Humans are apes and dogs are wolves. Not quite accurate because we have evolution to consider, however, we are descended from a specific touchy, grabby, touch to soothe animal and dogs are descended from an animal that communicates very differently, only touching through familiarity, consent or aggression.
Some dogs love to be touched and ask for it all the time, others prefer not to be and ask for physical contact once in a blue moon. Do you know which of these define your own dog? Do you listen and only touch them when they ask or give consent? Puppies who learn that touch is OK generally accept it better, because it’s been practised as they were getting used to the world. That said, consent should be part of your everyday life with your dog, because to touch without them asking for it or telling us they are OK with it will disrupt their balance and feed into reactivity, making the dog generally a bit edgy. That edginess will then travel over into situations that he finds more uncomfortable, and because he’s not truly relaxed the dog is much more likely to react.
A dog who is enjoying the touch will usually relax and lean into the hands touching them or even the person doing it. Their face and eyes will become soft and there should be little to no tension in their body or facial expression.
A dog who is worried, anxious or not welcoming the touch will become tense, lick their lips and maybe yawn. Their muscles will contain adrenaline; hence the tension and they may use distance increasing gestures for example looking away, or growling.
The modern day dog is created to need touching too. Non shedding coats for example. Dogs are bred to look a certain way and many need regular grooming and/or clipping. Even when a puppy is raised to be happy when clipped and groomed by a kind, considerate professional the experience of being clipped is still really unnatural to the canine species. So if a dog escapes from a bad situation, has been kept for breeding in a farm situation, has never been groomed or has had trauma when handled this leads us to a dilemma. Put the dog through daily combing, have them clipped or leave them alone (which is probably the choice they would prefer) risking their health and wellbeing. In any situation where a dog needs to be touched regularly it’s a good idea to build them up little and often. A final note on touch is to protect your dog from the wandering hands of strangers. It’s an interesting phenomenon that people walk up to unknown dogs with hands outstretched. Even when the dog is growling and showing teeth, many people persevere, assuming that the growling dog will be soothed, if they can just get close enough to touch him. When is reality the dog couldn’t be clearer with the message, “if you come any closer with that big scary grabber I’ll bite it off”. In these cases it’s vital that we protect our dogs. If our dog looks scared, and isn’t overt in his requests to be left alone, we must still protect him from fly by touchers – as they will unbalance him, which will affect all areas of his wellbeing at that point, leading to vigilance and reactivity that might not even seem related but probably is..