Teach Your Dog the Magic “Touch”

Most dog owners understand why it’s important to teach basic behaviours such as sit, lie down, stay, and come. But when it’s suggested to teach a dog touch—otherwise known as targeting—they often look confused. Let me explain. “Touch” is a verbal cue that means you would like your dog to touch something with a part of his body. The most common form of targeting is for a dog to touch his nose to a person’s hand. Why, you might ask, would anyone want to teach that? Although it might sound strange, the skill actually comes in very handy (sorry, couldn’t help myself!) in quite a few situations.

Teaching the skill is easy and straightforward. Grab a few treats, and hold them in one hand behind your back. Face your dog. Present the empty hand to your dog with palm flat, pointed toward the ground. The back of your hand should be just below and to the side of your dog’s nose, close enough that he can easily reach to sniff it. Most dogs will immediately sniff the hand to check things out. At the moment his nose makes contact say, “Yes!” and give a treat from the other hand. Repeat the exercise, making sure not to move your hand to touch your dog’s nose; the goal is that he makes the motion himself. Vary the placement of your hand from one side of his nose to the other in subsequent repetitions, but don’t place it above his nose. If your dog doesn’t investigate the hand when initially presented, try bringing it back to your waist and presenting it again. If that doesn’t work, hold a treat between your thumb and first finger with the hand flat, palm down. Chances are your dog will
be happy to check out the hand now! When he does, flip it over and let him have the treat. Once he gets the idea, you won’t need to keep a treat in that hand.

Once you’ve done enough repetitions that you’re confident your dog will touch his nose to the hand as soon as it’s within range, it’s time to add the verbal cue. Say, “Touch!” just before presenting your hand. You can lose the “Yes!” at this point. Of course, if your dog successfully touches the hand with his nose, give a treat.

“Touch” is useful in a variety of situations. It can be used to teach your dog to walk nicely next to you, and is helpful when walking a dog who is reactive toward other dogs or people. Start by standing with your dog on the side you’d like him to walk on. You should both be facing the same direction. Standing in place, do a few repetitions of touches, rewarding each success with a treat. Next, take one step forward and immediately bring your hand down to ask for the touch, and treat. Continue along this way, asking for touches with every few steps. Don’t leave your hand dragging along as you walk; rather, keep both hands either at your hips or chest (whichever is more comfortable) so that you can present the hand each time while keeping treats out of reach. It takes a bit of practice to achieve a smooth walking/targeting motion, but once you get going, you’ll find that your dog is in proper position by your side as you walk along together. If your dog is reactive toward other dogs on walks, doing touches as soon as you spy another dog and continuing as you pass each other will give your dog something to focus on, and will keep him in a cognitive frame of mind rather than spiraling out of control emotionally.

Hand targeting has other uses as well. If your dog is nervous at the vet, do hand touches as you sit in the waiting room so that anxiety doesn’t build. If possible, do them as well while the vet examines your dog. I have done this with dogs who don’t appreciate being handled or vaccinated, and it makes things easier on everyone. If your dog is afraid of a particular person, touch can be transferred from you to that person. My book Help for Your Fearful Dog has step-by-step instructions, but the overall idea is that once your dog knows the skill, you would sit  next to the person and ask for a few touches, then place your hand over the person’s hand and ask for touches. Gradually, things would shift to the person’s hand being on top of yours for the touches, and finally, your dog would do touches to that person’s hand by itself. Touch can even be transferred from touching your hand to touching an object your dog fears. In both of these scenarios, the power to decide whether to approach and touch is in your dog’s own paws, which makes all the difference in overcoming a fear. Again, you’ll be surprised at how simple hand targeting is to teach, and how useful it is in a variety of situations. So, get training!

Dog Greetings Gone Wrong

No one seems to know how to greet a dog anymore. Every time I see a person gleefully crouch down to someone’s whale-eyed, tail-down Lab mix or puffed-up Jack Russell, look them in the eye, then reach out a quavering hand, I want to scream. What is up with this? When did we lose the aptitude to greet dogs? I want to talk about this, not only from a practical standpoint, but from a cultural perspective—what it means about us, and our dogs.

Dogs have become conversation pieces, and as such, the centers of attention, especially when out with their owners, at the park or café, or on daily walks. When a person appears with a dog, it is almost mandatory for others to fawn all over it, as if it were a newborn cherub in a stroller, or else some canine incarnation of Justin Bieber. It almost seems compulsory that one pay reverent homage to someone’s dog in order to honour its owner’s beneficence.

It’s hooey. The truth is, most dogs are not body-wagging Golden Retrievers in love with every stranger they see, but instead family-centric, loyal creatures who are almost always initially reserved around strangers. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s normal. They are programmed with default reservation, because it’s their job to protect and serve the tribe. Period.

Of course, some dogs are more reserved than others, either by breed, history, personality, or a combination of all these. Others, because of poor socialization, lack of training and low confidence, will also be more apt to worry. But, by and large, all dogs need time to process a stranger and see if the new person meets with owner approval. Once they decide that the stranger is acceptable to the owner, all is well.

But most people never let this initial judgment occur. Instead, they dive right into the dog, crouching, pointing, kneeling, reaching, talking baby talk, staring—everything I would do to get a dog to bite me. How did this become the status quo?

For the record, you do not kneel down or bend over and offer your outstretched hand to a strange dog. Ever. All she knows is that someone outside of her tribe is trying to touch her, period. That dog doesn’t care what your hand smells like. What is she supposed to compare it to, anyway? Some stock scent library of well meaning, philanthropic people?

I often see this scenario played out in front of supermarkets, cafes, and storefronts, with tethered dogs whose owners are inside shopping. People going in or out feel obligated to greet the dog, or, worse yet, have their kids greet the dog. And they have of course taught their children the same dysfunctional greeting procedure, nearly guaranteeing their kids gets nipped, either on the outstretched hand, or in the face. Even with the owner present, it is folly to greet a dog in this fashion, unless you have self-destructive tendencies.

Image: Ira_Shpiller/bigstock.com

Was this incorrect greeting methodology taught to us as kids, along with other inanities such as “duck-and-cover,” or “healthy” tanning? If so, I don’t recall. In any event, whoever endorsed this method of dog greeting certainly didn’t know much about dogs.

The right way to greet a strange dog is not at all. That’s right; ignore the dog completely, even if it seems friendly and open to it. Plenty of dogs give mixed signals with tails, ears, and body posture; I’ve had smiling Border Collies, Corgis, Samoyeds, spaniels—all manner of “happy” looking pooches try to bite the blood out of me, all the while projecting mock affability.

Yes, there are dogs whose intent is clear; that five month-old retriever with the serpentine body wag, or the thirteen year-old Gandalf-like Springer mix who keeps sweetly nosing his saliva-soaked tennis ball at you—they are pretty easy to read. But as a general rule, just ignore the dog, and greet the owner first. Don’t even look at the dog.Just shake the owner’s hand, strike up a conversation, avoid wild gesticulations, and let the dog sniff your leg and watch the proceedings. Very quickly it will discern that you are okay, and that you have two dogs at home with bad breath who rolled in poop the day before. Once that happens, you’ll see the dog’s body posture relax. She will wag, smile, try to take part in the greeting, maybe even nudge into you for a pat on the head. A casual scratch and a low key “good girl” is all you’ll need to guarantee a future of safe greetings.

Don’t go overboard, even if the dog seems open to it. At this stage, you’re okay with polite interaction, not roughhousing, manic rubbing, or kooky, frenetic vocalizations. Push an insecure dog too fast, and it will react defensively. Just keep it low key, the same way a dominant dog would act if greeted by a subordinate dog. Be calmly indifferent. Be cool.

If you see a lone, tethered dog, just leave it be. Respect his right to reservation. You needn’t prove to the world that you are Doctor Doolittle; it’s just not worth it. At the very least, wait for the owner to appear, talk to him or her, then let nature take its course. Keep a few cookies in your pocket for casual dropping. But never think you have an obligation to be a dog ambassador.

More importantly, teach your children to do the same. Of the five million reported dog bites that occur in the U.S. every year, the majority of them happen to kids under the age of twelve, due in great part to us teaching them the crazy “hand reach” method of dog salutation.

With regard to loose dogs wandering the neighborhood, use your best judgment as to whether or not they need help. But realize that, even if lost, a strange dog will likely mistrust you, and perhaps bite if someone tries to corral or capture him. And if you see a group of bully dogs with switchblades and leather jackets coursing around, stay calm, don’t run, and do not make eye contact. Move steadily to your objective. If their intent is clearly aggression, jump atop a car with your dog, or grab a trash can for defense. Yell out for help, call 911, and pretend to be more daunting than you are. Never openly confront, unless you have no options left. Carry a few cookies or a tennis ball and toss them into the bushes to distract the brutes. If you walk your dog in an area where strays often carouse, consider carrying pepper spray, a cane or umbrella, or something for defense. Or, perhaps, be squired through the neighbourhood by a brace of 180-pound, well-trained Harlequin Great Danes.

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