Just like people dogs vary in their threshold of what kind of touch they consider appropriate. A dog’s reaction to being touched can range from joy and relaxation to growling and biting and everything else in between. Teaching your dog to be comfortable with touch will make trips to the vets, bathing time and other necessary activities less stressful. Moreover, a dog that has serious body guarding issues can be a threat to your safety. There are a couple of things that you can do to teach your dog to accept and enjoy being touched.
It is especially relevant to the rescue dogs, who may have been abused, and to the dogs traumatized by unpleasant, and scary experiences with medical treatments or grooming. The goal here is to teach a dog that being touched means good things (like sausage or cheese) are coming. Start with brief touches and with body areas that your dog is least likely to guard. In severe cases, when the dog reacts to a reached out hand, start with hand-feeding. Each dog is different, but in general the least guarded body parts are likely to be shoulders and chin. The most risky body parts are paws, belly, back, hips and top of the head.
Before you approach the dog, make sure that the dog had seen you and that he has enough space to adjust his body position if he feels uncomfortable. You will appear less threatening, if you kneel in front of the dog instead of leaning over him. Never approach a dog from behind or touch a sleeping dog (note that dogs often sleep with their eyes open!).
Re-conditioning process involves making the dog associate being touched with good things. In order to achieve this, you will need to deliver treats right after you touched the dog. Gradually increase the number of touches, the number of body areas touched and the duration of each touch. Don’t rush through the process. It is important to increase the challenge for the dog very slowly. For more details about re-conditioning and for specific training outlines, consult a book by Jean Donaldson “Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs”.
Massage is different from a casual belly rub. A proper massage results in deep relaxation and pleasure. Of course, it might be challenging to get an extremely anxious dog to settle down for a massage, but if you start with short sessions, the dog will grow used to it and will learn to enjoy it. I am lucky, because Milo just loves it, he would be happy to spend hours being massaged.
When giving a dog a massage, make sure that your movements are slow – gently press with your flat palm. Avoid quick scratching movements. Yes, dogs love to be scratched, but it doesn’t help with relaxation. From my experience, most dogs prefer ears, neck, paws and shoulders massage to any other body area. Be careful, of your dog is prone to ear infections – his ears might hurt. I’m not going to go into details about massage movements for specific issues. I am using T-Touch techniques and the easiest way to learn them is to read a book by its inventor Linda Tellington-Jones “Getting in Touch with Your Dog”.
It is never too late to teach your dog to enjoy being touched in different ways. You don’t have to spend much time on that: a daily 10-minute session is enough for most dogs. Touching your dog is also good for you: it reduces blood-pressure and helps to overcome stress and anxiety. So go on, enjoy it 🙂