Working with dogs that are not comfortable being touched can be quite a challenge for both owners and professionals. It is not uncommon for dogs that have spent time in rescue or shelter environments to exhibit defensiveness to touch and handling as a result of stress or prior experiences. Touch sensitivity can also manifest as a result of inadequate socialization, and some dogs simply perceive touch as aversive without any history of improper handling. For both social and practical reasons, a dog should be comfortable being handled in a reasonable manner. Grooming, toenail trimming, and Veterinary examinations are just a few situations that come to mind, and of course dogs that are difficult to handle often are turned in to shelters.
Containment vs. Restraint
The word restraint refers to forcefully holding a dog or restricting movement with the leash. Fearful animals typically respond to restraint with attempts at escape and increased anxiety. Think of yourself being tied down in the dentist chair and it likely changes the experience! Containment is a more gentle technique of keeping an animal close to you by providing encouragement, reward, and more subtle boundaries. The first step in helping a dog overcome resistance to being touched is to avoid any type of restraint. Encourage the dog to approach for a treat, allowing the dog to move away as needed. Once a dog realizes they are not trapped and have the choice to move away, they are often much more willing to approach.
Introducing the Thundershirt
The first step when introducing something new to a dog is to break it down into smaller, manageable steps. Changing the context of the new item can also be helpful. Start by placing some yummy treats on the folded Thundershirt and allow the dog to eat from it. A dinner plate is familiar and usually not scary! Next, unfold the Thundershirt halfway and simply lay it across the dogs back for just a few moments, offering a treat while the dog experiences this new sensation. The next step is to place the Thundershirt fully open on the dog’s back, closing the front connection, but leaving the side panels open. The last step is to close the panels so the Thundershirt is snugly on the dog. At this point, it is very important to allow the dog to move around. This allows the dog to know he is not trapped, and also allows him to integrate the sensations of the Thundershirt against his body as he moves. Remove the Thundershirt after a few minutes. The next session may not require the step by step introduction, but keep the sessions of wearing the Thundershirt fairly short (5 to 10 minutes) for the first few experiences.
Once the dog is comfortable wearing the Thundershirt, it is time to introduce short sessions of touch. Employing gentle containment, start by touching the dog over the Thundershirt. Use a slightly slower, quiet form of stroking, rather than any vigorous petting. Initially using the back of your hand is much less threatening. A specific form of bodywork known as Tellington TTouch is a very effective tool in this process. Work for just a few moments at a time, giving the dog several short breaks, allowing the dog to move around if needed. Once the dog is comfortable being touched around the shoulder region over the Thundershirt, move toward the hindquarters and begin touching in areas where the Thundershirt is not covering the body. You can stroke down the legs with the back of your hand over the feet as a preparation for handling the feet and eventual toenail cutting. Sometimes the use of a tool such as a sheepskin mit or paint brush can also be used to help the dog become accustomed to different textures and sensations.
Keys to Success in Overcoming Touch Sensitivity
The Thundershirt is very helpful in reducing anxiety and calming the dog through the use of gentle pressure. Once the dog is comfortable wearing the Thundershirt, it is much easier to begin direct contact with the hands. Avoiding restraint while giving the dog a choice to approach and retreat also reduces fear and helps to build confidence. And finally, using a slower more rhythmical form of touching reduces arousal and allows the dog to feel safe. The most important consideration is to be patient, keeping the sessions short and build on each successful experience.
Kathy Cascade, PT, Tellington TTouch Instructor
Cascade Animal Connection