Canine Body Language: “Don’t Touch!”

Learn how dogs tell you they don’t want to be touched.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
September 22, 2011
Episode #119

It’s obvious to most people that they should keep their distance from a dog who’s curling his lip or growling. (Amazingly, a few humans have trouble taking even these strong hints.) But dogs have many ways of signaling that they would prefer to avoid an interaction – body language that’s more subtle than a growl or snap, and that many of us either miss or ignore. This week, four dog signals that mean “Please don’t touch me.”

#1 – The Dog Doesn’t Approach You

This one’s easy to miss because it’s a non-behavior. Say you run into a friend on the street with his dog, whom you’re meeting for the first time. You and your friend shake hands; then you look at the dog and say, “Hi, Dogalini,” as invitingly as you can. Dogalini responds with a soft wag but stays put at your friend’s side. Like any good primate, you want to get closer. Don’t do it.

Dogalini’s message is clear and polite: “I have a social interest in you, and I’m not hostile [that’s the soft wag], but I’m not ready to get up close and personal.” Dogalini is a little shy or cautious; when she’s ready to engage, she’ll approach you. If you approach her before she’s at ease, she may either tolerate your proximity and handling, or she may retreat. The soft wag suggests it’s not likely she’ll aggress, but why make her uncomfortable? Letting her choose her own pace is the best way to make friends.

Patting or rubbing the head gets a thumbs-down from most dogs.

#2 – The Dog Moves Away from the Touch

Almost every day, I see interactions like this between people and their dogs: Person asks the dog to sit, or come, or whatever. Dog does as requested. Person says, “Oh, good dog!” and pats the top of the dog’s head. The dog ducks out from under the hand.

Many dogs love it when you scratch around their ears or chin, or when you rub their stop, the bit of face between their nose and their forehead. But patting or rubbing the top of the head gets a thumbs-down from most dogs -- at least, it would if they had thumbs. Pay attention to how your dog feels about head pats: if you pat your dog’s head when she does something right, you may be punishing a behavior you meant to reward.

The “moves away” rule doesn’t just apply to heads, of course. Any time you’re touching a particular body part and the dog pulls it away or moves her whole body away, you can be sure she wasn’t enjoying the contact. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But people can get so absorbed in how much we enjoy touching the dog, we fail to notice that the feeling isn’t mutual.

Some other signs that a dog isn’t enjoying a particular form of touch include stiffening up, lip licking, and closing the mouth.

#3 – The Dog “Taps Out”

The behavior specialist Sarah Kalnajs first applied this wrestling term to a “Please don’t touch” signal that almost all laypeople miss. Plenty of trainers do, too. The dog is on her back, legs in the air, body curved: she’d welcome a belly rub, right? Not so fast.

The muscles of a dog who’s inviting or enjoying a belly rub look soft. She may be wiggling. Look for an open mouth with relaxed facial muscles. Here’s video of a dog who absolutely, unequivocally, wants that belly rub. (But notice that at 0:37, when she’s being patted on the head, she licks her lips.)

A dog who’s “tapping out” will also be on her back, but her musculature will look more stiff. Her mouth will likely be closed and her tail may be tucked between her legs. The dog in this video is almost certainly tapping out: notice how still his body is, how his mouth is closed, how he licks his lips, and how you can see the whites of his eyes as he looks at the person sidelong.

#4 – The Dog Whips Her Head Toward Your Hand

You might be running your hand along the dog’s side, say, when she gives a lightning-quick turn of her head toward your hand, then turns her head away again. Her nose may touch your hand. That’s all there is to it, but stop touching the dog, now. You can translate a head-whip not as “Please stop,” but rather as “Stop it this instant.” It’s not a bite, of course, but it is a shadow of a bite, a hint that if you keep doing what you’re doing, the dog may go on the offensive.

Respect Your Dog’s Communication with You

I say “may go on the offensive” for a reason: a dog who knows you well or who was just briefly startled may not repeat the head-whip and may not escalate. Stop anyway. When we don’t respect our dogs’ signals, we’re teaching them that it’s pointless to try to communicate with us, or to communicate subtly. Since we are our dogs’ caretakers, it’s our job to pay attention. Our dogs are giving us valuable information about what makes them uneasy. If your dog dislikes all contact, or avoids contact that’s needed for caretaking, you can work with a behavior specialist to help her accept it more comfortably. If she suddenly starts avoiding touch she used to enjoy or accept, consider the possibility that she’s ill or in pain.

Suppose you’ve suddenly realized that all those belly rubs you thought your dog enjoyed might not have been so much fun for him after all. Don’t take it personally. My dog Juniper doesn’t enjoy belly rubs – not even mine. What he does love is to lean his whole body against me and have me scratch his back. There’s probably some form of affectionate touch both you and your dog can revel in. Find it and enjoy!

I hope you and your dog will visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer, follow me as Dogalini on Twitter, or write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I read all my questions and comments, and though I usually can’t reply individually, I may use your question as the basis for a future article. Thanks for reading!