Don’t Touch Me There

September 28, 2009 at 11:38 pm 6 comments

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:

  1. Started each session by touching him with firm, extended pressure with my hands starting at his withers and continuing to his hips.
  2. 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.
  3. Used a heavier leash to do the same things.
  4. Looped up a 15-foot long line and did the same exercises with several loops of line.
  5. Tied a rubber udder tug to a leash and repeated the exercises, alternating with the looped line.
  6. Used the leash/udder tug combination, then shortened the amount of leash between my hand and the tug.
  7. 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.

Entry filed under: dog training, dogs. Tags: .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. H. Houlahan  |  September 29, 2009 at 3:26 am

    Well, to put not too fine a point on it, in a perfect world young Charlie would not had to have been rescued from a shit-filled hole in the floor of a felon’s festering trailer.

    His brother seems fairly convinced that he’s now arrived in a perfect world, though — well, almost perfect, except for the sleeping the crate while Rosie shares the eiderdown part. Today he found something dead and rolled in some of it, ate some more of it. Dog Nirvana. Then he helped — really helped — put the goats in for the night. He’s been tagging along for about a week on this chore, and tonight he turned on.

    Can you imagine what astounding young dogs these single-trial learners would be if they’d had an even halfway decent start in life?

  • 2. Jill  |  October 1, 2009 at 12:43 am

    In your experience, how well does the lesson generalize? How far back in the sequence might we have to go to get Charlie to let me groom him on the table (by way of example)? Would he defer to your nearby presence and tolerate careful handling by a stranger?

    I’m shamelessly soliciting technique or ideas regarding the disrespectful, trigger-happy 2 yr old GSD in my current Thursday night class. Owner says she wants a CD on the dog, which means he’ll have to tolerate the judge’s exam. Currently, he’s menacing strangers at random, as he keeps re-drawing his flight zone. Owner is ten seconds too slow EVERY SINGLE TIME and the dog is just getting faster and sneakier.

  • 3. SmartDogs  |  October 1, 2009 at 1:05 am

    The first time I used this method in a serious way I had elderly clients with an ENORMOUS (175 lb) malamute that would bite you if you touched him anywhere but on the top of his shoulder. He hadn’t always been that bad. He got worse after they paid $200+ per session for several sessions with a behaviorist who told them to do touch sessions – and stop as soon as the dog growled at them. [sigh]

    It took us MONTHS to make significant progress with this dog – partly because frankly we were all a bit scared of him and we took it really s l o w .

    But – he did make progress. Significant progress – and yes, with time he did generalize to letting others handle him. I could work with him about as quickly as his owner’s could – but (like most dogs) he liked me and I have pretty good timing. Within a couple of months we could groom him, collar him, handle his ears and feet. As far as I know he is still muzzled at the vet, largely because they were all terrified of him there and he knew it.

    The nice thing about this method (and if you can find the Parelli video cheap it’s worth watching for the lovely timing) is that you can start with really easy stuff like a light line the dog hardly notices. This can give the owner’s a bit of time to hone their skills of observation and timing, though IMO if the owner’s timing is really bad they either need to make a huge effort to get better or let someone else work with him. I’m sure you can think of something to hone their timing. E-collar heeling work with duct tape over their mouths (not the dog’s) would be good 😉


  • 4. Mongo  |  October 6, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    I look forward to the posts about Charlie as I am working with a (perhaps 12 month old?) dog my husband saw being dumped at a truck stop over the Fouth of July.
    Carelessly bred, carelessly handled and carelessly discarded, he is an extremely SMART, bold dog with one reaction when crossed- a full blown snarling roaring barking tantrum that is VERY intimidating. (and largely just bad habit)

    I think its important to NOT wonder what these “single trial learners” could have been like if well raised. It may have been their experiences that made them what they are.
    A lonely puppy behind a shabby fence learns to THINK and PROBLEM SOLVE and becomes an accomplished escaped artisit. A poorly managed pushy puppy learns its actions can affect the humans. Intimidation may not be an acceptable form of communication (to us) but it IS satisfying communication to the pup. And the pup becomes invested in communicating with humans.
    That is more than puppymill survivors and feral dogs know.
    These “carelessly regarded” puppies become interactive on a level that they may not have achieved if given better guidance.
    The English Shepherd breed may be regarded as highly intelligent, but my ugly mix sounds very similar.

    I can only speak for the dog here at my feet- but its his very faults- boldness, intelligence, and the ability to intimidate (dog-ness) that got him this far. And its his confidence, ability to learn quickly and canine need to trust ( also dog-ness) that makes him a joy to work with.

    He still has baggage- intolerance of large intact male dogs, being grabbed by the collar especially, but they are incrementally falling by the wayside while I make his world more complex and structured. But I don’t worry about what he “could have been”. He showed up with the skills (learned or innate) to be an excellent dog with the right handling.
    All dogs should be so lucky.
    I’ll take a little rehab with a grown dog over puppy foundation training anyway! 😉
    (Okay…..maybe a lot of rehab…)

  • 5. Mongo  |  October 7, 2009 at 12:32 am

    Added to my post above for clarity-
    I wrote ” with one reaction when crossed”.
    I should have said ” When the world deviates from his ideal”

    As an example, after he learned leash manners (or in his case- leash perfection) in session, if I picked up the leash in the house and walked anywhere but directly to the door, he would chase me and attempt to cut me off while he roared and barked and threw his head around snarling. It was a balancing act to slowly make my way to the door while ignoring his attempts to intimidate me, but still get out the door.
    Now he knows to sit quietly to have the leash attached.
    Now, if there is a delay walking to the door, he will roll around pawing my legs with all four feet grumbling and gently mouthing my feet.
    Yes, its still a pushy behavior, but I’m thrilled with the de-escalation that is across the board.

    I am curious as to the English Shepherd pups reaction to physical correction if it has been used. My dog responds instantly to the lightest physical correction (training collar), so much so that I use nearly all positive methods. He is extremely interactive and usually a calm verbal reprimand is enough to get him to refocus on the task at hand. Like not dragging us into traffic because he saw a squirrel.

    R (does not make a habit of intentionally “crossing” banged up strays to see what happens- LOL )

  • 6. SmartDogs  |  October 7, 2009 at 12:56 am

    Charlie reacts very well to fair, well-timed physical corrections. He is not much impressed with verbal corrections, even harsh ones. I’ve been doing a lot of low-level ecollar training with him. Properly done this is a very non-confrontational way to communicate with pressure and release.

    Because he spent most of his young life interacting mostly with a large group of other dogs Charlie is also very finely attuned to body language. Combining body language cues with ecollar pressure/release lets me communicate with him even at a distance and without a line attached.

    Oh – and Charlie also started capable mostly of only “one reaction when the world deviated from his ideal” too. Fortunately he’s coming to realize that the “ideal” world is a more wonderful and colorful place than he thought.

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