Dogs don’t just tolerate human touch – most thrive on it. In fact, the way we touch our dogs profoundly impacts the way they view and interact with the world.

Kirsten works at an animal shelter, and sees animals from all sorts of situations. “One time, we took in some young dogs rescued from a hoarder,” she says. “The pups had never been properly handled by humans and were consequently unsocialized and challenging to work with. It took them a long time to get used to the human touch without either snapping or shrinking away.”

Dogs have been “man’s best friend” since prehistoric times, and over the millennia, they’ve evolved to not only accept the touch of a human hand, but to crave and enjoy it – as long as those human hands don’t abuse the privilege through neglect, punishment, teasing or over-handling. “Dogs are social animals, and they produce oxytocin [also called the “love hormone”] when touched, just like we do,” says Amy Cook, a dog trainer and behavior consultant.

Start young and use rewards

Because dogs are born with a certain acceptance for being touched by humans, most trainers recommend touching your dog as often as possible from the time he’s a young puppy. Not only is this a wonderful bonding exercise for the both of you, but it also helps socialize him and will allow you to groom him with ease as he gets older, giving you a better understanding of his body so you can identify any abnormalities that might be cause for concern.

But getting your dog to feel fully comfortable with touch involves more than just petting him on its own. Amy recommends using a treat reward system to get a dog used to being touched. “I think of petting as more of a subset of the touch category, and one with limitations,” she explains, adding that it’s best to get a dog used to something by pairing it with something else you know he truly likes – such as a tasty treat. “If all you do is just pet a dog and pair that petting with nothing, the dog loves inherently and you are risking sensitizing, rather than desensitizing him to touch. Again, I prefer not to just hope a dog will draw the right conclusions about what I’m doing; it is best to influence that conclusion.”

Training and socialization

According to trainers and canine behaviorists, touch should be incorporated into regularly scheduled training sessions. “Touch is not usually the most powerful of training reinforcers on its own, but it can easily be combined with the other reinforcements we use, and can help the dog enjoy training and feel comfortable and relaxed while learning,” says Amy. “Sometimes, however, it’s an unwelcome interruption. I’ve seen dogs, which otherwise love physical affection, avoid petting or simply tolerate it, and quickly try to get back to the lesson and the earning of their treat. Petting can be an annoyance when a dog is focused on a task.”

Not only is positive reinforcement through touch generally beneficial during training sessions, it can also aid in proper socialization. A dog that is not comfortable or is seemingly disinterested in human contact may have some difficulty socializing with people and animals.

“Dogs who did not have adequate and appropriate experiences with touch when young can certainly be helped remedially, if we go slowly and respectfully,” says Amy. “Many dogs enjoy touch, however, and having something your dog readily enjoys at hand is very useful for building relationships with new people, and for helping him find reassurance when facing the world for the first time.”

Touching problem areas

Of course, it’s our job to make sure our dogs associate human hands with something pleasurable, rather than something to be feared. We all know we should never ever hit, kick or slap a dog. But what if he just doesn’t like having certain parts of his body touched, such as his paws, ears or face? Is it okay to continue touching those areas?

Amy advises maintaining the goal of getting the dog to grow comfortable with having these spots touched, although just “continuing to touch” them is not an approach she normally recommends. “A dog that doesn’t like areas of his body touched is at the very least going to be uncomfortable when life necessitates that these areas are touched, and at the most may be defensive of these areas, and dangerously so. It is far better to help your dog change his mind about this than to let him continue having these discomforts with their inherent risks. Since it is possible to teach your dog that having these guarded areas touched can become a source of pleasure and reward, why shouldn’t we do so? “

For example, lots of dogs don’t like their feet touched. To counter-condition that, you can approximate a touch, and then feed him a tasty treat. You can also have the dog touch you himself, and then feed him, which gives him some control of the procedure. Either way, if you make the potentially disliked thing ‘small’ and the liked thing ‘big’, you’ll see a change of opinion over time.”

Hands Off!

No matter how much your dog comes to trust human touch, there will be times when a pat on the head or a scratch on the rear end will not be welcome. You should learn to recognize the signs your dog will exhibit to indicate he does not want to be touched.

When running your hand along his body, see if you can detect any signs of stiffening, or watch to see if he follows your hand with his muzzle. Alternatively, your dog may simply move away from your hand.

Though dogs will more than likely express their discomfort in these subtle ways to begin with, things could escalate to growling, snapping or even biting if you persist, although this type of aggressive reaction is extreme and may indicate a physical problem. “Dogs that are in pain may respond negatively to touch,” says Amy. “Any change in the normal pattern for your dog should lead to a visit with the veterinarian.”

The next time your dog leans into your scratching fingers or flips over on his back for that all-important belly rub, know that those moments mean more to him than you may realize. Take the time to give him the loving touch he’s asking for. Not only will you make his day, you’ll also help him be a better dog.

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