Uncontrollable legs kicks are the cutest, but what do they mean?

We’re all guilty of overindulging our four-legged friends here and there. From belly rubs to extra treats, we shower our pups with affection every day. Believe it or not, studies have shown they use gestures to show their love in return; that back scratch or never-ending game of fetch doesn’t go unnoticed.

But if you’ve ever scratched that oh-do-good spot that makes your dog’s leg go wild while giving him extra love, you may be wondering if that flinch gives your dog a happy tickle. Is it just a reflex, or are dogs ticklish? And, most importantly, do they like it?

Can you tickle a dog?

The answer is in how you define a tickle. In humans, there are two types of tickle sensations. The first, knismesis, is a very light tickle that doesn’t make you laugh but may give you goosebumps, like when a bug is crawling on you. The second is gargalesis which can send you into a fit of laughter.

Scientists have found that knismesis is common in mammals, including dogs, as a natural reflex. This involuntary response results from neurological stimulation, and it’s easy to consider the importance of this automatic reflex as a form of protection and survival. If a dog has fleas or other irritants on him, for instance, he needs an alert to scratch it away.

While gargalesis hasn’t been officially found in dogs, some dog owners believe their dogs laugh in response to tickles or play. In fact, Patricia Simonet of Sierra Nevada College explored laugher in dogs specifically. After categorizing growls, whines, barks, and pants, she identified a breathy sound that dogs only made at play as a “dog laugh.”

Why do dogs kick their hind legs when you scratch them?

We all know that one spot that’s sure to make your dog’s leg start kicking uncontrollably. As adorable as it is to watch, this “sweet spot” reaction is simply a reflex.

“Dogs kick when we scratch their belly because it’s an involuntary reflex,” canine expert Dr. Marc Bekoff told The Huffington Post. Your scratch activates collections of neural pathways under particular areas of your dog’s skin that send a message to the spinal cord which forces your dog’s hind leg to kick. The harder your scratch, the bigger the kick. Some vets might even include this “tickle” in an exam to show that the neural pathways and reflexes in your dog are healthy.

Dr. Lore Haug, a veterinarian and animal science behavior expert for Texas Veterinary Behavior Services, told Popular Science that this scratch reflex evolved as a way for animals to protect themselves against irritants on their bodies, like bugs that could carry diseases. The knismesis tickle of the bug on their skin activates the reflex, allowing them to kick away the source of the itch.

Where is my dog ticklish?

Dogs have different areas that tickle their scratch reflex. The most common areas include the belly, ears, neck, back, and paws.

While you shouldn’t expect uncontrollable laughter from your pup anytime soon, if you define a tickle as an involuntary movement in response to your touch, you may have more in common with your pup than you thought.