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Many dogs lower their head when you pet them as if they are trying to avoid your hands, why is that?

Turns out, some dogs can be "hand shy" and may find the act of being pet on the head as unpleasant. Some dogs even find it downright scary.

Discover why some dogs react this way and what better ways you can interact with them so to not trigger this reaction. 

Hands Moving Towards the Head

Patting dogs on the head is a gesture that many people do upon meeting a dog. Dogs though may perceive this as intimidating. 

One main reason for this is the fact that dogs don't pat each other on the head or back when they meet. Head patting is exclusively something humans do and dogs may not be used to it and therefore find it rather intimidating. 

When a hand moves towards the head, the dog may not understand what our intention is. It doesn't matter if we are sweet talking and smiling--to the dog a hand moving towards the head can be interpreted as something scary. 

We have proof of this by carefully observing the dog's body language when we are looming over them and patting them on the head. 

In particular, quick and rough head pats can be dreaded by many dogs.

Many dogs feel uncomfortable upon being patted on the head. This dogs doesn't seem very happy. 

Many dogs feel uncomfortable upon being patted on the head. This dogs doesn't seem very happy. 

Past Negative Experiences 

Many of the dogs I know who are hand shy are small dogs with coats that require grooming. Upon asking the owners, I often find that these are dogs who find the whole experience of being groomed scary.

 Every time hands move towards their head they may think the dreaded scissors or loud scary equipment such as clippers or hair dryers will come out. 

Sometimes, dogs may not like hands near their head because they had eye drops or ear drops put on their ears and they found this whole experience frightening. 

Negative experiences though aren't only connected to bad grooming experiences. If somebody the dog is hesitant about quickly moves into the dog's space and tries to pat the head, the dog may instinctively cower and lower the head as an act of avoidance. 

Sadly, there are also cases of dogs acting fearful of hands approaching them because they were physically corrected or even abused. However, this is not always the case, there are many other more likely factors (such as poor socialization) at play. This is discussed next. 

History of Poor Socialization

Many puppies miss the important socialization period (which roughly opens as early as when they are 3 weeks old and closes once they're between 12 and 16 weeks). The recent pandemic has certainly not helped. 

During this time, puppies should be exposed to as many people, other animals, other dogs etc. in a positive way so to build up a "library" of experiences that will help shape the puppy's future personality. 

Many times, when puppies aren't exposed to enough people and aren't used to being handled in positive ways, they may becomes suspicious or even fearful of humans.

A person looming over the dog with their hand moving quickly towards them can easily startle them causing them to lower their head or move away. 

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Lack of Confidence

Dogs come in many different personalities, from soft dogs to more confident dogs who don't have any problems in being approached and pet by people. 

Some dogs though who are shy and not very confident, may struggle with social encounters and they may feel the need to show they mean no threat.

These dogs may therefore respond to hands attempting to pat them on the head by slinking away and/or showing appeasement gestures such as lip licking, keeping the head and body low and the tail between the legs.

This dog is showing appeasement gestures such as lip licking and lowering the head and body. 

This dog is showing appeasement gestures such as lip licking and lowering the head and body. 

A Matter of Pain

If a dog has always showed signs of been fine with being petted on the head, but now is lowering the head as a sign of avoidance, there may be chances that the dog in question may be suffering  from some medical ailment. 

For instance, dogs with ear infections may cower and lower the head as they dread being touched and don't want hands anywhere need their ears. 

Hand Patting as a "Reward"

Some food for thought.  If you are patting your dog on the head to reward him for a good behavior, think again. From your dog's perspective you may be punishing him rather than rewarding him. 

When you punish, you are making the good behavior less likely to occur in future, when instead, you want it to occur more. 

It is therefore important evaluating how your dog personally feels about being patted on the head.

 If after patting your dog, your dog sticks next to you as if asking for more, chances are, he may like the interaction. If he cringes and moves away, then take that as a sign it's not much appreciated. 

When in doubt, best to err on the side of caution and reward your dog using other types of reinforcers such as praise, treats or a doggy belly rub if your dog ultimately loves that. 

"Dog lovers everywhere think they are using positive reinforcement when they pat their dog’s head for coming when called; the actual result is to teach him or her, with stunning effectiveness, to stay away." ~ Patricia McConnell, For the Love of a Dog, Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend

Petting your dog under the chin may be better tolerated by some dogs. 

Petting your dog under the chin may be better tolerated by some dogs. 

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs have their own good reasons for lowering their head when you pet them.  Of course, not all dogs dread being patted on the head. 

Many well-socialized dogs come to learn to tolerate head pats from people, although they may perceive them to be a bit odd or unpleasant. 

Others though really find head pats truly aversive, especially when the head patting is rough or at inappropriate times such as when the dog is eating, tired, stressed or concentrated on something else. 

Following are several tips for dogs who don't appreciate head pats. 

  • Rule out medical problems. Some dogs dread hands near their faces when they are suffering from some underlying medical issues such as tooth pain or ear infections. 
  • Avoid patting the head of dogs you don't know. A stranger dog may even bite when hands approach his head or face. 
  • Choose alternate ways to interact with a dog. Rather than patting the head, try reaching under the dog’s chin and scratching him there or you can also pat him on the shoulder, suggests Tracie Hotchner in the book: "The Dog Bible, Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know."
  • If a stranger starts heavily patting your dog on the head, be your dog's ambassador. Let him know how your dog struggles with that, but would rather receive a little scratch under her chin. 
  • Get your puppy used to being handled and touched from a young age creating positive associations with it. Here is a basic guide: handling exercises for puppies.
  • If your dog ever shows fear or aggressive behaviors upon being touched, consult with a dog trainer or behavior consultant using force-free behavior modification.  

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