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Building Trust Through Touch With A Scared Dog

Sally Gutteridge
Trust, and the ability to do so, is a very individual matter. It too depends on learning experiences, personality and individual mindset. When we work with desensitising a worried dog, the easiest cue to teach is the hand or object touch. This game gives a dog the choice to interact with you and helps a dog associate your hands with a positive experience. Not only that but a hand touch is a useful tool in retraining a recall.

This trick is easiest taught using a clicker, however some dogs cannot cope with the sound. In these circumstances, we replace the clicker with a reinforcing word. This can be any word but it needs to be short and sweet. The word is used in the exact same context as the clicker, and the clicker rules apply in the same way.

In cases where a dog has a fear of hands it is far better to use a target stick. These can be purchased at most pet shops or you can make your own by taping a fabric covered ping pong ball onto a stick. Introducing the hand touch to a dog is carried out the same way we teach any new behaviour. At first, we make it very simple for the dog by rewarding small increments or pieces of the finished behaviour. We then gradually increase our expectations (what we require from the dog) and build the behaviour step-by-step.

Hold a treat between your fingers with your hand in a fist shape, position it a few inches from the dog's nose. Click and treat from your other hand. Reward even the slightest interest from the dog. A glance is sufficient at this early stage.

Hold your hand in the same position just in front of the dog's nose but this time you will only click and treat an actual movement towards your hand. A glance is not enough anymore.

Once again hold your hand close to the dog's nose. This time you hold off with the click and treat until the dog touches your hand with his nose. If the dog is struggling with this stage, place the treat between your index and middle finger running vertically. Have the treat sticking out a bit so it is visible and present your hand in the same shape to the dog. This will encourage a touch that you can click.

When the dog is touching your hand with his/her nose you can add a few other variables one at a time. Move your hand further away from the dog's nose and in different positions (high, low, left and right). Also, practice your targeting when your dog is in various postures (standing, sitting, lying down) and in different locations. Once the dog understands to nose nudge your fist it is time to remove the treat from our hand. At this point go back to stage three and present your hand in the same manner but with no treat inside your fist. Always go at the dog's pace whilst repeating their choices and trust will come naturally. 

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