Admit it. You love putting your dog on his back and tickling his soft belly. Because it’s so darn cute the way his legs shake uncontrollably when you get to that “sweet spot.” And he seems to like it. Sometimes, he even looks like he’s laughing.
But dogs aren’t human beings. In the first place, can dogs be ticklish? Can they really be “laughing” because they’re being tickled? And if so… do they like being tickled?
Human vs. canine tickles
What do we humans mean when we talk about tickles or being “ticklish?” Can we apply that to dogs?
To answer that, we need to remember that we humans experience two types of tickles.
Type #1. Knismesis
Knismesis is that mild tickly-prickly you get when something light and tiny (e.g., a crawling ant or dog whiskers) brushes up against a sensitive spot of your skin. It’s not the sort of tickle that we find funny. It just triggers goosebump flesh, raised hairs, and an urge to scratch.
Dogs experience knismesis, too. When a flea crawls on their ear, they get that tickly-prickly feeling and it triggers a scratch reflex — they immediately start pawing at it.
Type #2. Gargalesis
But when we humans talk of the “tickles,” we often mean that far more intense tickling sensation we get when someone grabs our most sensitive parts. Gargalesis gives us such a shocking shiver that we dissolve into fits of laughter.
But do dogs experience gargalesis, too?
The tickled dog
Right now, there isn’t any scientific study that says dogs have gargalesis. But there are observations and related studies which suggest that, under certain conditions, dogs can “laugh” when tickled.
Your dog comes closest to giggling like a tickled toddler when he exhibits the following three behaviors:
1. Play mode
I’m sure you’re familiar with how a dog’s body language goes when he’s in play mode, especially among young dogs:
- Doing the “play-bow” position (head, chest, and front legs lowered, ready to pounce)
- Making the “play face” (eyes wide and staring intently, mouth open with the tongue out, ears up and forward)
- Tail wagging
- Running back and forth (i.e., chasing or wanting to be chased)
- Excited panting and vocalizing
- Jumping (around or onto you)
- Light nipping and licking
- Rolling on the ground with belly exposed (to you)
According to some animal behaviorists, playing is one way a dog learns how to be affectionate with other members of his “pack” or family (which includes his human parents).
So if you tickle your dog while he’s in play mode, he’ll understand that you’re responding to his invitation to play and that you’re being affectionate.
2. Jiggling legs
OK, so you’re tickling your dog’s undersides during playtime. What’s causing your dog to kick his legs whenever you do that?
It’s a form of knismesis. This time, instead of giving your dog the urge to scratch, it triggers an involuntary response — that of kicking or shaking a leg. Think of it as a combination of the scratch reflex and that knee-jerk reflex action humans have when a doctor taps a knee.
But is it unpleasant for your dog? Probably not. Especially when he’s in the mood for affection and play, and you don’t overdo it.
Some of my friends even claim their dogs are “addicted” to this sort of neurological stimulation. (Their dogs repeatedly offer their bellies up for tickling. And as they shake their legs in the air, they wag their tails — a sure sign that they’re enjoying it!) I suspect it’s like the doggie version of human ASMR or auto-sensory meridian response.
3. Dog laugh
According to some studies, “dog-laughs” do exist. Those are the breathy, strong exhalations you hear whenever dogs play with you, another pet, or a toy. This is a dog’s way of signaling they want to play and that they’re enjoying playtime.
So when you tickle your dog during playtime, listen carefully. If he makes that sound, it means he knows you’re playing with him… and he’s laughing because he’s getting tickled.
Bonding with your dog
Whenever your dog enjoys your tickling, it has a positive effect on him. He knows he’s safe in your loving hands. It reinforces his sense of security.
However, here are a few cautionary tips to remember:
- Sensitive spots and degrees of sensitivity vary from dog to dog. Some dogs have them only near their loins. Others have them everywhere, not just in their bellies, but also in their back, neck, ears, and paws. And then a few dogs get so uncomfortable in some sensitive areas, they snap at you. So choose your tickle spots carefully!
- Nervous dogs tend to shy away from touch and tickling. (Especially rescue dogs, who suffer from trauma.) If your dog behaves this way, you can still use tickling to help ease his anxiety. Start with slow, gentle, light petting. Once your dog learns to enjoy affection, he will relax and allowing you to start some gentle tickling. This positive reinforcement (plus the occasional treat as a reward) will make him associate human touch with happiness.
- If you have an older, more passive dog who’s not into rough play, perhaps a gentler form of tickling is more appropriate. Try massaging or lightly scratching his ears, especially when you clean them. Nearly all dogs respond to ear cleaning and ear massage by relaxing and falling asleep. (Works on young dogs, too!)
So yes, dogs can be ticklish. Dogs can “laugh” when tickled during playtime. And when done properly, tickling can strengthen the bond between you and your dog.