Most people know that dogs like to be petted. In fact, most people’s first instinct when introduced to a dog is to pet them. But few people actually know why dogs like to be petted. So why do we pet dogs?
While we can’t ask a dog for the answer to this question, we can make a few educated guesses. Keep reading for all the reasons that your dog might like to be petted.
The 5 Reasons Why Dogs Like to Be Petted
1. It Works as Communication
When you think about it, dogs and humans have a strange relationship. While symbiotic relationships exist throughout the animal kingdom, there is not one that is as strong as the relationship between people and their dogs.
To help keep this relationship strong and functional, communication has developed between the two species and has built up over thousands of years of domestication.1 It probably didn’t all occur at once. But the dogs and people who were able to communicate together could work better together, which contributed to both their survival.
We do know that dogs and humans are some of the few species that can communicate through eye contact. This is quite rare because most animals consider eye contact to be a threat.
Furthermore, dogs understand pointing to an extent, a behavior that is only practiced by people. It is unclear whether this is an innate understanding or if dogs learn this behavior.
Therefore, it is likely that petting is one way of communication. Just like people use physical contact to communicate (e.g., hugs), dogs and people may use petting as a way to communicate with each other — for example, if you’ve ever petted your dog when saying hello or praising them.
2. It Helps With Bonding
The link between people and dogs is so strong, we can actually alter each other’s hormone levels.
For instance, physical contact with a dog increases a human’s oxytocin level. This hormone is known as the “bonding” hormone and is the primary hormone behind the parent-baby connection. Therefore, we bond with our pets in a physical, innate way.
When you stare into the eyes of your dog, there is a huge jump in oxytocin for both of you. This hints that dogs hijacked the human bonding system thousands of years ago, which is why many of us find ourselves caring strongly for a member of a different species. There is evidence that petting does the same thing. Even if petting itself doesn’t directly correspond with increased bonding, it does open a window for other bonding behaviors to occur, like eye contact.
3. It Has Health Purposes
Petting seems to be linked to positive health consequences for both people and dogs. Both exhibit lowered blood pressure after petting or being petted, respectively. Therefore, it may simply be that the humans and dogs that underwent this ritual were more likely to survive. Over time, this led to most dogs and people taking part in petting.
Of course, this difference isn’t so large that it can account for all petting. While health reasons may be involved, they are likely not the only factors.
4. It Helps Us “Check-In”
Petting is like having a conversation. You are checking in on your dog, and they are checking in on you. This can be done in different ways.
For example, we know that people get a great deal of information through touch. One study found that people could interpret someone’s emotional state just by their touch. Therefore, we may be getting a clue on our dog’s emotional state by petting them.
There is a possibility that dogs can do this too, though it hasn’t been studied. However, we do know that dogs get a large amount of information through smell, and petting does enable them to get close enough to smell us.
5. It Simply Feels Good
Finally, being petted may simply feel good. While humans often don’t pat each other on the head as a greeting, physical touch is everywhere in our world, including rituals like hugging and shaking hands.
Dogs are touch-oriented beings too. It could simply be that they like the physical touch of a pet.
We don’t know exactly why dogs like to be petted. This is an extremely difficult thing to test in a scientific sense, and we can’t exactly ask a dog to tell us why they like it. Even so, most people don’t know why they like certain physical contact, so it is unlikely that dogs would be able to tell us, anyway. Do you know exactly why you like to be hugged, for instance?
There are many possible reasons that dogs may like to be petted. Different dogs may like to be petted at different times for different reasons.
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