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Nothing puts a smile on your face like rubbing a dog’s belly and seeing their reaction of sheer joy, right? So you’d be forgiven for wondering if your dogs are ticklish like humans. Good news: dogs can be ticklish! Many dogs enjoy a good tickle on their paws, ears, and back. However, it’s important to remember to tickle gently and that your dog might not enjoy themselves as much as you. Respecting those boundaries is critical to a healthy bond with your dog and an even more fun tickle session!
Read on to learn more about the dos and don’ts of tickling your dog.
Where Are Dogs Most Ticklish?
Our dogs are ticklish in some of the same areas as humans. So what causes their response? “Tickling causes involuntary twitching movements where nerve receptors are triggered,” explains Laura McAuliffe, ABTC registered clinical animal behaviourist and owner of Dog Communication in the UK.
Common tickle spots in dogs include:
- Paws/paw pads. “Many dogs have sensitive feet and will kick out if you accidentally tickle them,” shares McAuliffe. Pet parents trimming the fur on their dog’s paws experience this firsthand.
- The base of the tail/back. Nerve endings are found all over a dog’s body, including the back and tail—and areas filled with nerves are particularly receptive to touch (including tickles!).
- Ears. They may be small, but this part of your dog is super sensitive—thanks to the many nerves that run through it.
- Armpits. Like humans, McAuliffe reveals this sweet spot can be ticklish for dogs too.
- Tummy. While your dog might love a belly rub, it may also be a fan of belly tickles! There are many motor and sensory nerves in the skin, and the large surface area of the belly presents plenty to be stimulated.
How to find your dog’s tickle spots
Some dogs are ticklish in places others are not. As such, the only way to find out if your dog is ticklish in a particular area is to gently try and then watch their reaction.
However, in doing so, McAuliffe emphasises that it’s important to remember dogs may not enjoy tickles and most prefer other types of touch. “Most dogs would rather be stroked than tickled, but some enjoy a scratch at the side of their neck or behind their ears,” she says.
How Do I Know If My Dog Is Ticklish?
There are no specific criteria that determine whether a dog is ticklish. So what do dogs do when they’re tickled? A few signs that can indicate your dog is reacting to a tickle include:
- Wrinkling of the nose or sneezing
- Kicking their legs
- Wiggling on their back
- Ear flicking
Do dogs enjoy tickles?
While many dogs enjoy tickles, in some instances, a physical reaction to tickling could be ‘knismesis’—a feeling humans also experience. “Knismesis is the scientific word for the tickle sensation [that occurs] in response to light touch across the skin,” McAuliffe reveals.
It’s crucial to get consent from your dog before you start tickling. You can’t ask directly, but McAuliffe explains there are alternative ways to gauge if your dog is open to the way you’re touching them.
“Touch or stroke them for a few seconds, then move your hand away. If your dog actively nudges your hand with their nose, paws at you, or leans into you, then they probably want you to carry on,” she states. “However, if they walk away, lean away from you, or just ignore you, then they’re not loving what you are doing, and you should stop.”
As you’re likely aware, the feeling of something on you is generally irritating or unpleasant rather than enjoyable. If you don’t like it, the chances are your dog won’t, either!
What if my dog kicks their leg when I scratch them?
You may notice that when you tickle or scratch a specific spot on your dog, they kick their leg—and “they’ll often pull their lips back like they are grinning and may also sneeze,” McAuliffe shares. It can look funny at times, but this is something they can’t control—the scratch reflex.
“It’s an involuntary reaction due to the activation of a bundle of sensory nerves,” she continues. “This causes the limbs to scratch to try and get rid of whatever is causing irritation—whether that’s a bug, a leaf, or you, if you’re tickling them!”
According to research from renowned English neurophysiologist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, a scratch reflex caused by repeated stimulation (e.g. scratching or tickling) to the same area will eventually stop. But this isn’t because your dog can no longer feel the sensation—instead, it’s likely a result of fatigue.
How To Tickle Your Dog
There are dos and don’ts when tickling your dog. For example, digging your fingers into their skin too hard or surprising them when they’re asleep is not the way to go. Here are some other things to remember before tickling your dog.
- Avoid tickling too roughly. No one likes rough tickling, including your dog. Instead, do your best to be aware of your actions, and go gently for short periods to make things more enjoyable for you and your dog.
- Pay close attention to their behaviour. While your dog might like tickles to begin with, they can quickly become bored or irritated, so watch for indications they want you to stop. “Always look for signs of stress: yawning, showing the whites of their eyes, or looking tense,” McAuliffe asserts. “This would mean they aren’t happy and would really like you to stop and give them space.”
- Differentiate between a ticklish dog and an itchy dog. Think your dog’s happy reaction is a response to being tickled? Double-check they’re not just pleased you’re itching a spot that needed scratching. Dogs can get dry skin; signs of dry skin (or dermatitis) include redness, flakes, and scaly skin. Speak to your vet if your dog has any of these symptoms.
- Know where to tickle. Dogs are happier to be stroked, petted, or tickled in certain areas, so keep in mind not to venture to body parts they’re not so keen on having disturbed. Learning how to pet your dog can illuminate the best places and methods to tickle your dog.
Do Dogs Laugh When Tickled?
While there are physical signs your dog enjoys tickle time, vocal reactions can also let you know they’re having a good time. When humans are tickled, the typical response is one of laughter. But do dogs laugh when you tickle them? The answer is… kind of.
Research suggests a particular ‘huh huh’ sound is solely made by dogs during playtime or when they feel particularly joyous. Meanwhile, scientists at UCLA revealed animals—including dogs—make vocalised ‘play sounds’ during playtime.
Should I Tickle My Dog?
It might be fun to tickle your dog, and there’s a good chance it’s enjoyable for them, too. But it’s important to always look out for and pay attention to your dog’s body language cues and behaviours that might indicate otherwise.
While breed doesn’t typically factor into whether a dog enjoys tickles, other elements may cause your dog to be adverse. “Dogs who are sensitive about touch, elderly, unwell, or are in pain may be less keen on being touched generally and wouldn’t appreciate being tickled,” McAuliffe says. Additionally, you can irritate dry skin when you tickle it, which may lead to discomfort or pain for your dog.
Essentially, it’s important to remember one thing. “With all of our interactions with dogs, we want to be sure that the dog actually likes and enjoys it,” McAuliffe highlights. “All dogs are individuals and like different things.”