Can I touch you there?

It’s no secret that people like to touch dogs. We touch dogs who we don’t know and we touch dogs who don’t want to be touched. Sometimes we touch dogs and they touch us back with their teeth.

Being touched by someone you know and trust not only can feel good, it can help lower your levels of stress and anxiety. Animals groom each other and snuggle up together. People hug and hold hands and there’s no shortage of ‘showering together’ scenes in movies to prove that mutual grooming can be nice. Dogs who were not handled as pups face a deficit in this area. Being touched may have also been associated with being scared by the big monsters reaching out to pet or pick them up. Being touched is startling, and being startled is distressing.

I am going to make a guess that a dog who snuggles up to their owner, solicits handling, gives all the signs of loving a good belly rub, is more likely to stay in their home, despite other challenging or inappropriate behaviors, compared to a dog with similar challenges who does not want their owners to pet them.

It took months of slow counter conditioning and desensitization while out on walks with my dog Sunny to get him used to me touching him. When he ran past me I’d lightly graze the top of his back. If he was standing still I might do the same and drop a treat for him immediately afterward. If he looked at me horrified I kept walking by as though I had no idea of what he was concerned about. Gradually I was able to increase the pressure and duration of my stroke. Today Sunny routinely solicits being handled by me and our morning ritual of pets and snuggling always starts my day off right.

When I got started with Sunny I had to feel my way along with him, the resources available to help me understand how to work with him were limited. Today there are many resources to help owners learn techniques for helping their dogs feel good about things that scare them, including being handled. One such resource is TACT, Touch Associated Clicker Training, a protocol designed by clicker trainer Emma Parsons and massage professional Julie Robitaille. They have created a program to help pet owners develop an individualized counter conditioning and desensitization program beginning at the appropriate starting point for their dog.

Some owners need to accept that their dog will never be completely comfortable being handled by strangers and should learn to manage their dog’s environment to prevent that from occurring. But every dog should be given the skills to be comfortable being handled by veterinarians.

As I worked on helping my foster dog Nibbles learn to trust me being able to handle him became part of the process. In the following video he has become comfortable being handled and I work on getting him used to having different body parts touched so he can be examined by a vet and I can groom him as needed. If he shows any resistance, as he does when I lift his lips to look at his teeth, I stop and move on.

Join me for a day long seminar on the care & training of fearful dogs in Bow NH on January 21, 2012.


16 comments so far

  1. Brenda on

    Great post. It took Titan a bit to get used to me and the hubs. He had lil to no socialization. I’ve worked with him long and hard. I, personally, am not comfortable having other people touch him, so I don’t allow them to. I tell them, he’s in training and not allowed to be pet by strangers. Due to his breed, ambull/amstaff, I am worried about strangers approaching and misinterpreting him. He has a “stank” eye look and people have taken that look as “mean”. Better be safe than sorry. The hubs and I are his only handlers, other than the vet and the vet techs who he loves and vice versa. 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      I always find it interesting that the same ‘stank’ eye look as you call it, will be ignored when it’s being displayed by a cocker spaniel or other smaller dogs. Those larger dogs usually have more success getting their point across the first time. 😉

      I don’t usually invite any of my dogs to be handled by new people unless the dog is obviously asking for the attention.

  2. Nancy Freedman-Smith on

    Charlee was wound so tight, it took a good 3 years for her to enjoy petting. It was not fear, just who she was. She was either working, and moving or crashed. Two speeds. That was one of the reasons that my family did not like her for a long time. She had to be taught to relax. Beck, our new dog is the best snuggeler of any dog I have ever had in my house, and that is one of the reasons that I kept him. As for fearful dogs, yes agree. of course.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Without a doubt there are nervous systems that can be more sensitive to a whole variety of stimuli, sounds, movement and touch. We’ve even bred in or out some of them. Snugglers definitely have an advantage in most households. 😉

  3. rangerskat on

    Finna likes being touched as long as she’s 1) got the option to refuse the touch by moving away and 2) knows what’s coming. If I say I’m going to lift her lips to look at her teeth no problem, if I just reach over and take her face in my hands I’m asking for trouble. It seems to me that our bodies tell the story of what we intend when we take the time to say what we’re planning to do. Dogs, for the most part, are so expert at reading people that saying out loud what we plan to do gives them the necessary clues to know what to expect. Sadly, not all veterinarians are able to listen when I explain what Finna needs them to do. The newest vet at the practice where we take her is one such and Finna snapped at her when she started to put the stethoscope against Finna’s side. Next time I make a point of asking for one of the other doctors on staff because I am not subjecting Finna to circumstances where she feels like snapping is her only option.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Vet visits are challenging even for dogs who aren’t fearful. I spent a lot of time with Sunny visiting the vet and being very directive about how he was handled. It has paid off. He can manage being on the table, get his exam, blood drawn, jabs, etc., and then once he’s down he has a shake off and we play some targeting games.

      • rangerskat on

        Exactly, which is why I had worked so hard to make this well dog visit go well. The staff from the moment we walked in were wonderful and did exactly as I’d asked which is the standard I’ve grown to expect from this practice. And my scaredy dog was behaving really well she wasn’t barking, growling, snapping, or otherwise trying to keep everyone away, in fact she happily explored the waiting room and greeted the vet tech very appropriately. Which is why it was so frustrating that the veterinarian did not listen to me. We’d brought Ranger with us because Finna is always more confident when she sees his example and I suggested that doing a mock exam on Ranger first would probably help Finna but this vet wouldn’t or, maybe was so caught up in being the all knowing doctor that she just couldn’t, hear what I was trying to tell her.

        We’ve worked really hard with my 90 lb Ranger to make going to the vet’s an OK thing if not an actually good one and to teach him the behaviors that make it easy to examine him. The time he needed to visit the emergency vet for what turned out to be gastro-enteritis they were delighted to find he has a cue for lay flat on your side and hold still (“flat”) it sure makes getting an x-ray of the gut easier. He visits the vet’s office every couple of months at least just to get treats, have loving and be weighed because I don’t ever want to try to get him through the door if he doesn’t want to go. I’d much rather spend the time thinking out solutions to potential problems ahead of time than trying to deal with them on the fly. That’s why I’d planned how best to help Finna through what might be a very frightening experience and why I was so unhappy that the vet didn’t pay attention to what I was telling her about my dog.

        Sorry, enough rambling on. As you can no doubt tell I’m still unhappy about this experience especially since I’ve grown to expect such high standards from the doctors and staff there.

      • KellyK on

        That would really upset me as well. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. Hopefully you can talk some sense into that vet, or at the very least, make your appointments with someone else at the same office in the future.

  4. fearfuldogs on

    It’s frustrating. When we give our dogs skills for coping with stressful situations they may appear less like a dog who is fearful to many, but it doesn’t take much to shove them off the edge.

  5. Gary Jaocbson on

    So good to view this video of Nibbles. His responses are much like those of Sissy’s. Seeing this helps to confirm that what I am doing is sensible to help Sissy attach to me and feel comfortable with me. I am learning through others and our own experiences that Sissy’s response to those she has come to trust are not necessarily generalized to other people. Thankfully she had an uneventful first visit with the vet three weeks after she joined our household. I’m going to start announcing to her what I am doing before I touch her in hopes of furthering the success of the touching exercise.

  6. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    When we first found Buster, he definitely wanted to be petted, but only on his neck, chest and shoulders – everywhere else made him very uneasy. Now, after 3 1/2 years, I can pet him anywhere and he loves having his ears massaged – those big, gorgeous ears were off limits for the longest time! With a fearful dog, patience is the key. Most of them will figure out a new way of being, given the time – and if they don’t, then we just have to accept their limits.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I remember looking at my gorgeous Sunny, too afraid to come near me and thinking..”one day you’re going to love me.” He is now my cuddliest dog, and the one who really gets the oxytocin flowing for me.

  7. Lizzie on

    It’s lovely how these most fearful of dogs can turn out to be the most affectionate, certainly Gracie is. She loves being tactile, she’ll even rub up against my husband now, as she is much less afraid of him.
    But it still saddens me to see how fearful she remains towards other people.

    We like others here visit the vets surgery regularly to just go in get weighed and come out again. I still cannot take her into the waiting room if there are people in there. I only allow one particular vet to handle her and she’s terrific with her, we’ve got to the point now where Gracie is relaxed enough to take a treat from me and sits looking around instead of flattening herself to the floor. It’s all progress 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’ve long since given up expecting that Sunny will enjoy being handled by other people, but I adore how much he enjoys it with me.

  8. pittypatpaws on

    I’m so glad to have found this blog. We have had two exceptional Jack Russells that lived to be 14 years each and so we decided to RESCUE one from a breeder. She had some physical problems but right now, this puppy runs away whenever we want to pick her up. We think that she was abused in some way because of some of her other habits but she is panicky and very frightened when we put her on the leash and actually try and walk her. We know how a normal puppy will struggle with the leash but this is painful to watch. Do you have any suggestions on how to get her to come when called and allow being led on the leash without the panic that she feels? I guess we were really spoiled by our other puppies.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Check out for lots of info about handling (or not) fearful dogs. You can also check out the posts on this blog about Nibbles, a fearful foster dog I have. I had to do a lot to get him comfortable with the leash. There is a ‘Nibbles’ category on the right side menu on the blog. You can also check out TACT, which is a protocol developed by Emma Parsons, Touch Associated Clicker Training. If you do a search online you’ll find it.

      If the pup hurts picking her up might not be a good idea. The dog needs to feel safe and needs to learn skills, skills best taught using reward based training techniques.

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