You Can Look But Please Don’t Touch

You’ve invited a dog into your home to live with you. Hooray! Or you’ve shared your home with a dog/s for awhile now. Hooray again! At Pet Harmony we are passionate about the human-animal bond and love when folks find a pet to share their lives with! 

Unfortunately, it’s usually not until something happens to disrupt the bond from deepening, or causes a regression in the existing bond, that one of our behavior consultants is hired to help. Oftentimes, one of those occurrences is when a pet parent is shocked to learn that their dog has strong feelings about being touched by them, other household members, or visitors to the home. As Shaggy likes to say to Scooby, “Zoinks!” If you are one of the folks who share their home with a dog who doesn’t always love to be touched, this blog is for you. If you are one of the folks who share their home with a dog who is a total “love slob” and wants all the petting, all the time, then I’m going to encourage you to continue reading too because just like all of us, a dog’s preferences can change over time. With those preference changes can come some pretty hurt human feelings. I’ve had many clients who break down into tears when the relationship they have with their dog becomes frayed around the edges. 

And I get it. It can feel truly heartbreaking to have a vision of what a relationship is going to look like and not have reality align with that vision. And given that we humans are a lot more “touchy feely” than other species of animals we share the planet with, it can make a lot of sense as to why our feelings can be hurt when our pet doesn’t share our affinity for snuggling. We humans are certainly evolutionarily hardwired to want to use our hands for all sorts of reasons. We like to manipulate things with our fingers to see how it works or moves, feel textures, stroke, caress, pick up, put down. The sense of touch in humans also plays a significant role in the promotion of attachment and relational security to other humans. There is readily available research regarding how important the sense of touch is for all mammals but especially humans. In other words, touch is a huge part of how we humans interact with one another and our world. In fact, to be deprived of touch can have huge impacts on behavioral health for many mammalian species. 

Other animals also use touch as a way to navigate their respective environments. Newborn babies use touch (along with other senses) to discover where they are in relation to space and how to navigate their bodies in that environment. Baby mammals also use touch as a way of finding their way to the milk bar and as a way to stay warm, since their bodies are not so great at thermoregulation yet, especially the smaller species of mammals. In fact, the very hair that covers a mammal’s body acts as a conduit to the world of touch. Mammals aren’t the only animals in the animal kingdom that need touch to survive. Invertebrates and vertebrates alike need the sensation of touch to navigate their respective landscapes in order to adapt and stay alive. Like all senses, the sense of touch is an adaptive feature of survival at its core. To learn more about the fascinating world of touch here is a great paper on it: The World of Touch (Prescott, Durr, 2015, Scholarpedia) 

Now that we have determined the importance of touch, especially for us primates, let’s dive into how our desire to touch, pat, handle, poke, prod, and hold can sometimes get us into trouble with our pets. If we are guided by our assumptions about our pets’ enjoyment of being touched, and our pets don’t share that assumption, we can quickly find ourselves in a bit of a quandary. With dogs especially, it can quickly turn from tolerance, to annoyance, to saying, “I Said No!” by using their teeth. A bite is most certainly not a desired outcome from us wanting to show our dog affection. But if we look at touching from a human-centric approach and that approach is causing a breakdown in communication, is there a way to switch from a human-centric approach to something more dog-centric?  


I might be a broken record, but……body language 

The first recommendation I’m going to make is for you to learn how your pet communicates by becoming proficient at reading their body language. Dogs really are communicating with us all the time and it is so important that we understand what they are saying. It is a fairly rare occurrence for dogs to go directly to a bite when they are saying no (unless they’ve learned that biting is the only thing that works). Most dogs express their displeasure by moving their bodies in species-typical ways. There are multiple ways to learn all about body language including this Pet Harmony blog post. Learning all the ways in which your dog might be saying “no thanks,” “I don’t like that,” or “yes please” will help you make decisions about your interactions. Body language signals can be super subtle, so becoming a student of how dogs communicate can help you tune into their whispers so they don’t need to shout. 


The environment plays a role too

Another thing you can tune into to help you determine why your dog might not be onboard for being touched are environmental factors. Are there certain environmental conditions that are happening (either internally or externally) that are contributing to your dog’s “no touchy” feelings? Is it certain people? Certain times of day? Meal times? While sleeping? What if they are not feeling well or are experiencing pain? Maybe they don’t like to be petted or touched during training? Perhaps they are feeling too anxious or frightened to enjoy touching at the moment. Or too excited and pumped up. Or too tired or unwell. Let me ask you this: would you consent to being touched if you were studying hard for an exam, trying to learn a new skill, feeling feverish, fully immersed in playing a video game, trying to navigate unfamiliar territory, or woken from a sound sleep? I’m not throwing shade; there is no right or wrong answer to my questions. For some people the answer will be that they would find touch reassuring and comforting; for others, annoying or distracting. We are individuals with individual responses to our environment and guess what? Our dogs are too. 


Just let me love you, damn it

What if some dogs, just like some humans, don’t enjoy the tactile stimulation that comes with being touched? Perhaps their learning history or critical socialization period during puppyhood was lacking in positive interactions with humans or it was with humans who didn’t respect their needs. Perhaps there is a genetic component to their being touch sensitive or touch averse. They might be a senior dog with arthritic pain who feels “ouchy” when they are touched. Or perhaps, just like with humans, they have a limit for how much touching they like or need. I’ve worked with plenty of dogs who would just as soon not be touched very much at all. In each case, it is the human who feels hurt and confused when they try to show affection to their pet as an expression of their love and are rebuked. They earnestly ask me, “Why can’t I just love my dog the way I know how?” What if the dog’s response is, “Why can’t you love me the way I like?” Sad, right? Because it’s not for lack of love that causes a rift in the relationship. It really boils down to lack of effective communication and understanding the differences between our species that causes the division between humans and their pets. 


Now What?

If you have determined that you have a touch sensitive dog, let’s focus on ways that you can help increase the positivity in your relationship with them. Love and affection can be expressed in so many different ways and many of them have nothing to do with touch at all. Here are some ideas for you to trial with your pup: 

  1. Play! Play! Play! Scent work games, hide and seek, tug, chase me/chase you, are all games that you can play with your dog that require very little hands on tactile stimulation. As an example, my dog Fonzie loves for me to hide somewhere in the house and call his name for him to come find me. When he finds me I jump around and dance and then let him chase me through the house. I’m telling you, my dog adores this game and I don’t touch him once during it. Another way to activate that dopamine rush is to play tug, fetch, find it, or getting on the floor with your pup and mimicking dog play. Play bow to your dog and watch their response. It is delightful to watch them go from a bit of confusion to “game on, human.”  Most dogs enjoy the heck out of at least one or two of these activities. All it takes is some creativity, playfulness and trial and evaluation on your part to see which ones get your dog’s motor running. 
  2. Bonds can also grow stronger during training, taking walks together, exploring new places, going for car rides, and being generally silly and acting the fool together. You are limited only by your ingenuity and observation skills. 
  3. Learn where and how your dog likes to be touched and respect their choices! If your dog’s choice is “please don’t” as hard as it may be for you, try touching them less and see if you experience a reduction in conflict between you. Wouldn’t that be a win? If your dog likes to come to you while you are sitting on the couch and lean up against you without being pet, is that such a bad thing? I would argue that it is a true sign of the dog’s affection for and trust in you that they want to be close to you. But remember, closeness is often not an invitation for touching. Dog-centric vs. human-centric, right? If you aren’t sure what your dog wants, here is a great video to watch from Eileen Anderson about how to conduct a consent test for petting
  4. If you have a dog who doesn’t love touching or petting, especially with folks outside of the family, it is ok to be your dog’s advocate and ask people to please not touch. Just because someone might want to touch your dog, doesn’t mean they need to touch your dog. 
  5. If you see a gradual or the sudden onset of touch sensitivity in your dog, there could be a medical reason and an appointment with your vet should be made. 
  6. If your dog is touch sensitive about being handled for grooming, bathing, or for needing to do cooperative care things, see # 7 below. 
  7. If your dog has very big feelings about being touched please seriously consider hiring a credentialed positive reinforcement dog behavior professional. They can help you learn the skills you need to help you and your dog. 


I know you love your dogs. I know you do. So go ahead and touch, but more with your hearts and less with your hands. 


Happy Training!


2 thoughts on “You Can Look But Please Don’t Touch

  1. Just WOW! I do not have the words to express how amazing this article was/is! The writing is so thoughtful and helpful and well written it’s hard to believe anyone and I do mean anyone wouldn’t have walked with a great deal of learning right there! What a fabulous article!
    Thank You, Marykaye!

  2. Thank you so much for the kind words Jenny! I am so glad you found the post helpful!

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