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Why Do Dogs Shake Their Bodies After You Pet Them? The Unexpected Truth - PawSafe

Why Do Dogs Shake Their Bodies After You Pet Them? The Unexpected Truth

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

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“Why do dogs shake their bodies after you pet them?” is a question that may have crossed your mind more than once if you’ve noticed this. The more sensitive among us may wonder if our dogs are trying to get rid of our smell or if they find our scratches annoying.

Thankfully, this is not the case. But that doesn’t mean body shaking after being petted is a good sign. This is actually a complicated behavioral cue that many dog lovers overlook or just don’t notice.

Dogs tend to shake themselves after a good wash with a quality doggy shampoo and conditioner or after a brush with a pet grooming glove that gives a similar feel to being petted. But they may also do it after a cuddling or playing. So, what’s the deal with this behavior?

To answer this question, we will refer to the work of Dr. Camille Pastor, DVM, Ph.D., and her colleagues from the University of Milan and other canine behavioral experts and studies.

Usually, a dog shaking their body as if they are wet when aren’t is a displacement behavior. A displacement behavior happens when a dog has a inner conflict, such as wanting to do something but feeling anxious about doing it. Of course, most dogs love butt scratches and other forms of petting but in some circumstances they may feel uncomfortable.

So, body shaking after an interaction does not always mean a dog is happy or satisfied. But it’s essential to note body language cues to give any behavior context. Signs that a dog is happy include:

  • a relaxed body, 
  • an open mouth with a tongue lolling, 
  • and a tail in a neutral position. 

Also, studies on tail wagging show that happy dogs wag their tail more to the right than to the left. Wagging to the left indicates stress and fear. This is important to note if your dog is shaking their body after being petted, cuddled, or scratched.

Signs of discomfort and stress can be subtle. They can include:

  • Licking their lips
  • Yawning; 
  • Moving away;
  • Closing eyes, looking away, or giving the whale eye (averting the head and looking at you through the side eye, so you can see the eye whites);
  • Sniffing the ground as though they’ve lost interest.

Looking for these behavior signals is important because sometimes, a dog shaking their body after being petted is a sign of stress or overstimulation. So, let’s go over the particular reasons dogs shake themselves after being touched.

To “Shake Off” Feelings Of Being Uncomfortable Or Stressed

When dogs are dry, body shaking is often a sign that they find something stressful and uncomfortable, or they feel a little ambivalent about it. This is called the “shake-off.” Shaking off while dry is usually a displacement behavior and signals that the dog feels conflicted. Perhaps they enjoyed being petted but they got too excited, or were not comfortable with the person petting them. This conflicted feeling manifest as them literally shaking it off.

Dogs usually shake off when playing with other dogs, but it can happen after petting them. Situations to look out for include:

  • A stranger petting your dog;
  • A child squealing and overwhelming your dog;
  • A shelter or rescue dog that is finds being petted a bit scary or over exciting;
  • A dog being hugged while petted; and
  • Being groomed when they don’t like it.

Studies by Dr. Stanley Coren show that most dogs find hugging to be stressful. So dogs may shake themselves afterward.

The dog’s shake-off behavior is a bit like when we get the heebie-jeebies, and we shiver in disgust and fear. It’s not something dogs do on purpose; rather it’s a reflex to help regulate and soothe their nervous system.

According to Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky body shaking is also a sign of neurogenic tremors in animals. In short, when an animal is stressed, it activates its sympathetic nervous system, and this floods its system with stress hormones. After the stress, shaking the body is a way to literally shake the tension out of the body.

In extreme traumatic cases, animals may have full-body tremors after an event that looks a bit like a seizure. But for little things (like being petted by a stranger), a dog’s body can release a small rush of adrenaline and cortisol. So shaking the body afterward is a way to eliminate inner tension.

Always be on the lookout for a “shake off” reflex from a dog, and don’t be afraid to separate your dog from anybody who may be petting them at the time. It is often a signal that needs some distance and time to settle down.

Shaking To Signal The End Of An Activity Or Being Overexcited

If you’ve had a very excitable petting or play session with your dog, your dog may give themselves a good shake afterward to calm themselves down. This is a way to signal that the excitement is over and it’s time to settle down and relax.

This is most common after an intense play session with you or another dog. When a dog shakes at the end of playing, this is the same shake-off behavior above that signals stress, only it happens when a dog becomes excited too. It means the dog would like to take a moment to calm down. It’s not uncommon in dog parks for a playing dog to get a little overwhelmed and “shake off.”

It can happen that the other dog may take this as a cue to launch themselves onto to the dog who is feeling anxious. So if you see your dog shaking off while playing with another dog you may need to quietly intervene.

You can see an example of “shaking off” in this video:

When your dog shakes after playing, wrestling, petting (either with you or another dog), it’s a sign that they need to take a second to reset and calm down. Put some distance between them and other dogs and allow them to settle down.

Shaking To Get Rid Of Dead Hair And Irritants

Shaking their body also helps dogs get rid of any irritants on their skin or fur. When dead hair is building up in their coat due to shedding, or if they have an itch or aggravation, dogs will shake their bodies to get rid of it. Of course, this is most common in wet dogs.

When you scratch your dog’s skin, you may scratch itchy areas they can’t reach themselves. You may also dislodge loose hair, and dogs will reflexively shake to get rid of it further. This is just a natural grooming reflex.

Shaking From Pleasure

It’s possible that dogs shake their bodies after being petted sometimes simply because it feels good to them. It’s like how humans wiggle their toes or stretch after sitting for a long time.

Shaking in these situations is usually accompanied by wiggling. Happy dogs who enjoyed the experience may wriggle their whole bodies in pleasure.

Why would a dog shake while you pet them?

Why would a dog shake while you pet them?

If your dog is shaking while being petted, rather than doing a body shake afterward, then the dog is likely afraid, anxious, or overexcited. You may also see submissive behaviors like crouching, tucking the tail, turning their belly up, and licking. They may even leak urine.

If your dog suddenly starts shaking and trembling (and it’s not cold), be alert to health issues. Sudden shaking or trembling could be a sign of seizures, kidney disease, injury, poisoning, and a host of other severe issues that need a veterinarian. Other signs, like vomiting, diarrhea, and a loss of consciousness, could all signal a medical emergency.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why Do Dogs Shake Their Heads After You Touch Them?

Head shaking in dogs is often a sign of medical issues, such as an ear infection. Dogs can’t scratch their own heads, so if you rub it for them, they shake their head to dislodge dead hair and debris or because they enjoyed the pet. However, sometimes head shaking can be a sign that a dog is done with the interaction and finds it stressful to be touched. This is called “shake-off” behavior.

Why Do Dogs Shake Their Body After They Get Up?

Shaking the body after they wake up is a lot like stretching. Dogs do it to wake themselves up and get their blood circulating. It’s also a natural response to fluff out their coat when it’s been pressed down by their bodies. A fluffed-out coat means better insulation from the weather than one that is compressed, tangled, or matted. When dog hair stands up it is called piloerection.

Why Do Dogs Shake Their Bodies When They Are Asleep?

Dogs usually twitch, tremble, and shake their bodies while asleep because they are dreaming. This is a normal part of their sleep cycle and occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. There is no need to wake your dog up if they are shaking in their sleep unless they are clearly distressed by a nightmare.

Is My Dog Twitching In Sleep Or Having A Seizure?

Dogs twitching or shaking in their sleep may whimper, kick, on and off for about 30 seconds. It will also be easy to wake them. However, in a seizure, a dog’s legs are stiff and the twitching is usually violent, and you can’t wake them until the seizure is over. The whole body will be rigid. They may also foam at the mouth, appear confused, or lose consciousness.

What Does It Mean When A Dog “Shakes Off” When They Are Dry?

Shaking off while dry is a dog’s response to stress or excitement. It usually happens when a dog is playing too rough with another dog or even if it is uncomfortable in interactions with humans. Shaking themselves off is a reflex to relieve stress, tension, overexcitement, or being overwhelmed. It usually means that a dog needs some space to settle and calm down.

Final thoughts

It’s important to note that while shaking after being petted is usually a harmless behavior, excessive shaking or shaking accompanied by other symptoms (such as lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, or walking in circles) could be a sign of an underlying health issue. If you’re concerned about your dog’s shaking behavior, consulting with a veterinarian is always a good idea.

Dogs shake their bodies after being petted for various reasons, including the “shake off” reflex that shows stress or excitement. It usually means a dog needs some quiet time and a moment to reset, so don’t force them to keep interacting with the person petting them or with other dogs.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

Author

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.