Helping a dog learn how to be touched
Caution, if there is a chance of biting, be sure to consult a professional and use a basket muzzle:
1. Be careful when using treats to coax. For desensitization and counter
conditioning to be effective, we need to try to ensure that the undesirable
thing happens, then the food happens. If the food happens first or at the
same time, then the dog could learn to dislike the food. See more in
Kathy Sdao's "Does Pavlov Ring a Bell"
2. For desensitization to be effective, we need to try to break down the
touching concept as small as we can and only work on one piece at a time.
So touching the dog would probably involve approaching the dog, reaching
out to the dog, and finally touching the dog.
I would start with acclimating the dog to your hand movements. You might
feel more comfortable desensitizing the approach first. But whichever you
choose, try to do just one aspect at a time. You might even think of more
aspects than the 3 that I listed. If so, then break it down more than I
But here is a suggested way to start.
A. While you are all relaxed and hanging out, lift a finger and toss a treat
Do this several times. If he doesn't seem to notice the finger or seems
happy about the finger, then try two fingers and so on. Eventually lifting
your hand just an inch
Later on raise your hand 2 inches and toss a treat; raise your hand 3
inches and toss a treat. But don't increase the intensity until your see
your dog happy about the last level. You will be looking for a
"Conditioned Emotional Response." Some experts call it the "Yippeee!
Response." Basically the dog looks like he is saying. "Yaaay! Mom lifted
her hand; that means she is about to toss a treat."
B. Once your dog is happy about about hand raising, then reach towards the
dog only about half an inch then toss a treat. Just move your arms, try
not to lean with your body. Try to not look directly at the dog and try to
have your side to his side but make sure he can see what you are doing.
Curl the fingers in/cup your hand as you reach out. Actually don't even
move your arm the first few times. Just point your hand towards the dog.
Once again, don't extend your reach until you see a yippee response.
Remember that we are not touching the dog yet. We are just desensitizing the
reaching part. Once you are comfortably moving your arms towards the dog, we
will start all over with touching
2. When the dog is close to you, try to keep your hand plastered to your
body and touch the dog briefly with one finger, then toss a treat behind
the dog. (only if tossing isn't scary for him) So not only does the dog get
a treat for being touched, he also gets some relief from pressure. If the
dog doesn't come back to you after getting the tossed treat, then end the
exercise and go do something fun.
The next time you try it, try to break it down into even smaller increments.
Continue this for a while. Then go back to reaching without petting
3. Once you are getting lots of yippee responses for the separate steps,
you can try a quick reach and touch (maybe on the chest or under the chin),
click/toss a treat and walk off. If the dog follows, you can try again. Or
touch/click and toss a treat away from the dog. If the dog comes back, you
can try it again.
But make these repetitions super short in the beginning. No more than 2 or
3 reps then go do something fun.
4. Work on approaches separately. I'd first try experimenting with
different types of approaching to see if he feels better about a
particular one. I.e. walking sideways, walking backwards, crawling,
crawling sideways, crawling backwards, etc.. If all approaching bother him,
then start small and work your way up - always relieving pressure.
Walk towards the dog for 12 inches, toss a treat, then walk away. And so on.
5. As you can see, this process is going to take a while. And there might
be times when you have to touch the dog before he is ready - like eye
cleaning. If so, give what trainer Jolanta Benal calls a "warning cue."
i.e. "I have to clean your eyes."
It won't make the dog like the process any better, but it will help with
trust. If you don't warn him, he might always suspect that you are about
to do something scary even when that is not your plan.
-If the dog and pet parent are clicker savvy, a clicker can be useful for
these exercises. i.e. lift a finger, click/treat. See more in Karen Pryor's
"Reaching the Animal Mind" - especially the section where she works with a
-Save the collar touching for much later. Just work on reaching and
touching for now.
- Desensitization and counter conditioning can work much better if the
reward is super good but not super available. So try to think of his very
favorite thing or experiment and find her very favorite thing and just save
it for touch sessions. i.e. steak, sardines, boiled chicken, etc.. (with
vets approval). If your vet is okay with raw, I recommend raw green
tripe. I can't imagine any dog resisting something that smells so horrible.
I'd also make sure the treat is good for the dog so you can use a lot of
it. If you decide to use commercial treats, please check the packaging for
undesirable ingredients like artificial colors, "natural flavoring",
artificial flavoring, sugar or sugar derivatives like corn syrup, sorbitol,
- The relaxation protocol might also be effective in this circumstance.
You don't have to do the exercises exactly as described in the protocol.
You can use the protocol to help acclimate the dog to movement of your
hands/arms/shoulders etc.. More on the relaxation protocol here:
- Be aware of your breathing and your body language as you do this. Make
sure you are as relaxed as possible. some folks will tense up because they
expect their dog to tense and then every is just in a vicious cycle. Some
folks will hold their breaths and dogs can easily pick up on that.
- Make sure absolutely nothing else is going on while you are doing these
exercises - no screaming kids outdoors, garbage trucks going by, mail
- Make sure nothing upsetting has happened in the hours/days before you
practice this i.e. vet visits, scary visitors, etc..
Be aware of trigger stacking:
- With vet approval, consider calming aids like "Through a Dog's Ear,
Homeopathy, Bach Essences, etc..
- Even though you should be generous with the treats, don't use so much
that they dog doesn't have room for dinner. Many will suggest that for
some dogs, pet parents can use all the dogs food for training and
desensitization. But Leslie McDevitt says that it's good for pup's digestion
and their psyche to be able to have a meal in piece. It's in her puppy
book, but I think this should apply to dogs of all ages - especially the
Search the youtube kikopup channel for:
Teaching dogs to love having their collar touched
Teaching dogs to love their harness
Also see: Does Your Dog Really Want to be Petted?