Pet Care

Dogs Who Are Hand Shy

a hand on grass

Many dogs love to be petted and actively seek attention from everyone they see. When you reach to pet them, they lean into your touch, move their bodies to permit better access to their favorite spots and paw at you to solicit more contact. Particularly expressive dogs may moan and sigh with pleasure. But just as some people are shy around new acquaintances, some dogs prefer to not be touched. In fact, some dogs are afraid when people touch or even reach toward them. These dogs may react to a person reaching toward them by tensing, cowering or backing away, and sometimes even by growling and snapping. Unfortunately, when a dog who’s hand shy nips, many people react by punishing him. Dogs who are hand shy don’t need discipline; they need to be taught that hands bring pleasure rather than pain.

Small dogs are particularly susceptible to becoming hand shy. They’re often reached for and snatched up off the ground without having a chance to prepare for the lift. To make matters worse, it’s likely that all people appear big and often times menacing to them. In addition, many small dogs have long hair and can’t always hear or see people approaching, so they’re often startled by a person’s touch.

Many people think that dogs who are afraid of being touched have been abused. Although abuse can certainly cause hand shyness, most dogs who retreat from the approach of a hand were never actually hit or abused. They simply were never taught that hands bring pleasure. Contrary to what many people believe, a timid puppy who’s wary of reaching hands rarely grows out of it. To overcome his trepidation, he needs to be socialized—to meet many people and have numerous enjoyable experiences with them. He needs to discover, over and over again, that a person’s touch brings good things, such as petting, food and playtime with his favorite toys. If a puppy parent doesn’t actively arrange lots of pleasant interaction with people, the puppy will never go near enough to people on his own to learn that touching is a good thing. (For more information about helping your puppy grow up to be a happy dog, please see our article, Socializing Your Puppy.)

Of course, some dogs have learned to be hand shy because being touched by people was NOT good at some point in their past. Rough, painful or abusive handling can teach a dog to become very fearful when people try to touch or reach toward them. Other dogs, like some people, are simply extremely sensitive to being touched. For these dogs, even seemingly gentle touch can be an uncomfortable or frightening experience.

Many dogs will accept their pet parent or family touching them but react fearfully to strangers’ hands. Some dogs avoid or fear even their pet parents’ touch.

First, Rule Out Medical Issues

Like children, a dog who is feeling pain will often avoid people’s reaching hands—even if he knows and trusts the people. If your dog has always been fine with handling but suddenly acts hand shy, take him to a veterinarian to rule out painful conditions, like ear infections, tooth decay, arthritis or acute injuries. In addition, ask the veterinarian to check for loss of eyesight or hearing, which can cause a dog to become fearful or startled when people touch or reach for him.

How to Prevent the Problem

The best strategy for dealing with hand shyness is prevention! After adopting a puppy or new dog, spend time every day touching him in ways he seems to enjoy. Some dogs like to cuddle with quiet stroking, some love a belly rub, some prefer a good scratching around the neck and ears, and some like to have the area on their back, just at the base of the tail, rubbed and scratched. Take time to touch your dog all over his body with gentle, fluid stroking movements so you can find out if there’s a particular area he doesn’t want to be touched. If you discover one, work to teach your dog that being petted in that area isn’t really so bad.

Begin by petting your dog in an area he likes to be touched as you talk to him softly. While he’s enjoying your petting, calmly and gently move your hand toward the spot where he doesn’t like to be touched. If your dog tenses, freeze your hand on his body. Don’t clutch him or try to restrain him. Simply stop all movement while keeping gentle contact between your palm and his coat. Continue talking to your dog in encouraging tones. When he relaxes, even for a second, move your hand away from the area and back to a spot where he likes to be touched. Scratch him in that spot for a while. Repeat this exercise once or twice a day. Over time, your dog will learn that being touched by people is pleasing and comforting. Even if you occasionally have to do something unpleasant, like pull a bur out of your dog’s fur or remove a tick, your dog—who now enjoys being touched—will not come to fear your hands.

If your dog is small, work to prevent the development of hand shyness by following the steps above and by always letting him know when you’re going to reach for him. Say your dog’s name and let him come to you when you want to pick him up. (If your dog doesn’t respond when you call him to you, please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called, for help with training this important skill.) Lastly, keep your dog’s fur out of his eyes by trimming it or using a hair band. This simple step can go a long way toward preventing the development of hand shyness.

What to Do If Your Dog Is Already Hand Shy

There are a couple of ways to help a dog who’s already afraid of reaching hands become more accepting of hands stretched toward him. If your dog is hand shy, one way to help him is to teach him that hands always bring pleasure. You can accomplish this by associating hands with great things like tasty treats or a favorite game. Another approach is to teach your dog to meet reaching hands halfway by touching his nose to an outstretched hand. This exercise, called “targeting,” accomplishes two things:

  1. It gives your dog something to do when he’s anxious—and everyone feels better when they know what to do in stressful situation!
  2. It teaches him to turn reaching hands into opportunities to earn goodies.

Whether you focus on teaching your dog that when hands reach toward him, good things happen or you simply teach your dog to touch outstretched hands with his nose to earn good things, the end result will be the same. He’ll associate reaching hands with good things, and he’ll come to enjoy the experience. You can even teach your dog both approaches at once.

Help Your Dog Feel Good About Reaching Hands

You can teach your dog to associate reaching hands with tasty treats by using a procedure called systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC). DSCC helps animals get over emotional reactions to things. When used to treat hand shyness, the procedure has two parts:

  1. Helping a dog get used to reaching hands by gradually moving them closer and closer to him
  2. Helping a dog learn that when hands move toward him, something he loves always happens right afterwards

By putting these two parts together and progressing slowly though a series of carefully planned steps, you can teach your dog that hands aren’t threatening at all—and that they predict pleasant things, not scary things. However, to make a DSCC procedure successful, the steps have to be very small. You have to make sure that you avoid triggering your dog’s fear. This can be tricky, so it’s a good idea to contact a qualified behavior expert to guide you through the process. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) in your area. If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can choose to employ a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but make sure he or she has formal education and extensive experience successfully treating fear in dogs, as these aren’t required for CPDT certification. For a more thorough explanation of DSCC procedures, please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning.

The following is an example of a treatment plan for hand shyness. You’ll begin the steps using your own hands. Be sure to do these first steps—even if your dog is only hand shy with other people. If you take the time to accustom him to the procedure with your hands first, he’ll be more comfortable when other people start doing the same exercises.

  1. For three minutes twice a day, sit with your dog and feed him delicious treats from your hands. (You’ll need to use something your dog will find irresistible, like pieces of chicken, cheese or hot dog.) It’s best to use chunks of soft food so that your dog can nibble at a treat while you hold it in your fingers. Do not reach toward your dog yet. Just feed him the treats. Move on to the next step after five days.
  2. Sit with your dog and repeat the following sequence: Reach toward your dog’s head with one hand (for simplicity, let’s assume you use your left hand), as though you intended to pat your dog. Stop a few inches away, just prior to the point at which your dog would normally cower or back away from your hand. With your other hand, reach out and feed him a treat. Pull your left hand back, away from your dog, while he’s eating the treat. Wait a few seconds and repeat the whole sequence of reaching and feeding. Repeat several times until you’re sure that your dog sees your hand reaching for him but doesn’t appear to be concerned or frightened. You can move on to the next step when your dog sees your hand reaching toward him and immediately looks to your right hand in anticipation of a treat.
  3. Repeat the sequence above—reaching, then treating, then withdrawing your hand—but gradually move your hand closer and closer to your dog’s head, one inch at a time.
  4. If your dog cowers, backs away or snaps at your hand when you reach toward him, calmly pull your hand back and wait for him to relax again. Then start again—but this time, don’t reach quite so close to your dog. Stay at this level until he seems comfortable with your hand reaching toward him and starts to look excited about getting his treat afterwards. If your dog still reacts by cowering, backing away or snapping, you’re either progressing too quickly for him or he’s especially sensitive at this particular moment in time. Just back up a bit—make it easy for him—and work patiently and slowly. If necessary, take a break and try again a bit later.
  5. When you’re able to touch your dog on the head without making him nervous or uncomfortable, start to pet him a little. At first, feed him treats from your right hand while your left hand is petting him. Briefly and gently stroke your dog around the ears or the side of his face before removing your hand. If he seems comfortable with you scratching him, touch his face first and then feed him the treats. Withdraw your hand as your dog finishes the treat. As you repeat this sequence, gradually prolong the time your dog takes to eat the treat by holding it in your fingers so he has to lick and chew at it. Simultaneously, lengthen the time you pet your dog’s head and face.
  6. Practice reaching for your dog, touching him and then feeding him treats in all sorts of situations, such as when you call him to you, when you approach him, when he greets you at the door, etc. If your dog backs away from your hand, simply leave it outstretched and wait quietly until he comes toward you. When he does, touch him gently and give him a treat. Be aware that some dogs are more likely to startle if you reach for them when they’re cornered or lying down. A dog who’s surprised in this manner may snap at your hand or even jump up at your face. Wait until your dog has overcome his hand shyness in other situations before reaching toward him in places where he might feel trapped.
  7. After you’ve completed all the steps in this plan and your dog seems completely comfortable when you reach toward him in many different situations, recruit family and friends to go through the exercises with your dog. Be certain to have all new people start with Step 1 and progress slowly through all the steps, just as you did. Also keep in mind that even if your dog only reacts to strangers reaching for him, it’s still a good idea for him to work through the exercises with friends and family first. That way he’ll learn what to expect, and he’ll be less likely to get upset when he starts to do the exercises with people he doesn’t know.
  8. After your friends and family go through the exercises, you’ll need to ask strangers to help. Ask them to reach out and gently pat your dog so you can teach him that he still gets delicious treats—no matter who reaches toward him.
  9. Be sure to practice these exercises in various places (at home, at the park, at the veterinary clinic) and with many different people to encourage your dog to generalize what he has learned.

Teach Your Dog to Target Hands

You can also teach your dog to touch his nose to outstretched hands. While he learns this new behavior, you’ll reward him with treats, and these treats will help convince him that it’s a good thing when hands reach for him. As with a DSCC plan, you should conduct the initial training with your dog and then quickly incorporate people your dog trusts.

  1. Hold your open palm out in front of your dog’s face and wait for him to sniff or touch it. Don’t say anything unless he’s not paying attention. If he’s distracted, you can quietly say his name to get him focused. As soon as you feel your dog’s nose touch your hand, say “Yes!” and feed him a tiny treat from the other hand. It’s best to reach out and give your dog the treat close to your open palm.
  2. If your dog doesn’t touch your hand, try rubbing a treat on it so it smells good. Or you can pull your hand away and then try presenting it again to grab your dog’s attention. At some point, though, you may just need to be patient. Try holding your outstretched palm still, close to your dog, and wait until he figures out what you want him to do.
  3. When your dog touches your hand with his nose at least 8 out of 10 times in a row, try presenting your hand in different places. Place your hand off to the side of his face, down toward the floor, a few inches away so he has to move toward it, and, finally, up above his head so he has to reach up to touch it. Always remember to say “Yes!” the instant you feel your dog’s nose touch your hand.
  4. When your dog touches your hand with his nose at least 18 out of 20 times in a row, regardless of the position of your hand, introduce a cue (a command) for the behavior. A great cue for dogs who are sensitive to hands reaching for them is “Say hi.” However, you choose any cue you like—just be consistent and use the same word every time.
    1. First, say the cue.
    2. Then present your hand and wait for your dog to touch it.
    3. When he does, say “Yes!” and give him a treat.

Repeat this sequence until your dog reliably touches your hand when you say the cue at least 18 out of 20 times.

  1. Include your dog’s friends and family in his training. Practice in a variety of places—your home, a friend’s home, in the park and on the street when you take your dog for a leashed walk. Ask friends to walk along your regular route and meet up with you to greet your dog. Even though your friend will reach out to your dog to have him touch her hand, you will say “Yes!” and then deliver the reward.
  2. The final step is to help your dog feel more comfortable targeting strangers’ hands. Recruit people to help you. When a stranger agrees to help, tell her that your dog is a bit afraid of people reaching for him. Explain that you’ve taught him to greet people by touching his nose to their hands when they ask him to “Say hi!” Next, demonstrate to the person how to reach out her hand toward your dog. If your dog looks confused or worried, help him by doing the exercise a few times yourself. That will remind him that he can get treats from people who hold out their hands and say, “Say hi.” Then try the exercise with the stranger’s hand again.

Once your dog has learned to target people’s hands with his nose, you can use the skill in real life. Whenever people want to pet your dog, explain that they should simply hold out a hand and wait for your dog to come to them. You can help your dog remember what to do by giving him the cue, ”Say hi!” When he approaches and touches a person’s outstretched hand, say “Yes!” and your dog will turn back to you for his treat. Even if a stranger ignores your instructions and reaches out to pet your dog, your dog will probably stay relaxed because he’s expecting the person to offer a hand to be touched for a treat!

Don’t encourage your dog to target people’s hands when you don’t ask him to. Some dogs get pushy and approach people to repeatedly poke their hands, even when the people aren’t interested in interacting. To teach your dog to touch people’s hands with his nose only when requested, only reward him with treats when you’ve asked him to perform the behavior. If he touches someone’s hands when you haven’t asked him to, simply ignore him—and tell the person to ignore him, too.