are famous. :-D

  3. Ma'ayan says:

    I didn’t know about the licking lips. What is that a sign of or why do dogs do that if they are uncomfortable?

    • It’s just a self soothing behavior and it is a way to let the other dogs know that they mean no harm and are uncomfortable w/ the situation. You have to look at the behavior in the context.. so if I have food on my plate and my dogs are licking their lips… it’s not that they are uncomfortable, it’s that they are salivating. If the lick lip comes out of the blue in a potentially stressful situation (seeing another dog, being pet by a kid, etc) then it is a sign of stress. The other one i didn’t put on here because I didn’t have a picture and non of my pals did either, but is actually very common, is when they will suddenly start licking/sniffing their junk or their bum. Dex does this when he’s stressed, he plops down and licks is junk.

  4. Jen says:

    Fantastic post! The pictures fantastically illustrate your points, and it was a nice read all around (plus, I got to pat myself on the back because I got the right answers).

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  6. JJ Hendricks says:

    Thanks! Very helpful!

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  8. Love this post!! Great pictures!! I am doing a post about calming signals soon, too! :)

  9. Nice Article Paul. I enjoyed reading it. I wish I didnt have to hear guilty dog stories, but that is a topic for a different day. I will share this.

  10. Eileen says:

    Thank you for this wonderful tutorial and examples of dog body language. I would add one thought. A dog who is showing the relaxed body language you portray above is not necessarily saying, “Pet me.” The dog is saying something like, “I am comfortable and relaxed.” That can change, however. How about a followup article about teaching children and their parents to limit interactions to very short sessions and continue watching the dog’s response? The dog’s handler must do this, of course, but the more we can teach the general public to watch the dog and _continue_ to watch the dog, the better.

  11. Fel says:

    The other day I took my small Chihuahua Mix to pick up my son at school. Most of the class at the moment was in 2nd/3rd grade. Their reaction was “Oh what a cute dog!” And reaching in for a touch. I gave them a nice little talk about not doing that to a dog they do not know. And a few pointers on what to do if they wanted to touch a dog. Like first asking the owner first. And how sometimes dogs don’t want to be touched.

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  15. Tamara B. says:

    Great post! So many times people just don’t get it when it comes to a dog’s body language. And more often than not, they don’t listen to you when you try to tell them not to pet your dog because he is afraid or doesn’t want a stranger touching him. They insist because “dogs like them”. Then of course when your dog was giving all the signs from the beginning to “not touch”, the person invades your dog’s space and pressures your dog and suddenly there is a snap or a potential bite. Now this person accuses you of not being able to control your “aggressive” dog. And nothing makes me more irritated when someone who has a “friendly” dog, let’s their dog run right up to my dog’s face, not something any of my dogs like at all. Of course that creates a situation of my dog snapping and the other person snatching up their dog because obviously my dog is aggressive and shouldn’t be allowed in public. Sigh…. Makes me crazy when people think they know about dogs when they haven’t a clue and it’s never their fault.

    So thank you for posting this with all the wonderful pictures for people to see and hopefully learn.

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