Many dogs dislike being touched or patted on the top of the head. All it takes is a quick search on the internet to see countless photos of dogs showing stressed body language while being patted on the head. Body language signals your dog might exhibit are ducking away, lowering of the head, stepping away, putting the ears back, licking lips, or whale eye (whites of eyes visible).
Humans seem to be disposed to want to pat a dog on the head; this is likely for several reasons. A dog’s head is usually the closest part of the dog we can reach. For some dogs we don’t even have to bend down to reach our dog’s head. Humans seem to mimic this behavior from other humans. Think of a parent lovingly stroking their child’s hair. Children may enjoy this, but most dogs do not.
Humans can also be quite rough when patting a dog on the head, and it may not be an enjoyable experience for your dog. Coupled with the fact that dogs inherently dislike something reaching down from above toward them, most dogs quickly learn to associate a hand reaching toward their head with discomfort or stress. This leads many dogs to become head shy, and they learn to duck out of the way of a hand reaching toward them.
This can be an annoyance when you have to follow your dog across the room to put on his leash, or even downright dangerous if you need to grab your dog in an emergency and he ducks away from you.
But the good news is there are many things that you can do to prevent head shyness and even give your dog a positive association with someone reaching towards their head.
Never allow a well-meaning stranger to pat your dog on the head. Most dogs are comfortable being patted or scratched on their chest, chin or back. Kindly ask that others pet your dog in those areas. If that isn’t possible, try turning your dog to face you, which presents his back to the person who wants to pet him. You can do this by rewarding your dog with a treat every time you call his name and he turns to check in with you. Do this for several weeks, making sure to practice in many different locations in and out of the house and then start weaning off the treats so you can use this technique while out and about. While at home you’ll still want to practice touching your dog’s head because you can’t trust that a stranger will follow your instructions for petting gently rather than patting roughly.
Teach your dog that reaching for his head is a good thing! The simplest way to do this is to use a clicker to click and then immediately treat whenever you reach toward your dog. Or, in lieu of a clicker, just say a positive short praise word, like “yes” and then treat.
Start by sitting on the floor or in a chair so you’re not towering over your dog and gradually work up to standing. This is a fun and easy game that most dogs take to very quickly. You can progressively increase the challenge by feeding your dog a treat while reaching toward and touching his head and then tossing a treat away from you and waiting for your dog to come back toward your outstretched hand before clicking and treating again. This not only gets your dog comfortable with you reaching toward your dog, but also encourages him to come toward an outstretched hand. This is great practice for your dog’s name response or recall! This training process is known as conditioning, which essentially means we’re changing the way our dog’s brain processes a situation, in this case from negative to positive.
Get your dog checked out by a veterinarian. If head shy behavior is new or out of the ordinary for your dog, it could be that your dog is ill or in pain. This is especially true for older dogs who may be starting to develop arthritis or old-age related aches and pains.
If your dog is head shy, spend 5 minutes each day conditioning him or her to enjoy a hand reaching toward their head. It requires some time and effort up front, but you’ll be rewarded with a dog who is happy to have you reach for him and will even come running toward an outstretched hand!