Getting a kick out of your dog
Tickle your dog’s belly or ribs and its foot will quickly flick out and jiggle around like it’s frantically strumming an air guitar. The very sight of this involuntary wonder of the pet owning world is enough to keep men, women and children entertained for hours.
A quick scrub around the tummy may be a sure fire way of showing your dog affection and amusing yourself as their leg stretches back and forth, but the response serves a serious purpose for your dog. The instinctiveness of the scratch reflex exists to keep your pet safe from dangerous parasites and irritants.
Sitting beneath small areas of your dog’s skin are collections of neural pathways that are connected to the spinal cord. A scratch or tickle quickly sends messages to the spinal cord, which instructs the dog’s leg to kick out. Many pooches’ legs will flick rapidly if they are sensitive to human intervention and they can really feel your touch.
It’s thought that the scratch reflex came about as a way for canines to protect themselves against irritants on their bodies, especially unwanted bugs that carry diseases. The movement of insects on a dog’s skin causes the itching that provokes a reaction from the scratch reflex, which in turn helps to knock off fleas and alleviate any discomfort.
If your pet suffers from allergies, animal behavioural experts believe that it will be more likely to respond to a quick tickle in animated fashion, as they are already bordering on being itchy and rubbing the skin is likely to elicit a response.
The reflex is similar to some seen in humans. By using a similar response mechanism in the nervous system, our body will rapidly draw limbs away from danger. For example, if our hand comes into contact with something really hot we will instinctively draw it away and into the body without taking the time to determine what’s causing the discomfort, even when we can’t see the heat source. The spinal cord recognises pain very quickly and jerk a hand away from danger before the brain has chance to recognise the event.
Vets will often try to coax a response from a dog’s sensitive spots when checking for nerve damage, pretty much like a doctor testing a person’s knee reflexes during a checkup. So there you have it, it’s unlikely your canine is a Clapton fan or strumming along to Santana, he’s just doing what comes naturally!