How to Pet a Dog and Interact With Them (The Right Way)

Have you ever hesitated to pet a dog, unsure whether it’s an invitation or a warning? I think it’s safe to say that most of us have been there. While extending love to these canine companions seems like a no-brainer, there’s an art to understanding the subtleties of their responses. Think about transforming every canine encounter into a delightful experience where you and the dog are at ease and mutual respect shines through. Dive in to unravel the refined art of petting and building genuine connections with dogs.

How to Pet a Dog – The Right Way!

Ask For Permission First

It’s not just about the dog’s comfort; it’s also about respect for the owner. You’re acknowledging the dog’s boundaries and the owner’s feelings by asking for permission. If an owner ever declines, they don’t owe you an explanation, and you need to respect their wishes – you are not entitled to pet a dog that isn’t yours!

Approaching With Care & The Dog’s Body Language

Dogs, like humans, have personal bubbles, which should always be respected – even if the owner permits you. It is best practice to wait and let the dog approach you first. Though keep in mind that dogs who aren’t sure may just be curious about you and don’t want to be touched.

Signs that the dog doesn’t want to be touched or when you should stop petting:

  • Cautiously sniffs you but is ready to leap back at the slightest movement or sound
  • Seems tense, ignores you, side-eyes you, or has a tightly wagging tail
  • Seems friendly but keeps frantically jumping on the owner
  • Stares at you with hard eyes, a furrowed brow, and a closed mouth
  • Persistent lip licking (dog licks its lips)
  • Shaking, ears back, tail tucked

Signs that the dog might be comfortable with you petting:

  • Approaches with confidence
  • Dog is relaxed
  • Soft eye contact
  • Reaching their paw out
  • Loose body posture
  • Tail wagging loosely

Best Spots to Pet a Dog

While the chest, chin, sides, and base of the neck are generally safe zones, each dog is an individual. Some may love a gentle scratch behind the ears, while others might prefer the base of their tail. Many dogs don’t like to be petted on top of the dog’s head or leaned over to be petted, as this is a threatening stance.

What about belly rubs? When a dog flips onto their back, it isn’t always an invite for a belly rub. This is a common sign of appeasement, and the dog may be nervous. Consider the rest of the dog’s body language before giving a belly rub.

Interacting with Dogs – Do’s & Don’ts

Whether you’re interacting with a familiar dog or an unfamiliar dog – these basic do’s and don’ts are essential to follow when petting or dealing with dogs in any capacity.


  • Always ask the owner for permission first!
  • Wait for the dog to come to you
  • Remain calm when petting
  • Give the dog space to approach and let them set the pace
  • Give gentle strokes that go with the direction of the coat


  • Force interaction
  • Rush up to them
  • Stare them down
  • Hug, kiss, or squeeze
  • Lean over them or reach over the top of the head
  • Make excessive noise to try and get their attention
  • Try to pat over the head or anywhere the dog seems uncomfortable

Dogs and Kids

This is a two-way street. While teaching kids to respect dogs is paramount, educating them about recognizing a dog’s signs of distress is equally essential. Kids and babies should never be allowed to treat the dog like a toy. The dog is a living, sentient being and deserves respect. Allowing kids to pull their ears, tail, muzzle, or sit on them and tease them is a recipe for disaster. Some dogs are tolerant, but every dog has a limit, and when the dog snaps, it won’t be the dog’s fault, nor the kid’s – it will be yours!

Learning to Read a Dog’s Body Language

The flick of a tail, the perkiness of ears, or the dilation of pupils—all speak volumes. Investing time to understand these signals can prevent misunderstandings and build stronger bonds. I highly recommend reading Doggie Language, no matter the age range. It is an excellent book showing a wide range of dog body language for small children to adults.

Approaching Stray Dogs

Safety first! Strays can be unpredictable, as you don’t know their history or personality. While you may have good intentions interacting with a stray dog, it’s best to observe from a distance unless you’re experienced in handling such situations and leave it to the professionals. You can call the non-emergency police line or Animal Control to retrieve the stray.

When to Avoid Petting a Dog

Knowing when to avoid petting a dog can save an unpleasant experience on both ends of the leash:

  • The dog is injured
  • The hair on the dog’s neck and shoulders is standing up, and the tail is high and wagging tightly
  • The dog is a stray
  • The dog is trying to avoid you
  • It seems fearful. Fearful dogs are likely to snap defensively

Why You Should Care To Approach and Pet A Dog Properly

At its core, petting a dog isn’t a mere touch; it’s a language. It’s a gesture of affection, trust, and understanding. Respectfully approaching a dog means recognizing the dog’s boundaries, reading their body language, and ensuring mutual comfort. When you approach and pet a dog the right way, it opens you up to a moment of bonding and reflects respect for their space and feelings.

Final Thoughts

Interacting with dogs is a journey of continuous learning. Over the past decade, my work as a dog professional has brought me face-to-face with countless personalities—from the shy and hesitant to the boisterous, social butterflies. Every interaction has been a lesson, emphasizing that respect, patience, and understanding are the pillars of any profound connection. As you embark on your journey with these companions, remember that every touch and gesture is an unspoken word.

Looking for a dog breed that tends to enjoy petting? Check out the Labs!

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