Body Handling (or Touch) Sensitivity
Can You Handle It?
As a dog trainer, one of my top priorities is to convey to clients just how important it is that their dogs be able to tolerate handling. Handling can be defined as a dog’s ability to tolerate being touched all over in many different contexts.
Not just handling but also restraint will be included in this discussion as a lot of handling can also involve restraint.
Obvious examples of handling or handling with restraint might be dogs being bathed, brushed or clipped; nails being clipped; ears being cleaned; or feet being dried off with a towel.
Less obvious examples of handling/restraint might include:
- Dogs being disturbed (touched/grabbed) when they’re sleeping;
- Dogs being touched/restrained in any way when they’re scared, anxious or stressed;
- Dogs being touched by strangers with or without their owners present like being tied outside a store;
- Dogs being restrained for a medical procedure;
- Dogs being handled quite roughly and suddenly like being grabbed by the collar as they are about to bolt out the door;
- Dogs being “pet” by young children - tails and ears pulled, fingers in eyes and noses or being “ridden”;
- Dogs being grabbed or moved around by their collars or harnesses.
Why is Tolerance for Handling Important?
Obviously it’s easier to work with a dog who doesn’t care much about what you need to do to their bodies – bath, dry feet, clean ears, clip claws, shave/clip them, etc.
However, the reason it’s a priority to me is because dogs who object to being handled can very easily evolve into dogs who bite when you try to touch them. Because lack of handling tolerance is fear-based and because fear generalizes very quickly, dogs who mildly object to some touching can very quickly become dogs who strongly object to all handling.
Additionally, every dog I’ve every worked with who has behavioural issues is also 99% (if not 100%) likely to have some intolerance for handling – the 2 are definitely linked. I’m firmly convinced that if more puppies and young dogs had the right training early on, many dogs with behavioural issues simply wouldn’t have them or they may at least be milder issues.
What Happens if Dogs Can’t Tolerate Touch?
Sooner or later, if things are left unaddressed, mild objections to handling often become stronger objections as your dog matures. Mild objections will very often turn into a nip and then maybe into a more serious bite.
There are lots of things that can cause a dog to feel the need to bite, but a lack of tolerance for handling is certainly on the top of that list. When touch sensitivity or intolerance comes into play, humans are in very close proximity and usually touching the dog so biting would be a natural first choice for them. This is especially true if the dog in question is being restrained or cornered in some way (on their bed, in a crate, tied outside a store or leashed in a crowded location). In this situation, most dogs feel they can’t escape, so they move to Plan B(ite).
What Can We Do?
Your goal should be: “My dog should be as well socialized as possible so that he does not ever feel the need to bite.” Additionally, much care should be taken to never place any dog in a situation where he might feel he has no choice but to bite.
Dogs need to be taught that touch is something humans do and it’s ok for them to do it. If possible, dogs can learn that touch is actually desirable. Basic husbandry skills should be positively taught so that dogs are happily able to tolerate them being done even by relative strangers like groomers, vet techs, pet sitters, dog walkers, etc.
We need to advocate for our dogs so that they aren’t subject to invasive handling by strangers including children but we also need to prepare them for that eventuality. We need to prepare them for the rudeness and ignorance of strangers we meet. It never ceases to amaze me what people think is okay to do to dogs they encounter – known or unknown. We simply cannot control every situation as much as we might like to think we can.
You Need To Do Some Training.
It’s not enough to simply touch and cuddle your dog a lot. I’ve met a lot of dogs who can’t tolerate having their nails trimmed and yet can still easily tolerate having their feet touched and dried off. Nail trimming and handling a dog’s feet are simply not the same thing.
Dogs are not naturally “touchy feely” individuals. There are certain breeds of dogs who have a tendency to love being cuddled and pet and certainly there are individual dogs who really enjoy their cuddle and lap time. Generally, though, all dogs need to be taught that touching them is just what humans are going to do. Also, there are some necessary procedures we need to do that include touch, sometimes quite firm handling, and that restraint may be combined with handling.
How do we teach this? You need to systematically desensitize and counter-condition your dog to handle and eventually happily tolerate touch and restraint. It’s not complicated training. What’s not easy for us impatient humans though is that the training can take a long time and involve a lot of daily practice.
The younger your dog is when you start, the easier it can be and the faster it’s likely to go. You can, however, start at any age and still make very significant changes in your dog’s behaviour.
Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning involves setting up a training plan with a series of gradually progressing exercises focused on each individual body part. You need to progress in carefully planned increments based on your individual dog’s reaction to the training. It can be very helpful to do this under the guidance of a professional dog trainer who uses positive methods who has successful experience in this area.
Strange as it may seem, it can be really difficult for the average dog owner to interpret his or her own dog’s behaviour. I’ve met many people who think their dog’s behaviour came up quite suddenly and without warning when it’s clear to me that their dog had been displaying subtle signs for a long time. When I point out the signs, most people are surprised that they either haven’t noticed them or that they have completely misinterpreted them.
Even though you live with your dog and see him every day, it really does help to at least start with some experienced, professional assistance. Seeing something and observing (or noticing) something are two very different things.
You may already be aware of things that your dog objects to, like having his nails trimmed or having his collar or harness put on, or having his ears cleaned. This gives you a place to start.
What Does Objection Look Like?
Strong objection is usually obvious to most of us especially if it’s become growling, baring teeth, nipping or biting. Running away at the sight of the nail clippers or harness, that’s a pretty obvious objection. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “my dog hates putting his harness on” when I’m about to head out for a walk with a client. Pulling paws away, backing away or ducking their head is also pretty clear feedback.
In my mind, this is all strong objection and it should be addressed right away because it can get worse. Surprisingly few people feel the need to step in and make things better for their dog at this point even though they are clearly aware of the discomfort their dog has.
Less subtle objection is harder for the average person to spot. This could include:
- your dog glancing directly at your hand as you touch his paw or move your hand toward a sensitive spot;
- your dog leaning ever so slightly away;
- your dog becoming momentarily very still;
- your dog gently nudging your hand or his harness with his nose;
- ears pinned back, big eyes, lots of frantic tail wagging and seemingly “happy to see you” type of behaviour but out of context to what’s going on;
- your dog suddenly acting silly, maybe running and grabbing a toy, jumping up on you, or getting the zoomies around the room – behaviours that are perhaps intended to distract you from your original intent; and
- your puppy licking your hand as you pick up his paw.
Dogs are masters of body language and they try and tell us lots of things in subtle, non-confrontational ways but unfortunately many of us miss these early signs.
Some examples of dogs subtly leaning or turning away from touch:
Contrast that with dogs enjoying (relaxing or leaning into) their cuddles:
It can be really helpful to spend time watching dogs who are interacting with each other and really take the time to observe how they talk to each other with their body language. See if you can pick out the subtle signs of “Is it ok if…?”, “No, it’s not” or “Sure, no problem”, “Yes, but not like that”, etc. It can be really fascinating! It’s easier though if your own dog isn’t involved and you can just relax and watch it all unfold.
It’s important to note that in any training, our dog should be an equal participant. This means that we need to observe and use the information they give us as feedback in order to be not only instructive but also supportive. It’s not about just getting the job done, it’s very much about how our dogs feel about it and “getting the job done” in the easiest possible way for them. Any training, regardless of the reason for it, should be enjoyable for everybody involved.
Being supportive is particularly important. For example, if I’m working on a handling exercise and my dog is looking happy, eating his treats and showing no obvious signs of wanting to avoid my touch, then I’ll consider it a green light to proceed. However, if my dog begins to actively avoid my touch or stops eating the treats, it’s time to give him a break and think about a way to make the activity easier for him - progressing in even smaller increments.
It’s not about forcing your dog to accept touch, it’s about helping him learn to safely and happily tolerate it – even look forward to it if we’re really lucky or really skilled. If your dog understands that not only are you trying to solve this problem for him but also learns that you are listening to his feedback and helping him through it, the process will go much faster.
What a fantastic bond you can build with your dog if he is able to communicate to you and have you act on his feedback in a way that is best for him not just for you! “Ok buddy, you look like you need a break.” vs. “Look, we have to get this done, just sit still!”
A Simple Exercise – The Collar Grab.
A lot of dogs aren’t happy about you reaching for and grabbing their collar – it can sometimes lead to a game of “catch me if you can”. The follow exercise is a beginning step to making that situation better. Note that this exercise can be modified for any body part or equipment.
The Set Up:
1. Have your dog in front of you and a container of very tasty treats close by. Don’t have your dog leashed or restrained in any way – we need to know if he feels the need to leave or if he’s comfortable enough to remain with us.
2. Consider sitting on a comfortable chair in front of your dog vs. standing – usually a more neutral posture for most dogs. If you have quite a small dog, consider sitting on the ground instead of on a chair. Note that us being on the ground can be very exciting for some dogs, so just wait for them to get over the excitement and calm down before getting started – just keep a pleasant expression and tone while you wait.
3. The end result of our training may be an actual “Collar Grab” but we need to start at a far easier spot for our dogs. We need to begin our exercise at a point that is at or under our dog’s comfort level. This means that we need to keep our hand at some distance from the collar initially, then gradually progress to touching and eventually holding onto the collar.
If at any point you reach toward your dog’s collar and he backs away, then the distance you reached is over his threshold – don’t reach quite as far the next time and see what he thinks. Initially, keep your collar “grabs” to one side of his neck or the other – not over the top of his head at this point. Over his head collar grabs are a much harder exercise and something to progress to at some future point.
Let’s get started:
1. Make sure you have your dog’s attention and cue your dog that you are going to start the exercise – “Ready?”
2. Reach toward your dog’s collar, stopping at a good distance away, and hold your hand there.
3. With your other hand, offer your dog a treat and then remove both hands while your dog eats his treat.
4. Analyze your dog’s response – does he seem comfortable with that distance of reach or did he back away from your hand and/or not want the treat?
5. Based on his response either back off the distance you reached or keep the same distance and do some more repetitions. Do 10-15 repetitions in total and then cue “All Done!” and take a break.
You can do this exercise several times a day but don’t do more than 10-15 repetitions before taking a break.
What you should start to see is your dog beginning to move toward your hand as you reach for his collar – happily anticipating his tasty treat. Only when your dog is clearly and obviously comfortable with the level you are at, should you move on to the next step.
Gradually begin to progress with subsequent sessions:
- make your reaches gradually closer to the collar
- touch the collar
- grasp the collar gently and let go quickly
- grasp the collar gently and hold until our dog finishes his treat
- grasp the collar less gently
- grasp and add slight pressure to the collar
- remember that your dog has 2 sides to his body so you will need to do all of this on the other side of his neck/collar too.
This type of exercise can be used to work on any part of your dog’s body. As you move through different body parts and your dog gets used to what you are doing, progress should take place more quickly each time. If at any point your dog leaves, back away or seems uncomfortable – take a long break and see how you can change what you are doing to make it easier for your dog.
Remember – the process is as important as the result. The goal is for your dog to be comfortable with being touched and handled in a variety of different ways and different contexts. However, it’s equally important that the process is done in a thoughtful and supportive way. Ready to get started? Keep it positive, practice regularly and you will have success!