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Many dogs love petting – like my puppy Niffler. Other dogs, like my dog Barley, prefer to show their affection other ways. Still other dogs really, really do not like to be pet. So what do you do if your dog growls when you pet them?
Firstly, let’s determine why your dog doesn’t like it when you pet him:
Possibility 1: They’re scared of you.
If your dog isn’t generally friendly with you and soliciting petting by approaching you and leaning into you, there’s a good chance they simply don’t want to be pet. In that case, you can check out our articles on building your dog’s trust.
We also have a complete article about teaching a hand-shy dog to like petting, which you may find helpful.
In both cases, it’s best to avoid pushing your dog and trying to force them to tolerate petting. They’re unlikely to learn that petting isn’t scary with this approach – it actually may backfire and teach your dog that your approach is frightening.
Possibility 2: You’re petting them “wrong.”
Some dogs enjoy a hearty butt scratch. Others like gentle ear massages. Still others would die for a belly rub. But most dogs actually don’t like the head-patting or rib-thumping that humans often offer as petting.
It took me several months of experimentation to figure out a way to pet Barley that he really enjoyed. He doesn’t much like scratching or massages unless he’s in the right mood, but he almost always likes a gentle face rub. It’s weird! But since petting is supposed to be pleasurable for the dog, it’s worth experimenting to find a petting style that your dog enjoys.
Again, keep in mind that most dogs don’t really like patting or thumping. Try petting your dog in a specific way in a specific place for 5 seconds, then pause and pull your hands away. What does your dog do? When you find the combination that makes your dog move closer to you for more, you’ve succeeded!
This method is called pat-pet-pause and is really helpful for kids and strangers learning to interact with dogs as well.
Possibility 3: Something is hurting them.
This is actually one of the first things I think of if someone tells me that their dog growls when they pet their dog. In many cases, the dog is actually growling because they’re in pain.
This is particularly true if your dog growls when you pet a specific area or if your dog seemingly enjoys petting at first, then growls as you move away.
I’ve worked with several dogs that growled when people petted them. Many had injuries: arthritis, a painful or infected tooth, a toenail that grew through their paw pad.
People often seem surprised when I urge them to get a full veterinary checkup for what they thought was a behavior issue. But you’re unlikely to make progress on solving this issue without treating the underlying pain or medical issue.
So What Do I Do If My Dog Growls When I Pet Them?
The most important thing is to respect your dog’s wishes here – they’re communicating that they’d like you to stop in the most polite way that a dog can.
Ignoring your or punishing them for communicating can lead to an escalation of the situation in the future.
Once you’ve backed off a bit, you can give your dog a treat or two to help repair the relationship. Don’t worry, you’re not going to accidentally train your dog to growl at you here: the treats will help your dog feel better, which in turn will reduce the growling. Trust me, I’ve done this hundreds of times!
Going forward, your goal is to help your dog feel better about your hands. Once you’ve identified which of the above categories your dog falls into, it’s best to treat the underlying issue: trust, pain, or fit.
Remember, petting is supposed to be enjoyable for your dog. If your dog growls when you pet them, it’s not enjoyable for them. Simply pushing your dog to accept petting is beyond the point.
That said, you can also implement a counterconditioning procedure to help your dog learn to tolerate handling. I understand that sometimes you need to groom your dog, put a collar on, or handle them in other ways.
We’ve outlined how to help your dog learn to accept petting in the articles linked here: how to help your dog tolerate grooming and how to help your dog learn to wear a harness.
The procedures outlined above will help you and your dog learn to enjoy petting again!
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.