As a foster home and adoptor of animal protection dogs, I have always lived with dogs that have been difficult or impossible to touch. I also come across dogs like this as a trainer.
Between “wash me but don’t make me wet” and “completely or not at all”
Dogs are as different in their needs and behaviors as we humans are. I got to know dogs that don’t want to be touched, either by their own or by strangers. Some of them show very clear defense behavior, others, however, avoidance behavior. Still others are looking for closeness to people, but when they actively cuddle or touch them, they cut off and avoid people, or they suddenly show defensive behavior and snap, e.g. from. It is sometimes super difficult for their people to be able to correctly assess or understand this. And sometimes there are dogs that walk very actively on people, act as if they want to make contact and then pinch and fend off.
What can be behind it
There can be a number of reasons why dogs don’t want to be touched. I would like to list some of them here
The dog has had bad hands.
Bad experiences with hands do not always happen on purpose and sometimes even go unnoticed. If the hand e.g. is statically charged and discharges when touched on the dog. Or when combing the hair was pulled. Or the dog was restricted in its freedom of movement and held on to care measures. Or get hectic after him if there is danger.
Sometimes the previous experience also happened through training measures that triggered unpleasant emotions or even pain in the dog. Corrections by touching like with a nut on the head, or with blows on the edge of the hand, pinching, reaching quickly over the catch or other terrifying or painful effects. If dogs combine hands with unpleasant or painful effects, it is obvious that the hands are avoided by the dog. And some dogs react to this with a clear defense behavior. This can extend to every movement of humans.
The dog has no experience with humans
Dogs that grow up so that they have little or no contact with humans, it is simply strange that they are touched. You practically do not get to know it and everything that is foreign can be frightening at first. And that in turn can be answered with avoidance or defense behavior. Frontal human approaches are a threat to these dogs. When people bend over, the dogs are worried or scared. And for many of these dogs, the typical attractiveness of humans is worrying.
Sometimes there is just pain behind it. Musculoskeletal tension. These are not always recognizable in the dog’s expressive behavior, which means that you cannot see that they are limping or holding their heads askew or the like. Therefore, it makes sense to introduce dogs that cannot be touched to a veterinarian and an animal physiotherapist / osteopath.
There are also diseases that affect the metabolism in such a way that fear behavior – this can be defense and avoidance behavior – is more likely. Here, too, it is worth taking a holistic view of the dog and possibly medical clarification and care.
And now? What to do?
The first very important step is to learn to watch the dog. The sooner you can recognize that the dog is beginning to feel uncomfortable, the sooner you can change and adapt the situation so that the dog feels comfortable again.
It is sensible and important to also perceive and react to the signals in the green area of the escalation ladder. Even though dogs can stand being touched, they don’t feel comfortable when you see these signals. If the early signals are ignored and the situation persists, it is normal and understandable that the next levels of escalation leaders are shown. If you do not know or consciously ignore the early signals, the small print of body language, the dog has to communicate in capital letters and show defensive behavior or massive fear behavior. Some dogs also skip individual levels or show the levels in a very quick succession.
Well-meant is not always well done
For dogs that are careful with their own or with other people, it is somehow obvious to feed him out of hand so that he realizes that something good is coming from people and that people are not dangerous. With this procedure, the dog may come into an inner conflict. He would like to have the treat, but at the same time feels insecure or threatened by humans. If the need for the treat is so great that the dog then approaches the person, it quickly happens that the dog still loses its nerve when the biscuit in the stomach has disappeared. This can happen, especially when people start to move.
In some dogs, this conflict is also very easy to recognize in body language. The hind legs remain stationary, the front legs keep going forward, the head stretches forward. So the dog stretches, sometimes as far as possible, sometimes just a little. Streched approached in technical terms. If you can see this posture, you should immediately drop the biscuit out of your hand and take a few steps away. And design the next repetition differently.
And how then?
I would like to introduce here how you can work practically with a “Don’t touch me”. At this point I would like to point out to the safety of everyone involved: If a dog with strong defensive behavior reacts to people, it makes sense to get support from a TsD list trainer because small steps are extremely important. Possibly. the training should also be secured with a muzzle.
When a dog shrinks from being close to humans, it makes sense not to force an approach and a combination of each approach
- when a person approaches, I get something great and
- then the person goes again
to reward. This means that if the dog approaches people voluntarily, or perhaps only looks at them, the marker signal is given and, for example, super good treats are thrown towards the dog. Or if the arm movement would be too much for the dog, just drop it and then the human will go away. You can do that with strangers, but also when the closeness of your own person is a problem.
If a dog shrinks from its own people, it can also make sense for people to announce themselves. With us it’s a “it’s me”, then the person appears. When the dog looks, it is marked and rewarded. The reward cookie flies towards the dog or so far away that the dog can walk away from the person who is moving closer as it needs to feel good. In our beginnings with our male, we also announced that we just wanted to go by and not get close to him. Here, too, we kissed him after the announcement “I just want to pass” and a body turn away from the dog, so that he could be at a safe distance from us humans. This creates security and a good emotion as soon as people appear. Because whenever people come, I’m still safe and I also get something great. The uncertainty and fear towards people is getting smaller and closer and closer can be endured or even enjoyed.
Many dogs are looking for proximity more and more. They may even come and hug people or lie down on the sofa next to people. You can enjoy this physical contact. However, this is not always synonymous with the fact that they also want to be petted or cuddled. Some dogs can e.g. Cuddle well while standing, but not lying down. Some can cuddle up lying down, but when they sleep and are touched, they startle and avoid or snap. Unexpected touches often trigger frightening reactions, by the way, also among us humans. Basically, it is a good idea to act very small-scale and carefully when it is still difficult to name exactly the situations that are still too difficult for the dog.
If dogs can stand the closeness to humans but don’t want to be touched, I also work via announcement. This means that I announce all actions related to reaching for the dog. Leash, look at your ears, cuddle, etc. One or the other may already know the principle from the field of medical training.
Announcing cuddling may seem a bit strange at first glance. But for dogs that are just not sure what that means and are easily worried, it is a huge help. Announcements create certainty about expectations and provide space for the dog to cuddle voluntarily. The dogs know what’s coming next and what’s next. You will also learn that they can stop cuddling if it gets too much for them. I personally think that it is worth considering whether dogs really need to learn to be touched and cuddled by strangers. Or is it enough if you learn that your own person can touch them and that medical examinations by the veterinarian are possible?
The dog can already be close to the person, then the person asks “cuddle?” And the hand approaches the dog and only so far that the dog does not yet show any conflict signals from the escalation leader or even avoidance behavior. At that point, you mark, reward and the hand goes away again. If the dog can remain relaxed, this can also be repeated two or three times. If the dog remains reliably relaxed during the announcement, you can hand a little closer to the dog and so you continue to expand step by step so that the hand gets closer and closer to the dog until it finally lies on the dog. But then there is no cuddling, the hand just lies there, that is marked and rewarded and then the hand goes away again. Again, you can repeat and ask again “Cuddle?” If the dog shows signs of conflict after the announcement of the escalation leader or avoidance behavior, you mark and the hand goes away again. And the exercise is over. These signals are an important piece of information that the dog is enough and does not want to continue. If the dog shows no signs of conflict or even shows that he would like to be in contact for longer, the hand goes back to the dog.
This can be expanded over time. Our black bully rocker couldn’t be touched at the beginning. Today he can really enjoy cuddling, demands it very often and can allow and enjoy it in more and more areas of the body. It is very worthwhile to follow this path and it is incredibly delightful to see how dogs come on their own and seek closeness to humans. Even if the path can be difficult at first, it is incredibly worth it.