Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
If your dog is sensitive to touch, you are likely struggling with an issue that has many negative repercussions. How can you safely have him examined by a veterinarian? How can you trim his nails? What if you need to insert eardrops to medicate an ear infection? How can you take him on walks if putting on the collar or harness leads to a struggle which can even put you at risk?
These are all things dog owners should be able to do with their dogs, but yet your dog rebels to this and maybe has even shown a serious intent to harm. Why is your dog reacting this way? And most of all, what can you do about it?
Dispelling a Common Myth
Many dog owners assume that dogs who don't allow their owners to touch them, restrain them or handle their feet, are dogs who are "dominant."
While it is true that traditionally, several years back, dominance has been believed to be the underlying cause for aggression directed towards the owner, newer research has revealed that dogs aren't vying for a hierarchy as we thought.
In reality, dogs' relationships with people are not established by dominant/submissive social signaling; but are rather the result of several other factors, explain veterinary behaviorists Dr. Gary Landsberg and Sagi Denenberg.
Relationships with humans are therefore established as a result of genetics, early handling and socialization, and through experiences, as a result of learning and consequences. The dog dominance theory has therefore been debunked courtesy of new research.
Impact of Punishment-Based Methods
The outdated dog dominance theory has caused many negative repercussions on the dog and dog owner relationship and some may still persist nowadays.
As a result of dogs being labeled as “dominant,” dog owners were often directed to establish themselves as higher ranking over the dog through the use of a variety of tactics (always eating before the dog, staring at the dog until the dog looked away, spitting in dog food bowls, etc) and several punishment-based tactics (alpha rolls, scruff shakes, hitting the dog).
With time though, it was discovered that such punishment-based tactics led to an escalation of the dog's aggressive responses.
According to a study conducted by veterinary behaviorists Dr. Meghan Herron, and Ilana Reisner, the impact of harsh confrontational techniques was demonstrated through some interesting statistics, which come to prove that when owners utilize such harsh methods, dogs respond with more aggression.
More precisely, just to get an idea, 43 percent of dogs responded with aggression when being hit or kicked, 39 percent reacted to an alpha roll, 38 percent responded aggressively to having an owner grab their mouth and take out an object forcefully and 26% percent responded defensively when given a scruff shake.
These methods have in common that they involve some level of "touch" or physical contact: dogs are kicked, forcefully rolled onto their back, forcefully grabbed to remove something from their mouth and forcefully shaken.
What does this tell us? It tells us that dogs are likely to come to learn that touch leads to negative experiences, triggering defensive aggression or a sense of perceived threat that may generalize to other circumstances such as when dog owners must reach for the dog's collar, medicate a wound or trim the dog's nails.
To Each Their Own
Of course, dogs who are sensitive to touch aren't created equally as if made with a cookie-cutter. Not all dogs who are sensitive to touch have endured any of the above treatments. Actually, to the contrary, many dogs who are touch-sensitive are dogs who are loved and have a history of living with caring owners.
So what can cause a dog to be touch-sensitive? The following are several possible causes to consider.
Signs a Dog is Sensitive to Touch
Dogs may show a variety of signs suggesting they are sensitive to touch. These signs may include the following:
- Tensing up
- Skin twitching
- Moving away
Why is My Dog Sensitive to Touch?
As mentioned, there can be various causes for a dog's touch sensitivity. Finding the underlying cause can be helpful considering that treatment options may vary based on the root cause. Following are several reasons why dogs may become sensitive to touch.
Fear of Human Hands
According to board-certified veterinarian Dr. John Ciribassi, aggressive displays in dogs are not exhibited due to the dog vying for dominance hierarchy, but due to a definite fear component being the driving force.
A dog may have been traumatized by an event involving touch (being hit, physically corrected) and may have come to associate hands with something negative and therefore reacts negatively.
One German shepherd puppy owner once came to me with a very nippy puppy and was told by a veterinarian to hold the puppy's muzzle tight every time he bit.
Correction after correction, the nipping didn't subside, but actually morphed from normal, albeit obnoxious playful puppy nipping to a more defensive form.
This puppy didn't want hands anywhere near his face or body, and it took a lot of puppy handling exercises to condition him to not react. We then went from not reacting to tolerating touch and then finally even looking forward to being touched.
Lack of Early Handling
Even if there were no negative associations, for some dogs touch can be frightening for the simple fact that they aren't used to it. Hand shyness can happen with a stray dog or a dog who was rescued and has an unknown history. A puppy may also feel overwhelmed when many people touch him and he doesn't like it.
Perhaps a dog was never used to being handled since he was a puppy and being touched appears intimidating. In general, once again, we want puppies to be used to being touched, handled and restrained from an early age.
Ideally, we want puppies getting used to being touched before they reach the age of 12 weeks of age, since, during this time, puppies are more adept at learning and accepting novel stimuli and situations.
Fear of Pain or Discomfort
A dog may also be sensitive to touch due to fear of pain or discomfort. For instance, a dog may have been handled roughly or hurt when groomed (nicked or cut into the quick when undergoing a nail clipping) or a dog may have not liked the sensation of ear drops being inserted into the ears.
Some small dogs may also have been hurt when being picked up or they were picked up incorrectly and have come to dislike being lifted off the ground. Here's a guide on how to pick up a small dog correctly.
Dreading Something Unpleasant
Sometimes dogs may dislike being touched because they have come to associate touch with something unpleasant. They perceive our hands as a predictor of something unpleasant (from your dog's perspective).
These dogs may therefore cringe because they have come to associate being picked up with something negative that has followed such as being closed in a crate or room, removed from playing or given a bath.
Other dogs may feel uncomfortable when they are grabbed, restrained, pushed away, pet too vigorously or at the wrong times (like when eating). Many dogs struggle with being hugged or kissed. Here's why some dogs struggle to tolerate hugs.
A Possible Medical Issue
It's important to rule out any underlying medical conditions when a dog shows signs of touch sensitivity.
For example, a dog who flinches when being picked up, or when touched by the neck or back area, may be doing so due to back pain since you may be putting pressure on a point of the spine that causes pain. A pinched nerve in the dog's neck or back can be a very painful ordeal.
A dog who flinches when his tail is touched may be suffering from some anal gland problem or may have what's know as limp tail. Limp tail in dogs may arise after the dog swims in cold water.
Other possible causes are painful skin lesions, inflamed muscle or tendon, or, a torn ligament. Pay attention to whether your dog has appeared sensitive to touch in a certain area more than another (don't deliberately touch as your dog may bite!).
For example, a dog who is sensitive to having the head area touched may be suffering from an ear infection or mouth pain.
Making a Dog Less Touch Sensitive
Making a dog less touch-sensitive requires evaluating carefully the underlying cause. Not always the cause can be easy to find and therefore may require the aid of a professional. Following are some tips.
Exclude Medical Problems
See your vet to exclude medical problems. This is very important because you can't help your dog tolerate touch if there's an underlying health issue being the culprit.
As mentioned, sensitivity to touch may stem from several underlying medical issues. Give your dog the benefit of doubt, especially if your dog used to enjoy being touched and now he is suddenly withdrawing or showing signs of no longer tolerating it.
Practice Lots of Caution
Consider that dogs who are touch-sensitive may engage in aggressive behaviors to escape restraint or avoid being touched. Because of the risk for bites, it's important to practice the utmost caution.
Invest in a Muzzle
If you really need to touch your dog, use a muzzle. The use of a muzzle may be necessary for safety and should be used at least until the dog learns to recognize that it is safe to be touched or restrained and won't be hurt during the procedure. Here is a guide to training a dog to wear a muzzle.
Enlist Professional Help
If your dog stands very still, growls, stares at you directly or snaps merely when you place a hand on his neck, shoulder or head, or if he gets anxious or defensive if you hold on to his collar, you'll need to play it safe and see a behavior professional to guide you through.
Enlisting the help of a dog behavior professional is important. Look for a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB) or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB). An experienced dog trainer can help too, but ensure they are committed to using force-free behavior modification.
They can show you how to correctly implement behavior modification. This is for both your safety and its correct implementation. Each dog is different and may need different strategies. Some dogs may need calming medications along with behavior modification. Below is therefore just an example of a behavior modification plan.
It goes without saying, the importance of excluding medical causes first. It's a moot point trying to teach a dog to tolerate touch if touch generates pain.
An Example of Behavior Modification for Touch Sensitive Dogs
Your dog behavior professional may show you how to condition your dog to tolerate, and at some point, maybe even enjoy being touched through a desensitization and counterconditioning program. The goal is to establish a level of trust and strong reinforcement history (using super high-value treats/foods like bits of baked liver).
Below is just an example of a possible behavior modification protocol. Every dog needs an individualized plan based on several factors (bite history, size of dog, breed, level of bite inhibition, level of tolerance, family with children? etc).
It may all start with what I call a "primer," that is, prepping a dog for what needs to come. Start with very brief touches in an area your dog seems to tolerate more. Start with touching very briefly with one hand as you simultaneously hand feed a tasty treat from your other hand. Stand beside the dog rather than in front of him. Touch and treat, touch and treat, touch and treat.
After several reps, start touching first and then immediately start feeding the treat, making it extra clear that your touch predicts a treat. Touch then treat, touch then treat, touch then treat, This would be repeated several times until a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER) is noticed.
In other words, the dog starts looking forward to the touch because it has started to become associated with the treat.
Afterward, touch may become gradually more pronounced as the exercise continues, touch-treat, touch-treat, touch-treat. Again, repeated several times in hopes of getting again a positive CER.
Afterward, duration may be added by touching for longer periods of time (instead of just a touch, a little stroke). Same exercise, stroke/treat, stroke, treat, stroke treat.
Note: If your dog ever shows signs of not being comfortable, it means you have progressed too fast. Take a few steps back in the process and use baby steps. For example, if your dog struggles with two strokes, go back to one stroke until he seems very comfortable with that, then try with a stroke and a quarter, rather than two, then a stroke and a half.
Next, you can work on more sensitive areas. Same exercise as usual, with the goal of reaching a positive CER. You may want to temporarily go back to lighter touches as you're raising criteria at this point (dealing with an extra challenge) and therefore it helps to start easily when there are more challenges.
The whole process should go slowly and at the dog's pace. It is far better to go slow than fast. Slow and steady wins the race in behavior modification. The process can take anywhere from a few days to weeks.
The reason why it's very important working with a professional is that he or she can tell you when you should progress or take a step or two back in the process because your dog is going over threshold.
This is for safety and to ensure the process progresses smoothly. The more a dog rehearses aggressive behaviors, the more they put roots, the more the dog rehearses calm behaviors, the more they establish.
The use of a muzzle may be necessary for safety and should be used at least until the dog learns to recognize that it is safe to be touched or restrained and won't be hurt during the procedure.
Don't let the muzzle tempt you into rushing and putting your dog into situations he's not ready for yet. Act as if it wasn't on. It's just there as an extra layer of safety just in case, therefore behavior modification should progress at the same pace, slow and steady. Severe cases may require the use of a fake hand to start with for an extra layer of safety.
What an owner intends as affection may not be received by the dog as affection at all, but rather experienced as an annoyance—an irritating and frustrating annoyance. As the result of unwelcome affection, such dogs may become progressively intolerant of petting or handling and finally act out aggressively to establish social distance.
— Steven Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Etiology and Assessment of Behavior P
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.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2021:
Your articles are always filled with good advice. We have never had a dog that was sensitive to touch except for not liking nails trimmed. But we managed, and they always got treats afterward.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on March 25, 2021:
In puppy training classes I've attended, the trainers emphasize to work with puppies early to acclimate them to being touched positively by their owners. This can be very helpful for when they have to learn to be at the vet, groomer, etc.
With older and rescue dogs, it can be more challenging because they have have been negatively programmed as you've noted. That takes a heap of patience to get them over that.
Great tips, as usual!
Sp Greaney from Ireland on March 25, 2021:
This is really good advice and something I hadn't heard of before.
I think sometimes some dogs just need us to have a little bit of extra patience with them to help them adjust their behaviour.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 25, 2021:
I had dogs and had that problem, if I touched them on their ears or certain parts on their back they would be sensitive. Interesting facts and you know exactly what to share about dogs.
FlourishAnyway from USA on March 24, 2021:
Excellent article that really explains multiple reasons why Rover might not appreciate what his humans are currently doing and how to build a better relationship. I have cats only and some of them are don’t touch me cats for similar reasons: prior mishandling or abuse by past owners, poor early socialization, getting their nails trimmed has resulted in a booboo in the past, and being picked up or petted isn’t their idea. Who wants to be restrained, for example, in the arms of an unpredictable and often clumsy creature (humans) who is much bigger than you? And it’s not like they can tell us they have arthritis or to move off that one spot.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 24, 2021:
You have put some great information in this article, Adrienne. I hate to think of people punishing their their dogs in the wrong way. Dogs seem to respond to love. I like all the things you have covered in this article.