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Are Dogs Ticklish?

Written by Anna Hollisey


chihuahua lying on back enjoying some tickles

Sunday afternoon… everyone’s on the couch and your pooch is getting some well-deserved belly rubs. Suddenly, their hind leg starts rotating at super-speed. What’s happened? You triggered their scratch reflex!

What’s the Scratch Reflex (or Clockwork Leg)?

This funny little quirk has entertained dog owners since the dawn of domesticity. Scratch your furry friend’s ‘sweet spot’ and they’ll respond in an instinctive (and very comedic) way. Their leg may not even come into contact with the spot you scratched; they just know they’ve gotta do it!

So what’s up with that? In 1906, English neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington became fascinated with the phenomenon. In his acclaimed book he explained that the ‘scratch reflex’ in dogs was caused when certain nerves were irritated, sending a signal (at a slight delay) to the brain to scratch. Those nerves cluster in areas such as the lower belly. 

But why? It’s been suggested that this scratch reflex is a defense mechanism to protect dogs against biting mites and fleas. It was necessary in the days before we started treating them with Spot-on. Have you noticed that the ‘sweet spot’ tends to be in a place with less fur? That could be because it’s the easiest place for insects to latch on… and, of course, for dogs to take a swipe at them. 

Does your dog like being rubbed there? Some do, and some don’t. It’s wise to watch their response – if they move away or turn sharply towards your hand, they might not like being triggered. But if they ignore you or stretch out for more belly-rubs, that’s a go-ahead.

Once you know where to find it, you’ll want to find it again – especially when visitors come over!

Are Dogs Ticklish?

Most dogs LOVE being rubbed and petted. And many do have ticklish spots! As well as the ‘sweet spot’, lots of dogs have their own favorite places – like their chests, ears, or top of the head. And if your dog rolls over onto their back while they’re getting affection, you can bet they love having their tummy rubbed. They may even do a pleasurable stretch at the same time. 

Is Your Dog Super-Sensitive?

While the ‘sweet spot’ reflex is normal, most dogs won’t scratch with their foot when they’re rubbed in other places. So if yours is unusually fidgety, you’d be right to think something might be up. That thing might be an infestation of fleas, a tick, or ear mites. Or it could be an allergy. 

Dogs with skin allergies tend to develop extra sensitivity. They’ll raise a paw to scratch when you rub them, because their body is telling them that something is causing irritation. They may also over-scratch a problem area like paws or face, causing red and infected sores. If this is the case, you should get them checked out by a vet. They’ll be able to diagnose allergies through testing and a process of elimination. 

Skin allergies are typically caused by food or environmental allergens, including pollen, grass, beef, dairy, or wheat. The good news is that these allergies can usually be treated or avoided. 

If you suspect an allergy, you should always run your theory past the vet. They’ll be able to rule out sinister things and help you to determine a course of action (which might include antihistamines, medicated bathing, and dietary updates). If you’re looking for a supplement, check out SOOTHE/products/soothe. It contains loads of good stuff – including Omega-3 and Floradapt – to support sleek, healthy skin from the inside out.

Should You Tickle Your Dog?

Does your dog like the attention? It’s important to gauge your dog’s body language and stroke them on their own terms. A relaxed dog will have floppy limbs and relaxed ears. Exposing their belly is a sign that they trust you. 

So if they’re up for it, you should definitely spend time stroking or tickling your dog. Research shows that stroking releases oxytocin (the feel-good hormone) for both dogs and their owner, increasing mental wellbeing and serenity. Studies have proven that dog ownership reduces stress and blood pressure, too! So many reasons to stretch out and snuggle with your favorite canine. 

The Benefits of Tickling Your Dog

But this simple act doesn’t just increase the dog-owner bond: it serves some valuable purposes, too. 

For example, tickling our dogs can get them accustomed to gentle handling, which helps us to get them examined or treated at the vet. This applies especially to their paws, where the nerves are especially sensitive. Sometimes dogs can get grass seeds lodged between their claws, which can develop into lesions or infections. If they’re accustomed to having you touch their feet, they’ll let you examine and remove the foreign object – which could save a costly trip to the vet.

If your dog has body parts which are sensitive – like mouth, ears, or paws – you can desensitize them by training. Use lots of rewards and give them continuously while gently ‘examining’ their heads and feet. Don’t do anything sudden; just let your dog get used to the idea. Keep repeating the process so they won’t panic when a vet or nurse wants to check them out. 

Here’s another good reason to stroke your dog on a daily basis. You can sometimes notice new symptoms when you are giving them affection. For instance, older dogs can develop tender hips or spine – and you’ll notice they flinch or abruptly sit down when you touch the sore place. That’s a sign to check them out with the vet. 

Try Doggy Massage

If your dog tends to get stressed, anxious, or achy, you can help by trying out some canine massage at home. 

Yep. It’s a genuine therapy now. Since we discovered that touch benefits our dogs, even veterinarians have started recommending massage. You can find an accredited masseuse… or you can give it a try yourself. 

PetMD spoke to an animal therapist and acupuncturist to learn about four basic techniques, and they’re all totally doable at home. (Just know that dogs with arthritis should be treated by a specialist.) Enjoy your new skill!