How to Help a Dog Sensitive to Touch
By Sherry Woodard, Best Friends animal behavior consultant
Is your dog sensitive to touch? Many dogs have sensitive areas where they would rather not be handled. Many different things can influence a dog’s level of comfort with being touched. Here are a few examples:
- The dog’s nails were cut to the quick. Cutting a dog’s nails too close (which usually results in bleeding) is very painful. The next time someone tries to lift and hold a paw, the dog may anticipate pain.
- The dog was badly matted or overdue for a grooming. If his coat was in poor condition, his hair may have been pulled during grooming. Because they pull on the skin, mats themselves can become painful.
- There was a lack of socialization as a puppy. This is a common reason why some dogs don’t enjoy touch as much as they would if they had been properly socialized and handled when they were younger.
If you’ve adopted a dog with an unknown past, you may never know what past experiences triggered your dog’s current aversion to having certain areas of his body touched.
How to help a dog learn to like being touched
You can teach your dog that handling can be a good thing, even if she might not currently like being touched. First, see a veterinarian to rule out any medical causes for the discomfort. You want to make sure that your dog isn’t in pain. The training you will do will not help if your dog hurts whenever you touch her. After you get the OK from the vet, you can begin to work on teaching your dog new associations to touch.
Here are a few items you will need before starting to teach your dog to enjoy touch:
- Comfortable clothes that allow you to move freely.
- A lead, to let the dog have freedom of movement without allowing wandering.
- A washable mat big enough for you and the dog to sit on. Ideally, the mat would be big enough so the dog could lie down on the mat next to you or between your legs.
- A treat pouch, such as a fanny pack with a zipper or other closable pouch.
- Treats to fill the pouch. They should be your dog’s favorite treats, broken up into pea-sized pieces.
- A grooming kit: a comb, a brush and nail clippers. (These are for teaching instead of actual grooming.)
Follow these instructions for helping your dog to become more comfortable with touching:
- If you are doing this exercise at home, you might want to work with soothing music playing, to reduce distractions. To get started, put the dog on lead and wear your treat pouch. If the dog is too focused on the pouch, you can keep the treats in a plastic bag inside the pouch to control yummy smells until you are ready to give a treat.
- Next, place your mat and grooming tools on the floor and let the dog investigate. If your dog is disinterested in the items, you can sprinkle some of those delicious treats around the items to encourage your dog to come and investigate.
- Try sitting on the mat with the dog and encourage her to come toward you. You can call her to you or toss treats next to you on the mat. Don’t stare directly into the dog’s eyes or lean over the dog, since she may find this behavior threatening.
- Make sure you are relaxed yourself. If this exercise is going to be relaxing for the dog, you too must be relaxed. Start talking to the dog using a calm, soothing voice. If your dog has a strong aversion to touch, don’t touch her at all this first session; just reward her with treats for being comfortable with you nearby.
Follow-up training to help a dog who is sensitive to touching
During the next session, repeat what you did the first session, giving treats when she seems relaxed. Signs she might not be relaxed include panting, suddenly closing her mouth when you reach toward her, licking her lips, or turning her head away from you when you reach out.
If she does seem relaxed, you can try touching her. To do so, start on the spots that are within her comfort zone. For example, she might be more comfortable with having her neck and shoulders touched rather than her rear end. As you touch her, move your hand slowly so you don’t startle her. Again, give treats as rewards for being relaxed. Try not to touch the spots that she is uncomfortable with.
Depending on how sensitive she is, you might see her relax quickly or not relax much. You might have to do several sessions before you see and feel the changes in her energy and body language.
Some dogs are fearful of touch in general and will need many sessions of these exercises to become relaxed. All sessions should be kept short; five minutes or less is a good starting point. When the dog begins to relax, you can add five more minutes, and continue adding time until the dog is able to fall asleep.
Specific areas of a dog’s body sensitive to touch
Some dogs need help on very specific body parts, such as feet or ears. If that’s the case with your dog, you don’t want to jump into touching those areas during the first few sessions. Over several sessions, you can work closer and closer to those areas. If your dog does not like her feet touched, for example, start by just touching her shoulder. Then, work your way down her leg closer and closer to the foot.
Keep an eye on her body language. If she moves away or begins showing signs of stress or fear, slow down. Stop and back up, touching other parts of her body. Gradually work your way back to the sensitive area. Lightly touch it and as soon as you do, start giving her a steady stream of those delicious treats. As soon as you remove the hand that is touching her, remove the treats.
At first, only touch the sensitive spot for a second or two. Then, as your dog becomes more comfortable, you can touch the spot for longer periods. Make sure that you remove your hand — and the treats — before she begins to get uncomfortable. The goal is to change her association of having the sensitive area handled from one of discomfort or fear to one of excitement. “(Touching my paws means I get treats!”)
Remember to keep the overall sessions short, until you have a relaxed dog. Once you have a relaxed dog, and following the same process described above, you can proceed to lifting and holding her paws, lifting her lips and rubbing her gums, giving hugs, combing and brushing, and looking in her ears.
If you want to progress to clipping her nails, the first step is to simply move the nail clippers near her feet. As you bring them close, start giving her delicious treats. Then, as you pull the clippers away, stop giving treats. Depending on how fearful your dog is of the nail clippers, you might have to just show her the clippers, give lots of treats, and then put them away. Moving toward her with them might be too scary at first.
When she is comfortable with the presence of the clippers, you can slowly start bringing them closer and closer. At first, you might only be able to bring them within two feet of your dog’s paws. However, with patience and good treats, you can slowly bring them closer and closer. Next, just touch the clippers on her nails, watching your dog’s reaction. If she pulls away or acts nervous, that is a sign you’ve moved too quickly and need to back up a few steps in the process.
Slow and gentle dog training
The key is to do everything slowly and gently. The goal is to teach the dog to enjoy being touched everywhere, not just to tolerate handling. If you can achieve that, you’ll have a relaxed dog with good associations to the presence of the handler, the act of being handled, and the use of grooming tools.