Some dogs are afraid of being touched and may feel threatened when a person attempts to pet or groom them. Sometimes this fear arises because they were not socialized to human touch as puppies, and sometimes due to having negative experiences.
To pet, or not to pet?
While it may seem counterintuitive, we recommend that you start by not petting your dog beyond what they can comfortably tolerate. For some dogs, this may mean not petting them at all. For others, this means avoiding sensitive areas, like paws, and petting only where they enjoy it.
Pay close attention to your dog’s body language. Your goal should be to avoid causing your dog distress. Most dogs are clear communicators if you know what to look for and will let you know when they don’t like something. Keep in mind that every dog is different and may express their fear or discomfort differently.
Common behavioral indicators include:
- Attempts to avoid touch by flattening their body, or turning their head away
- Tail is held low or may be tucked
- Ears are held back and down
- Body is held stiffly or tensely
- Eyes are wide, with dilated pupils and clearly visible sclera (whites of the eyes)
Some dogs may display displacement behaviors. These are behaviors that are performed outside of the normal situations you’d see them in and can indicate that the dog is uncomfortable and is seeking to comfort themselves. They can include:
- Lip licking
- Sudden and excessive grooming, scratching or sniffing
Building Comfort Around Touch
You can teach your dog to enjoy being pet in sensitive areas by pairing touch with super yummy treats. We recommend using hot dogs, chicken or cheese cut into small, pea sized pieces. Begin all sessions with your treats easily accessible, such as in a treat bag around your waist, and sit on the ground near your dog. Remember to closely monitor your dog’s body language so that you are always working within your dog’s comfort zone. Giving your dog a break from the stress caused by being touched in a sensitive area is an important part of teaching them to enjoy or tolerate touch.
Steps to Follow:
- Extend one hand, palm open, in the general direction of the dog. Stop just short of the point at which they would turn to look at your hand or cower from it. At the same time feed tasty treats from your other hand. Pull back your reaching hand while the dog is still eating the treat. Wait a few seconds, then repeat.
- When your dog notices your reaching hand and immediately looks to your feeding hand in anticipation of a treat, begin moving your hand slightly closer to the dog before treating. Repeat steps one and two until you are able to touch your dog and they remain comfortable.
- Maintain contact briefly and then move your hand away. Your dog should eat the treat while your hand is making contact.
- Once the dog appears comfortable with this, touch the dog first, then treat. Remove your hand as the dog finishes the treat. Now prolong the treat by holding it so they have to lick and chew at it for a few seconds, allowing you to prolong your contact with them.
- Continue in this manner until you can stroke or massage the dog in a certain area for a few seconds before offering the treat.
- The final phase of the training is to touch the dog when they are not expecting that you have a treat. Touch briefly, then treat him with your other hand.
- Start training sessions by touching your dog where they enjoy it, and gradually work closer to areas that cause them discomfort. Common problem areas include ears, paws, collar and face.
- Your dog should be relaxed and happy before moving to the next step.
- If your dog shows signs of discomfort or anxiety, go back to the last step they were comfortable at and work from there. Do a couple of successful repetitions at this level and then take a break. Try to end each session with success!
- If the dog is uncomfortable with the handling of several body parts, repeat the above protocol for each body part individually and fully before moving on to a new body part.
- Keep sessions short: 10-15 minutes. Do four to six repetitions at a time, with short breaks between repetitions.
Contact our Behavior Specialists at [email protected] or (212) 876-7700 x4191