Don’t Touch Me There
Young Charlie has a few issues. He lost or was taken from his mother at the age of about four weeks. In a perfect world he’d have been put with a no-nonsense adult female dog who’d have whipped his snotty little butt into shape. But Charlie was being held as evidence so he was kept in a box stall with a group of similarly-aged motherless puppies. The little hooligans were regularly handled by people – but they didn’t have an adult dog around to teach them the rules.
As a result of this less-than-perfect upbringing, Charlie grew up to be a very pushy little dog with a short fuse. Fortunately for Charlie (and for me) one or more of his ancestors were thoughtful enough to bequeath him an exceptionally bright and resilient nature. Charlie isn’t just a quick study, he recovers from stress as easily as any dog I’ve known. Still…. we’ve got these issues to deal with.
One of the most problematic issues has been that when he arrived here Charlie had little or no tolerance to be touched with anything but my hands. If I tried to touch him with absolutely any object held in my hand he turned into a whirling, snarling bundle of snapping jaws that weren’t going to stop until they made contact with flesh. Preferably mine.
I really hate getting bitten and I refuse to let a dog set the boundaries in our relationship – so I had to change Charlie’s opinion about being touched. Borrowing from horse trainer Pat Parelli, I’ve used a modified version of The Friendly Game to teach young Charlie that being handled could be a safe – and even enjoyable – part of his life.
The goal of so-called friendly games are to teach an animal how to stay calm when pushed out of its comfort zone. Using a combination of approach and retreat we get the animal’s permission to touch every place on his body - without forcing him to accept it. You will progressively use touch to push the dog just a bit out of his comfort zone and then reward him with a release of pressure (i.e. stop the touching) after he tolerates it calmly.
When you do this work with a dog he should be on a slack leash. He must neither be held or restrained tightly nor be allowed to run away to avoid the game. I generally prefer to put a six-foot leash on the dog and stand on the midpoint of it. This keeps the dog close while giving him limited room to move and leaves my hands free to work on him.
Start a session by touching the dog in ways he’s comfortable with and then gradually move on to the places or situations he’s less sure of. If the dog tries to evade the touch, stay calm, ignore him and keep your hand (or the object you are touching him with) on the spot you have targeted.
Initial work should be done in small increments to avoid putting so much pressure on the dog that he is pushed into reacting with an excess of fear, aggression or excitement. Remember, the goal is to push the dog just slightly out of his comfort zone and then reward him for tolerating that pressure by ending the game. This teaches the dog that he must allow you to touch him and shows him that it is safe to trust you to do it fairly.
As you work with the dog, pay attention to the areas and situations the dog isn’t comfortable with. These will help you measure your progress and decide how quickly or slowly to move ahead with each new step in the game. The game should be played a few times per session. This helps teach the dog that he doesn’t get to decide when and how the game ends.
I’ve used friendly games to help lots of dogs. Some of them started out dangerously aggressive when they were touched, and every one of them got over it. Including Charlie. This morning I put him up on an elevated stand and calmly, quietly brushed several large tufts of loose hair out of his coat. Three weeks ago he’d have bitten me in the face. Today I got some puppy wiggles and a big kiss.
Steps I took in desensitizing Charlie included:
- Started each session by touching him with firm, extended pressure with my hands starting at his withers and continuing to his hips.
- Moved on to using a very thin, light leash to touch his body. I let the leash hang down from my hands let the loose end brush against his body. As he got used to the sensation, I flicked the leash gently back and forth over and across his body.
- Used a heavier leash to do the same things.
- Looped up a 15-foot long line and did the same exercises with several loops of line.
- Tied a rubber udder tug to a leash and repeated the exercises, alternating with the looped line.
- Used the leash/udder tug combination, then shortened the amount of leash between my hand and the tug.
- Touched him lightly with the tug held in my hand, then with a Zoom Groom.
Once I got to the point where I could touch him with the Zoom Groom (about a week from when we started) we moved ahead more quickly. I used the Zoom Groom and the back (non-bristle side) of a dog brush to touch him all over. In every session I started by doing things he was comfortable with and in every session I continued on, calmly, quietly and confidently until I pushed Charlie just a bit out of his comfort zone. I worked that ‘uncomfortable” area gently but persistently until he accepted what I was doing, then I ended the session.
Now as I progress to doing actual grooming work on him I’ll change the game a bit. When Charlie decides he’s not comfortable with what I’m doing I’ll pause to acknowledge that I recognize his discomfort. I’ll give him a second or two to regain his composure, then I’ll continue on. This will teach him to accept working in longer sessions and further increase his self-control resources.
Allowing your dog to set the boundaries in your relationship, especially when it comes to something as healthy and natural as day-to-day handling, puts that relationship in a very unhealthy place. While on the surface it might feel like the easier, “kinder” way to go - in the long run it teaches your dog to be increasingly intolerant of being pushed out of his comfort zone. And – it also leads to a dog whose comfort zone gets smaller and smaller over time. This puts your dog into a very ugly feedback loop where he gets less tolerant of stress and becomes easier to annoy. In my experience this leads to a dog being rehomed, euthanized or relegated to a life where he is excessively managed. And that’s not the way any dog would choose to live his life.