It’s no secret that people like to touch dogs. We touch dogs who we don’t know and we touch dogs who don’t want to be touched. Sometimes we touch dogs and they touch us back with their teeth.

Being touched by someone you know and trust not only can feel good, it can help lower your levels of stress and anxiety. Animals groom each other and snuggle up together. People hug and hold hands and there’s no shortage of ‘showering together’ scenes in movies to prove that mutual grooming can be nice. Dogs who were not handled as pups face a deficit in this area. Being touched may have also been associated with being scared by the big monsters reaching out to pet or pick them up. Being touched is startling, and being startled is distressing.

I am going to make a guess that a dog who snuggles up to their owner, solicits handling, gives all the signs of loving a good belly rub, is more likely to stay in their home, despite other challenging or inappropriate behaviors, compared to a dog with similar challenges who does not want their owners to pet them.

It took months of slow counter conditioning and desensitization while out on walks with my dog Sunny to get him used to me touching him. When he ran past me I’d lightly graze the top of his back. If he was standing still I might do the same and drop a treat for him immediately afterward. If he looked at me horrified I kept walking by as though I had no idea of what he was concerned about. Gradually I was able to increase the pressure and duration of my stroke. Today Sunny routinely solicits being handled by me and our morning ritual of pets and snuggling always starts my day off right.

When I got started with Sunny I had to feel my way along with him, the resources available to help me understand how to work with him were limited. Today there are many resources to help owners learn techniques for helping their dogs feel good about things that scare them, including being handled. One such resource is TACT, Touch Associated Clicker Training, a protocol designed by clicker trainer Emma Parsons and massage professional Julie Robitaille. They have created a program to help pet owners develop an individualized counter conditioning and desensitization program beginning at the appropriate starting point for their dog.

Some owners need to accept that their dog will never be completely comfortable being handled by strangers and should learn to manage their dog’s environment to prevent that from occurring. But every dog should be given the skills to be comfortable being handled by veterinarians.

As I worked on helping my foster dog Nibbles learn to trust me being able to handle him became part of the process. In the following video he has become comfortable being handled and I work on getting him used to having different body parts touched so he can be examined by a vet and I can groom him as needed. If he shows any resistance, as he does when I lift his lips to look at his teeth, I stop and move on.

Join me for a day long seminar on the care & training of fearful dogs in Bow NH on January 21, 2012.