It makes us smile every time: We’re petting a dog and happen to hit a sweet spot that makes them wriggle with joy. On the flip side, sometimes we pet a pooch in a particular area and they’ve clearly had enough. It’s a lot like when us humans are tickled — it can be silly and lighthearted, or it can feel infuriating, especially when the tickler refuses to relent. But are dogs actually ticklish? We ask veterinarians for the scoop on what’s behind this canine behavior and how you can use it to bond even more with your pet.
The tickle response
Being tickled is an odd sensation. When we try to tickle ourselves, it barely feels like anything, but when someone else tickles us in the same spot, it feels like a sensory overload. And even though it can make us want to escape, it makes us laugh.
While the science behind tickling isn’t conclusive, one theory from the University of California, San Diego states that tickling is largely a subconscious defense mechanism. Our ticklish areas are vulnerable, and the tickling response — involuntarily kicking someone away and yelling — helps us to keep those areas safe.
Are dogs ticklish?
Dogs came from wild animals, so it’d make sense that they, too, have defense machnisms to keep them safe in dangerous situations. But since we can’t get into a dog’s brain to see exactly what they’re feeling, the most accurate answer to whether dogs are ticklish is “maybe.”
“Understanding how dogs feel and perceive sensations isn’t that black-and-white. It’s a layered experience, somewhat similar to the intricate network of nerves dictating their responses,” says Dr. Cheri Honnas, veterinary advisor to Bone Voyage Dog Rescue. “When you observe a dog’s leg kicking while scratching a particular spot, especially that famed sweet spot near the base of their tail, you’re witnessing a reflex response to a specific sensation.”
“Dogs can be ticklish, so to speak,” adds Dr. Sabrina Kong, veterinary contributor at We Love Doodles, “though it might not be the same sensation that humans experience.” She notes that, like humans, dogs have certain areas on their body that are more sensitive to stimuli than others.
What your dog feels when they’re being tickled
It’s hard to know whether tickling feels the same for dogs as it does for humans. When we’re tickled, it sends a spine-tingling sensation through our bodies that’s often makes us laugh but can feel overwhelming too. Dr. Kong says that sensation is probably not the same in dogs: “It’s challenging to say precisely how dogs perceive the sensation, but it’s likely different from the human experience of being tickled. For dogs, these sensitive areas might be more about reflexive responses or heightened sensitivity rather than the giggle sensation humans associate with tickling.”
Spots where your dog might be ticklish
If you’re ticklish, where do you feel it the most? Likely, it’s on the soles of your feet and on your torso, between your armpits and waist, which tend to be the most ticklish spots of the human body. These more vulnerable parts of our body are often the most sensitive to touch and therefore the most ticklish.
Funny enough, dogs are ticklish in the same spots we are. “Dogs tend to respond to being tickled on their feet, ribs, sides and abdomen,” says Dr. Dwight Alleyne, DVM, veterinarian advisor at BetterPet. Dr. Kong adds that they may also feel ticklish between their toes, on their belly, behind their ears and at the base of their tail. But like humans, every dog is different. “It’s essential to note that each dog is an individual, and their sensitive areas might vary.”
How to tell if your dog is ticklish
It’s pretty easy to tell when a person is ticklish. They giggle, scream and often beg for the tickler to stop. But since dogs can’t laugh like we can, how can you tell if your dog is ticklish? “Dogs usually react with a scratch reflex or the twitching of legs,” says Dr. Alleyne. “And they may make sounds similar to panting.”
“They might also move away or even playfully nip at the source of the tickle,” adds Dr. Kong. “If a dog seems to enjoy the sensation, they might lean into it or roll over for more.”
Signs your dog doesn’t like being tickled
When you tickle your dog, it’s important to pay attention to their body language and social cues so you don’t cause them any discomfort. “With the wide variety of dog personalities out there, it’s crucial to always approach with kindness and attentiveness,” says Dr. Honnas. “Pay attention to their signals, give them their space and value the bond that strengthens with every interaction.”
In other words, when you’re being tickled, you don’t want the tickler to continuously ignore your pleas for them to stop once you’ve had enough. Dogs are no different — they will tell you in their own way when they’re done. “If they’re comfortable, they might move away or show signs of irritation,” says Dr. Kong. Signs of stress or irritation include growling, excessive lip licking or panting, avoiding eye contact, pinned back ears and a tucked-in tail. “Observing your dog’s body language and reactions is essential to snake any interaction is positive and enjoyable for them,” Dr. Kong notes. (Click through to learn more about how dogs can tell when you’re not happy, too.)
What it means if your dog doesn’t react to tickling
Like humans, some dogs are more ticklish than others. There aren’t certain breeds that are more sensitive to tickles overall than others, though — it comes down to the individual. “There’s some talk that breeds with finer coats or specific skin sensitivities might be more ticklish,” says Dr. Honnas. “But based on my observations, it’s clear that a dog’s individual character and history are significant players.”
Because dogs’ sensitivities differ, so do their reactions. “One dog might break into joyful leg twitches with a chin scratch, while another might just gaze up with a puzzled look. The range of their reactions is genuinely wide,” Dr. Honnas adds.
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