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Are Dogs Ticklish? - How to Tell

 
By Eduarda Piamore, Expert in canine and feline psychology, education and training.. Updated: May 26, 2019
Are Dogs Ticklish? - How to Tell

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There are more similarities between dogs and humans than we often think. By asking ‘are dogs ticklish?’ we can see another reason for this. As with humans, dogs can be ticklish, but this doesn't mean all are as ticklish as each other. A happy and healthy dog should enjoy being tickled. They enjoy being petted as it shows a closeness of he bond between dog and guardian. Similarly, dogs will play, cuddle and lick their canine friends.

AnimalWised discusses ticklishness and dogs by showing which spots they enjoy being tickled the most. We also show you what responses to tickling might mean to the dog in terms of their health and well-being.

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The scratching reflex in dogs

Does your dog's leg move when you scratch them? Often you will see a dog display their belly for you to give them a tasty scratch. Their leg vibrates or kicks in the air as you do so. This is a phenomenon known as the ‘scratch reflex’. It can look odd, but is completely natural. Generally, this reflex occurs when we scratch a dog on their leg, on their back or, especially, on their belly. This occurs because these regions of the body are particularly sensitive. They contain a large collection of nerve endings which send signals to the brain when stimulated.

Being an involuntary response, the dog does not ‘kick the air’ because they want to, but because their brain sends an automatic order to their leg to make the movement. The response is a very important function for dogs. It stems from their wild ancestry, but still can be useful as a domesticated animal. As they move through outdoor environments, they can come in contact with various parasites, dirt, seeds, branches and various elements which can cause them harm or discomfort. When the nerve under the skin sense these stimuli, they send the brain signal and cause the scratch reflex as an automatic way to stop them from getting into their skin.

If a parasite is trying to bite a dog, they can cause serious illness. When the scratch reflex is activated, it can prevent this from happening. The scratch reflex has a lot to do with the spinal column via which the signals are sent. This is why the aforementioned particular areas such as the back are most sensitive. Theses areas are known as a ‘pure form domain’[1]. As you scratch over different parts of the body, the scratch reflex will also change where it appears. It is also possible for the scratch reflex to continue, even when the stimulus which first triggered it is removed.

Are Dogs Ticklish? - How to Tell - The scratching reflex in dogs

Is the scratch response the same as being ticklish?

It is helpful to know whether dogs are ticklish, we should define what we mean by tickling. Tickling is the act of touching a part of the body which elicits an involuntary response result in movement. Someone who is ticklish is someone who is particularly sensitive to such physical manipulations. It can be quite a peculiar feeling. Although it often makes people laugh, this is equally involuntary and can be upsetting to the person rather than fun.

The tolerance of tickling a person can withstand will depend on the individual. The reasons for these various levels of ticklishness don't necessarily rely on he person's physiology. Their mental state can be a factor, with many people having more acute responses as a nervous reaction. They may even sense the reaction before they are physically touched. Other people might not respond much at all to being tickled.

Are dogs ticklish like humans?

Essentially, dogs are ticklish in the same way as humans. There are some key differences, but using the above definition we can see that they provide a similar response to humans. When they are manipulated in certain areas, they give an involuntary response. Sometimes this is the scratch reflex, but this is not the only way a dog will respond to being tickled.

When the nerve endings are stimulated, the response may feel pleasurable to some. You will see this when a dog lays down on their back and invites to be tickled. It shows a sense of well-being. Other dogs do not enjoy this sensation. This is partly because responses like the scratch reflex are a form of self-defense. It may make the dog feel insecure or as if they are being threatened in some way.

To know whether our dog enjoys being tickled, we need to look at the voluntary signals they give us through body language. To do this, we can look first at the signs a dog enjoys being tickled:

  • Happy facial expression
  • Licking our hands
  • Moving head towards us
  • Remaining in the same position
  • Letting us tickle them
  • Barking or vocalizing when we stop

We can also look at signs our dog does not enjoy being tickled:

  • Ears are lowered
  • Lips are curled
  • Barking or growling when we attempt to tickle them
  • Biting us when we put our hands near
  • Trying to run away

The only way we can know if our dog is ticklish is trial and error. Start by tickling them gently and gauge their response. This should be a fairly intuitive method. If they start to get angry and want you to stop, you should. They may be more in the mood at another time and you can try again. However, if they really don't enjoy it, you should not push it.

Is my dog ticklish or itchy?

An important factor when considering if a dog is ticklish is to do with skin problems. If the dog's skin is damaged by a parasitical infestation or even a fungal infection, they may become very itchy. In the wild, when a dog is itchy, they will scratch themselves against tree stumps or branches for relief. If they are responding very well to our tickles, it might be that they are looking for such relief.

When we trickle or pet our dogs, we should be observant over any issues to do with their skin. Even a wound might be itchy and the dog wants us to scratch it. Examine the dog's fur and skin. If there is the presence of dry skin, cuts or even external parasites, we need to address them. Another good time to investigate a dog's skin and fur is while grooming them. You may even see the scratch reflex occur when you move the brush over the dog.

Are Dogs Ticklish? - How to Tell - Is my dog ticklish or itchy?

Is it wrong to tickle dogs?

Now that you know that dogs can be ticklish, you might wonder if it is positive or negative for the dog. As we state above, each dog is an individual. Each dog will have their own responses, but their body language will let you know what is appropriate and what is not. This is why it is so important to get to know your dog. They will respond to tickling depending on their socialization, their past experiences with people and many other difficult to qualify aspects.

A slow approach is a healthy one. When you move toward them, ensure they know you are approaching and are doing so in an unthreatening manner. Look at their facial expressions and back down if they grow uncomfortable or defensive. You can see in the video below what a dog which doesn't like being tickled looks like.

Start by gently rubbing the top of their head or back of neck. Do it for a short time and then remove your hand. If they seem responsive, then try again. Slowly progress to other parts of their body and see what they like and don't like.

While some dogs might have trouble being tickled, many love it. They will roll over and actively encourage it. There certainly are some very ticklish dogs.

If you want to read similar articles to Are Dogs Ticklish? - How to Tell, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

References

1. Stein, P. S. G. (2003). The Scratch Reflex: The Handbook of Brain Theory and Neural Networks (2nd Edition). Cambridge: MIT Press.

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