I have worked with hundreds of dogs that reject touch from strangers and even their owners. Some of these dogs bite at the slightest touch, while others become uncomfortable after a short while of petting.
Sadly, humans understand little about how to pet, when to pet, and when not to pet. We offer our hand for a stranger dog to sniff, and if he does, we go in for a pat. This is one of the biggest misunderstandings in dog culture, especially for aggressive or anxious dogs.
Intentional touch can help these dogs, and certain kinds of touch, in certain contexts, can reduce their anxiety, promote trust, and provide encouragement through a stressful event.
I work with many small dogs that have territorial issues or aggression and are quick to snap or bite when under pressure of being approached or handled. But I teach them through healing touch that they don’t have to respond this way.
I first acclimate them to a comfortable muzzle — the Baskerville Muzzle offers good ventilation and a treat hole — over a 10-day process. To do this, let the dog see the muzzle and put high-value treats near it, allowing the dog to eat the treats, and do this several times. Next, put treats in the muzzle and encourage the dog to get the treats until the dog puts his snout in the muzzle easily, quickly, and on his own. The next step is putting the straps on and feeding treats through the treat hole; don’t remove the muzzle. If the dog struggles, give verbal encouragement and treats.
This next step is the hardest step and most important: a walk. The dog will most likely try to paw the muzzle off or rub it on the ground, but do not allow this. Keep walking. Show no frustration. Stop every few minutes to give a high-value treat when the dog is not struggling. Walk the dog in the muzzle every day for at least five days or until the dog accepts it.
Now touch training can begin. Bring the dog to a laid out blanket and put the muzzle on. Treat initially and then put the treats away. Ask the dog to sit and down, gently nudging or luring if necessary. Once down, massage him. Look for contentment signs: eyes closing, legs and arms without tension, a loose mouth. Next, go for areas he may be more touchy about — paws, ears, muzzle. Continue a mix of relaxing touch and triggering touch. If he growls or snaps, stop for a minute until he relaxes, even just a bit. Massage again, and stop the session at the area that illicted the tension if he remains relaxed. If he does not accept this, let him get up and move around and try again. Sessions should be 15 to 20 minutes.
Some dogs are anxious and cannot calm or settle easily. Daily healing touch can be restorative for these dogs, too. I like to use massage and acupressure and start this at their home, where they are comfortable.
Once leashed, I ask the dog to be my side in a sit or down, use treats to build connection, and slowly start to massage. Many dogs enjoy deep touch on their chest, between their ears, and at their rump. Deep, slow touch never excites the dog; if your massage does, it is too quick or shallow. Once the dog relaxes, I add pressure-point touch to the shoulder blades, thighs, chest, and neck. Pressure touch is just pressing deep into the muscle and holding for a few seconds.
Signs that the dog is relaxing include laying down, eyes closing, and much less attention to external stimuli. The ultimate relaxation position is what I call the “on your side,” where the dog is all the way down, on his side, with his head down. It can take weeks to achieve this.
This exercise can be moved outside within two weeks of daily practice in the home. Start in low-distractions areas and move up to higher-trigger zones.
Healing touch can reorient the dog to environments that cause anxiety and stress. I want him to have a totally different experience here, which is possible, because we have built such a solid trusting relationship that the enjoyment of the touch aids in his experiencing the environment differently.
The benefits of touch exercises are multiplied when trusted colleagues do them with me. This means more hands on the dogs, which builds more momentum to trust, enables them to be at ease, and to perceive triggers with less suspicious and worry. Treats, play, tricks, and toys also help dogs in stressful environments.
I am most drawn to touch because you can actually see the benefits right before your eyes. You can see the dog go from a tense, worried expression where he is struggling or reactive. With restorative, calming touch, he becomes pliable, relaxed, and more confident. The power of touch cannot be denied.
Kathy Kear of Cause & Effect Dog Training in Berkeley has been working with dogs, including the most vulnerable, for more than 20 years. Her teacher was Alon Geva with whom she apprenticed in 2003-2004. Since then, she has volunteered at Berkeley animal services, numerous local rescue groups, and trained hundreds of dogs. She specializes is aggression and anxiety and uses a balanced approach to training, employing all tools and limiting none. Learn more at CauseAndEffectDogTraining.com.
Main article photo by: Photo courtesy of Baskerville Muzzles