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How to Help Hand-Shy Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Is your dog hand shy?

Is your dog hand shy?

Who Are Hand-Shy Dogs?

Dogs: On the one hand you have dogs who yearn to be pet, but on the other hand you have dogs who dread it, such as hand-shy dogs. Who exactly are hand-shy dogs? These are dogs who are intimidated by hands. They may dislike seeing hands coming near their face or making actual contact. Many dislike actual contact, but they soon start dreading the hands getting near them as that predicts actual contact.

What behavior do you see in hand shy dogs? Some dogs may retreat, backing away or startling, others will growl, lunge, or even attempt to bite. In both cases, hand-shy dogs are giving distance-increasing signals. In other words, they are simply signaling their desire to increase space between themselves and the person trying to make contact with them.

You may have heard in the past to stretch your hand out when you meet an unfamiliar dog. I have seen vets do this before examining a dog and mothers telling their children to stretch their arm out so the dog can have a good sniff. This is a great way to give a hand-shy dog the chance to bite! Certified dog trainer Martha Winters says, "I don’t know how this rumor got started, but we would all be much safer if we cease and desist this misguided and potentially dangerous activity." Regardless of if a dog is hand shy or not, getting into an unfamiliar dog's space with an outstretched arm is far from being sound advice.

What causes dogs to become hand shy? There are several possibilities. Until Rover can talk, we can only make assumptions as to what triggers this behavior. In the next paragraph, I will try to put myself in a hand-shy dog's head and try to identify what I think may trigger this type of behavior.

The Making of a Hand-Shy Dog

What triggers a dog to become hand shy? There may be several explanations. These are some possible causes I think can potentially cause hand shyness in dogs, but dogs are quite unique creatures, so your dog may have developed the tendency to become hand shy from a totally different circumstance or a combination of several.

Fearful Temperament

It has been said that a dog's personality is a result of nature and nurture, meaning that both genes and the environment have an impact. It's true that dogs can be born with a genetic predisposition to be shy, skittish and fearful.

Ethical dog breeders try to do their best to exclude dogs with fearful temperaments from the gene pool. Yet, many times a good social upbringing can override genetic tendencies.

Problems are far worse when you have the combo of poor genes and lack of socialization which brings us to the next issue that can cause a dog to become predisposed to being hand shy.

Lack of Socialization

Often it's believed that dogs who are hand shy have a history of abuse. While this can be a factor in some cases, the great majority are simply unsocialized dogs that weren't taught that hands bring good things. There's a critical window of opportunity in puppyhood during which they're more open to embracing new experiences. During this time, the puppy is not immune to fear and overwhelming experiences, but he seems to have a better time accepting novelty.

During this time, it's as if "they develop a catalog of sights, sounds, smells, and experiences that fall under the heading of “safe," explains certified dog trainer Jolanta Benal. This window of opportunity is generally open from the age of 4 weeks up to 16 weeks. The breeder or caretaker of the puppy should be responsible for early socialization when the puppy is still in their hands until the puppy is 8 weeks (or whatever age it's recommended to send the puppy to a new home), afterward, it's up to the new owners to continue the process. Lack of socialization leads to dogs who are fearful, aggressive and unable to adjust to changes.

When people think of socialization, they often mistakenly assume it's about introducing just people and other dogs. In reality, there's much more into that. Puppies should get used to being handled and enjoying it. That means setting mock veterinary visits and grooming visits, by having volunteers touch the pup and desensitizing him to having his face, ears, paws and body touched.

Ian Dunbar, in his guide After Getting Your Puppy, says it's unfair to allow puppies to grow up anxious around people and afraid of their touch. Family members should get the puppy used to being handled and gently restrained first, and then unfamiliar people and children can be added to the picture.

Negative Experiences

Dogs who are sensitive by nature or have been poorly socialized, or a combination of both, can start becoming hand shy after negative experiences. What is considered a negative experience is what the dog perceives as a negative experience, not necessarily what we do.

For a sensitive dog, even very small occurrences may trigger hand shyness. It could be a day a child approached the dog too fast and startled the dog when she touched him, a scary veterinarian experience (shots, taking temperature, opening mouth) or an unpleasant grooming appointment (harsh groomer, scary hairdryer, painful mats, noisy trimmer).

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Small dogs are prone to be hand shy because of their small size which makes them likely to be snatched off the ground without much notice. On top of that, people looming over them may appear quite big and menacing to a pint-sized dog. Not to mention the fact that several small dogs have long hair often covering their eyes which makes them prone to being startled when people approach with little notice.

To a poorly socialized dog, even normal happenings may be considered scary. A person the dog finds intimidating may loom over and pet the dog who soon feels a need to defend himself to prevent this scary event from happening in the future. Soon, the dog may generalize the behavior and apply it to everyone he encounters and finds intimidating.

Implementation of Plan B

A dog may initially try to resort to peaceful resolutions to communicate his fear of being handled. Problems start when his communication is not listened to. For instance, a dog may tell a person who is about to pet him that he isn't interested by backing away, hiding behind the owner or growling. When the person listens to the dog, it all stops there. The person gives up, and the dog exhales a sigh of relief.

Problems start when the dog's alerts go unheeded. The person doesn't respect the dog's need for space and continues advancing when the dog backs away or the child chases the dog and tries to pet him when he's hiding under the bed. In this case, the dog must resort to plan B, which often involves biting. It's almost as if the dog was saying "what part of my message didn't you understand? I don't want you coming near me, so I am forced to give a bite."

The same goes for a dog that is growling. In small dogs, people may laugh at the growling and still try to pet the dog. If the dog is growling at the vet or the groomer, the dog will likely be retrained more and the dog may feel more compelled to bite. Muzzling the dog may stop him from biting, but his underlining emotions are still there. It's like putting your finger on a hose, the pressure will eventually build up and the water will come out with great force one day. Then when the dog bites, everybody acts surprised. . .

A Strategy That Works

Hand shyness may not happen all at once; it may take repeated exposures. In most cases, the behavior though tends to easily put roots because it works. What happens when somebody goes to pet a hand-shy dog and the hand-shy dog growls or tries to nip? You'll see the person withdraw the hand in a split second. This reflex to move the hand away is almost done without thinking, just as you would move your hand away from something hot.

When you move your hand away, you get relief as you have just saved your hand from potential injury, but the dog feels relief too as he has saved himself from an unpleasant situation. If the dog tries to move away from the hand instead, he'll still feel relief because he avoided an unpleasant situation. Both behaviors are highly reinforcing to the dog, which means the dog will likely repeat them in the future because from the dog's perspective they helped him stay safely away from those threatening hands.

History of Punishment

Sometimes, well-meaning dog owners feel compelled to punish their dog for growling at somebody who is trying to make contact. Punishing the dog to growl only leads to a deleterious effect: a dog who bites without warning because his warning system has been suppressed! Punishing the dog for snapping or biting (either through a vocal reprimand or a harsher form of physical punishment like an alpha roll) doesn't help at all either; actually, it will increase the dog's level of stress.

Now the dog is more convinced that the person trying to touch them is even scarier because now he's also punished on top of that! How would you feel if you were terrified of snakes, and a snake is trying to approach you and you try to step on it and your therapist slaps you in the face? Would that decrease your fear of snakes or would you now not only fear the snakes but also fear your therapist?-

The ASPCA makes a great statement: "Dogs who are hand shy don’t need discipline; they need to be taught that hands bring pleasure rather than pain."

What to Do With a Hand-Shy Dog

What should you do with a hand-shy dog? Hand shyness is something that requires quick implementation of behavior modification, as the more the dog rehearses avoidance or defensive behaviors, the more it will be difficult to eradicate. Here are some tips for dealing with this issue.

Rule out Medical Problems

This is very important, especially if your dog has become hand shy out of the blue. A dog owner came to see me one day claiming that her dog had a recent history of biting. After a medical exam, the poor pooch turned out to have a painful ear infection. He was biting simply to tell people to stay away from his aching ears!

Elderly dogs sometimes develop hearing loss or vision loss which causes them to be prone to startling when they are touched. Any type of pain in dogs can virtually cause a lower bite threshold, meaning that they are more likely to bite than they would if they were perfectly healthy. Something to always keep into consideration.

Manage Your Dog's Environment

As mentioned, the more a dog gets to rehearse the backing away or nipping, the more the behavior establishes making it more difficult to eradicate. Additionally, it's stressful for your dog to be exposed to situations that cause him to feel uncomfortable. From now on, becomes the ambassador for your dog. Tell people to not come too close and to not pet your dog. If need be, use a vest that warns people to keep their distance.

Hands Bring Good Things!

Puppies need to learn that hands are a source of pleasure rather than something to dread. Puppies should be exposed to people who use their hands to drop treats, hand-feed him and bring him toys. If treats are dropped every time the puppy is touched, the puppy learns that touch predicts something good and comes to love it.

After repeated positive experiences, the puppy soon learns to go near people because people are a source of good things that are often delivered by their hands. If a puppy is hand shy and nothing is done about it, chances are high he will never come to like interacting with hands.

Warn Your Dog

This tip is for small dog owners with long hair covering their eyes or dogs that may not hear well or see well. It's always a good idea to warn them of your presence and that you are about to touch them or pick them up. Don't approach them from behind, be slow giving them enough advanced notice about what you are about to do. Put picking them up or touching them on cue, by saying something like, "Up you go" before you do it, so they know what to expect and aren't startled. Alternatively, call your dog to you, so he knows you are going to commence physical interaction.

Teach Hand Targeting

Ask a dog trainer or behavior consultant to guide you through a training method known as hand targeting. This teaches your dog that making contact with people's hands brings good things. The dog is simply taught to make contact with their hands by briefly touching the open hands with his nose. The moment he targets the hand, a click or verbal marker announces that he'll get a treat. It's important though to do this along with a trainer as it takes some finesse in reading the dog's body language and making sure he's not getting overwhelmed-- which can make problems worse!

Systemic Desensitization and Counterconditioning

These terms may sound a tad bit intimidating, but they're pretty easy to understand once you get familiar with their definition. In desensitization, you'll take baby steps to make hands look less intimidating. If your dog is scared of hands when they are near his face, he'll get systematically used to hands being at a farther distance. If your dog dislikes being touched, a slight split-second fake movement of touches (hand comes near pretending to touch) is only given at first. The goal is to present what the dog finds scary in a less threatening way and then gradually progress.

Counterconditioning involves changing the dog's emotional response. From hands being scary, you want hands being sources of good things. The dog should learn to love hands versus dreading them and this is accomplished by associating hands with good things. Remember; if your dog isn't taking treats or takes them nervously, your dog is likely overwhelmed by the experience and is over threshold. Take a step back and split the exercise into less intimidating steps. Again, best to hire a professional to avoid discouraging setbacks and unsafe situations. Never force your dog to interact with people if he's not ready and consider that luring a dog to come near people with treats may put him in a situation where he may be likely to bite because he recognizes how dangerously close to the hands he has gotten.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on February 28, 2014:

This is very helpful, as my dogs tend to be over protected and are hand shy with strangers. They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but it is certainly worth a try, and your article is a great help.

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