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Calming Touch for Fearful Dogs
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Calming Touch for Fearful Dogs

Notice the lip licks, ears back, submissive behavior. There is a mix of stress and affection signals in this video

One of the fundamental protocols in our behavior work is touch. Many of the dogs we work with do not like to be touched. In many cases, their owners do not touch them often, or pet them often. They are not touched until they go to a groomer or vet, this reinforces the ‘bad feelings’ associated with touch.
Other dogs have skin irritations, or allergies. Being touched is not pleasant. In these cases, the medical issue needs to be addressed, and then the dog needs to be taught that touch is a pleasant experience.

• How often to you interact with your dog?
• Are there ever times that you just relax and spend time with your dog?
• Do you touch your dog as a sign  of affection, or approval?
• Do you always have an agenda when touching your dog?
• Do you talk softly and let your dog know you are going to touch it?
• Does your dog associate your touch with something pleasant, or a punishment, being forced to do something, or the ‘end of the fun.’

Helping Touch Sensitive Dogs Deal with Fear

The first thing you need to understand is that most fears are ‘learned behaviors’. Something has happened that taught a dog ‘this is bad.’ Don’t try to figure out why, or what happened. Dogs ‘associate’. We’ve talked about this in other blogs.
Ignore Them

Fearful dogs are the most likely to bite. Sometimes you need to work very slowly. You may even need to ignore them. There are some dogs who do not want your company. They do not want your touch. Forcing them will only make the problem worse. Ignoring them, is only a first step.

Don’t Touch Them

Don’t keep trying to touch their head or their butt to ‘desensitize them’. This is a big mistake. It teaches the dog that ‘ you are up to something.’ It makes the dog suspicious of your behavior, which increases the stress and/or fear.
Let the dog come to you. Dogs find people leaning over them with outstretched hands as fearful.

Build Trust

Sometimes we are so busy with our own wants and needs that we totally ignore the dog. I’ve had so many people start explaining their complaints with a dog’s behavior by saying ‘I want…’. It can be anything. I want the dog to be good around children. I want the dog to cuddle with me. I want the dog to sit quietly and not bother me at night. I want the dog to enjoy walks.

You cannot build trust with a dog when you are only concerned with what you want. You need to read the dog’s body language and keep the dog safe. If the dog doesn’t want to go for walks, play with children, be held/cuddled/carried, or any other behavior then you are creating stress and fear by forcing the dog to meet your expectations.

When your dog is fearful, turn sideways and avoid eye contact. If you do make eye contact, blink.

Use Treats or Toys

Being fed is a good thing for dogs. They cannot be in ‘primal brain’ and ‘cognitive’ at the same time. So if a dog is eating it is not so fearful that it is in the ‘danger zone.’

Toys make dogs happy. It is very hard to be happy and fearful at the same time.

How to Build Predictable Protocols

  1. The best way to overcome fear is to build comfortable, safe, routines. If you need to clean your dogs paws then use a word that will indicate to the dog what is happening next. This gives the dog the opportunity to say yes, or no.
    These routines must be taught slowly. If you need to touch your dog’s paws to clip nails then build the routine this way:
    ‘Trim time’  – sit in front of the dog in the position you will be when trimming the nails and feed treats.
  2. See if you can teach the dog to ‘give a paw’. Remember – never ‘go to’ the dog. Let it come to you. If your dog won’t give its paw then teach ‘touch’. Have the dog touch different things with its paw. Do this everywhere. In every room in the house, and even the car. Have something that the dog touches and receives a treat. I use foam pads from a craft store, but you can use anything.  Use the following rules for each of the following step.
    1. Never correct your dog.
    2. Always give a treat even if you think the dog didn’t earn it.
    3. Always give a treat for an ‘attempt’ no matter how brief.
    4. If you are not in a good mood then walk away.
    5. You must get excited and use your body language and tone of voice to communicate that you thought your dog just did something wonderful. Do not rely on treats only to convey the message.
    6. You must be calm and relaxed. If you are stressed then your dog will be stressed.
  3. Once the dog touches the pad, have it touch your hand. Only do have 1 – 2 touches then say ‘done’ or use your ‘we are done’ command, and walk away. Try to work up until your dog will do this 5 – 10x a day.
  4. This is where most people make mistakes. They move straight to the clipper, or they try to hold the dog’s paw. Instead, try adding ‘movement.’  With the dog’s paw in your hand, move the other hand, nod your head, wiggle your feet. If this doesn’t upset the dog then increase the movement. Your dog will probably get up and walk away at first. Allow this. Avoidance is always better than fear or aggression.
  5. When your dog can handle movement, move the hand that your dog’s paw is in. If this is accepted then ‘carefully’ (wear gloves) gently, briefly, touch the dog’s paw with your thumb. Try closing your hand around your dog’s paw. If the dog reacts then you have moved too fast. Go back to step 4 for a week or two, and then try step 5 again.
  6. When you can touch your dog’s foot, constantly feed treats. Stay at this stage for a week.
  7. Now pick up and show the dog the clippers, maybe touch the foot, but do not use them.
  8. Is your dog ready? Answer these questions:
    1. Is it happy with the little exercises?
    2. Have you practiced enough to have built up a predictable routine?
    3. Is the dog calm and will stay without restraint while you run through the routine?
    4. Has your dog stopped aggressive or avoidance behaviors?
    5. If you answered yes, proceed
  9. Clip the very tip off of one nail. Is all good? If yes, then clip the tip of a second nail – now give treats. Your dog may be able to handle 1 or 2 clips, but we don’t want to lose trust. I suggest only clipping 1 – 2 front paw nails a day. Always go through the whole routine, even if you are only clipping the tip of 1 nail.
  10. For the back feet you do not want to lean over the dog. Grab the back legs and pull them forward. Instead sit behind the dog and go through the whole routine a few times until the dog understands.

How long will this take? It depends on the dog. It may take 1 – 2 weeks, it may take several months. You cannot ‘rush’ the process.  In my experience, the more predictable your routine is, the faster the dog will learn to be calm.

I also suggest safety first. If you feel your dog may bite then use a muzzle that has a hole for treats.

This is only one protocol. In the video I showed you how I used a protocol for a dog that doesn’t like to have people in her face, or be groomed.


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