The Right Way to Pet a Dog, According to Veterinarians

iStock/Akchamczuk
iStock/Akchamczuk

After reading that above headline, you may have thought to yourself, “There’s no right or wrong way to pet a dog. I’ve had dogs my whole life!” It’s true that canines tend to be less persnickety than cats when it comes to human affection, but veterinarians stress that there’s still some etiquette you should follow when petting a dog. This is especially true if it’s a dog you don’t know.

Much like humans, dogs are complex creatures with a wide range of personalities, so it helps to know the basics of dog psychology and body language before approaching that adorable golden retriever in the park. The best way to initiate contact with a dog (after getting the owner’s permission, of course) is to reach out and let the dog sniff your hand.

“Dogs live through their olfactory sense much more than their visual one,” Dr. Uri Burstyn, a veterinarian from Vancouver who also educates pet owners on YouTube, tells Mental Floss. Be sure to keep your hands curled, as if you were chopping vegetables, just in case the dog feels threatened and lunges to bite your fingers.

If the dog seems pretty comfortable and doesn’t recoil from your hand, the best place to pet a dog is under the chin. The one thing you should never do is immediately start patting the dog’s head. This can be seen as a dominant, aggressive gesture because dogs generally keep their nose to the ground. If a dog feels something touching the top of his head, he might think it’s a bigger dog attacking him and react in a defensive manner. “There’s an old joke that dogs can’t look up," Dr. Burstyn says. "They can, but hardly ever do.”

Ohio-based veterinary behaviorist Meghan Herron also cautions against touching a strange dog’s belly because it’s such a vulnerable area. In some cases, a dog might reveal his tummy to show that he’s feeling intimidated, and to convey that he’s not a threat. People tend to think this means the dog wants his belly scratched, but that isn’t always the case.

Of course, many dogs are comfortable with these types of interactions—even with strangers—because they’re used to being around people. However, Herron suggests erring on the side of caution. “What I recommend is just to assume they’re not [socialized] and pet them in a way that’s as least threatening as possible,” Herron tells Mental Floss. “Let it be the dog’s choice.”

Aside from these precautions, Burstyn and Herron recommend avoiding sensitive areas, like a dog’s paws or rump. Once you’re on good terms with a dog, try petting areas that are generally considered “good spots,” like the lower back and chest. This will vary depending on the dog, so pay attention to the subtle body cues they're sending you. A wagging tail just means a dog is ready to interact, which could mean that the dog is ready to bite. Instead, look for a dog with a wildly waving "helicopter tail" whose body is wiggly and loose, rather than stiff and rigid, Herron says. These are signs that a dog is happy and comfortable.

Do you have a kitty at home, too? Check out Burstyn’s advice for the right way to hold a cat, or visit his YouTube page for more pet tips.

Beyond Tiger King: 10 Fascinating Animal Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

A scene from Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018).
A scene from Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018).
Markham Street Films

By now, you've probably already binged Netflix's bewilderingly bonkers docuseries Tiger King (2020). If you're ready to dive deeper into the animal kingdom, there are plenty more documentaries out there. From wildcats to whales, these 10 films will take you on a cinematic adventure around the world, introducing you to captivating creatures and the people who love them.

1. The Tigers of Scotland (2017)

The Tigers of Scotland (2017) brings viewers as up close and personal as possible with a small but mighty feline: the Scottish wildcat. The film delves into the efforts to conserve the disappearing Highland tiger, as well as the history and mythology surrounding the UK’s only “big cat.”

Watch it: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes

2. Ghost of The Mountains (2017)

This 2017 Disneynature documentary will transport you to the world’s highest plateau in search of a family of snow leopards. These cats are famously tough to find, so Ghost of the Mountains offers viewers behind-the-scenes footage of what it’s like to track the elusive beasts.

Watch it: Netflix, Google Play, Youtube

3. Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018)

This delightful documentary takes you deep into the competitive cat show circuit. Both charming and at times cutthroat, the film brings viewers on a journey to see which of the many cool cats and kittens will be crowned Canada's top cat.

Watch it: Netflix

4. Kingdom of the White Wolf (2019)

Follow along as a National Geographic explorer and photographer embeds with a white wolf pack in the high Arctic. These wild wolves aren't used to seeing people, giving the filmmakers—and audience—an intimate window into the pack's daily lives and familial bonds. In addition to showcasing captivating footage of the animals, the three-part docuseries also features sweeping views of the starkly beautiful Ellesmere Island.

Watch it: Disney+, YouTube TV

5. Dogs (2018)

This docuseries, which highlights various dogs and their humans from around the world, celebrates the bond between people and their pups. But it’s more than just a montage of feel-good moments about humankind’s best friend: Each episode tells a broader tale about the human condition, crafting an emotional narrative that pulls at the heartstrings like a puppy tugging on a toy.

Watch it: Netflix

6. Dancing with the Birds (2019)

These birds will put your dad moves to shame. Watch the male avian performers shimmy, shake, and flash their feathers while attempting to woo their female mates. The documentary, narrated by Stephen Fry, offers a colorful look at the wonderfully wacky world of bird mating rituals.

Watch it: Netflix

7. Honeyland (2019)

This documentary follows Hatidze Muratova, one of the last wild beekeepers in a remote village in North Macedonia. She lives with her ailing mother, nurturing a traditional way of beekeeping passed down through the generations and striking a balance between making a living and maintaining ecological balance. But everything changes when a nomadic family settles nearby, threatening Muratova’s way of life. The resulting story is both sweet and stinging.

Watch it: Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play

8. Virunga (2014)

This 2014 documentary highlights the park rangers fighting to protect the Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. As poaching and oil exploration threaten the park, the rangers and conservationists risk their lives to guard the rare creatures that inhabit it.

Watch it: Netflix

9. Harry & Snowman (2016)

In the 1950s, Harry deLayer bought Snowman, a run-down plow horse destined for slaughter, for just $80 at an auction. Within months, the two were taking the show jumping circuit by storm, launching both horse and rider to new heights. This documentary tells the story of the friendship the two developed, and chronicles their lives both in and out of the competitive spotlight.

Watch it: Amazon Prime

10. The Whale and the Raven (2019)

The waters around Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest are a haven for whales, who feed and find refuge in the quiet channels. With stunning visuals, this documentary highlights the tension of a community’s push to protect its wild places against the pressures of the ever-encroaching natural gas industry.

Watch it: Amazon Prime

Why Cats Like to Shove Their Butts in Your Face, According to an Animal Behavior Expert

This cat might be happier showing off its butt.
This cat might be happier showing off its butt.
Okssi68/iStock via Getty Images

Cats are full of eccentric behaviors. They hate getting wet. Their tongues sometimes get stuck midway out of their mouths, known as a “blep.” And they’re really happy hanging out in bodegas.

Some of these traits can be explained while others are more mysterious. Case in point: when they stick their rear end in your face for no apparent reason.

Are cats doing this just to humiliate their hapless caregivers? What would possess a cat to greet a person with its butt? Why subject the person who gives you food and shelter to such degradation?

To find out, Inverse spoke with Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. According to Delgado, cats don’t necessarily perceive their rectal flaunting as anything aggressive or domineering. In fact, it might be a cat’s way of saying hello.

“For cats, it’s normal for them to sniff each other’s butts as a way to say hello or confirm another cat’s identity,” Delgado said. “It’s hard for us to relate to, but for them, smell is much more important to cats and how they recognize each other than vision is. So cats may be ‘inviting’ us to check them out, or just giving us a friendly hello.”

For a cat, presenting or inspecting a butt is a kind of fingerprint scan. It’s a biological measure of security.

Other experts agree with this assessment, explaining that cats use their rear end to express friendliness or affection. Raising their tail so you can take a whiff is a sign of trust. If they keep their tail down, it’s possible they might be feeling a little shy.

If you think this situation is eased by the fact you rarely hear cats fart, we have bad news. They do. Because they don’t often gulp air while eating, they just don’t have enough air in their digestive tract to make an audible noise. Rest assured that, statistically speaking, there will be times a cat giving you a friendly greeting is also stealthily farting in your face.

[h/t Inverse]

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