Giving a Choice – may I touch?

Expanded version of pieces written for Northern Virginia Today and published in May 2017.  These are sister articles regarding touch and our dogs.  The same applies to cats!


Would you race up to a total stranger and give a big bear hug? Probably not because it is rude and not safe; you have no idea what the recipient will do.  Yet every day we force ourselves on animals without their consent.  We give animals no choice regarding being patted simple because we want to pat the dog.  I have had clients think it is fine to allow everyone to handle a pet because the owners felt the pet should do it.  These same owners were outraged when the pet said “No” his way.  I worked with a boy who was encouraged by a relative to run up and greet all dogs with a big hug and kiss.  When he did this to another relative’s dog, the child was seriously mauled.  I was called in to help his parents learn how to teach him self-control and better behaviors with dogs. This child was so attracted to dogs it was scary.  Being a child he had no understanding of body language.  His parents assumed all dogs liked attention and would accept a human hug because that is how we show affection.  They thought since dogs did not move away that they were accepting of the child’s attention.

First, never assume an animal who does not want to be touched will move away. He may choose not to and instead give body language indicating he wants you to back off.   Think of the cat sunning himself on the back of the couch.  You pat him and he smacks your hand. If you are lucky he has his nails sheathed.  You were invading his space and giving attention he did not want at that moment.  He chose not to move and I will bet gave some indication he wanted none of your touch.

As you approach the critter, check body language. Is the animal indicating he is interested?  Is he moving into your area?  Does he move under your hand when it is by your side?  Does he look relaxed?  Does he try to initiate more when you stop?  Does he lean against you?  Or, when you go to pat him is he leaning away?  Does he tense?  Does his face look tight? Is he giving you the whale eye (whites of eye showing)?  Is he stiff and looking away?  Cowering?  Growling?  Each species has different signals indicating they are not happy with something going on.  It is our duty to learn them and respect them.

When my pets want to be scratched or patted, they will let me know. When I see one approach I will put my hand down.  If the critter wants to be patted, they will move under my hand.  If not, they move away.  One of my dog likes being shown and does not mind judges touching him. He is fine at the vet too. However he is very particular about being handled outside shows.  He can go days without wanting to be handled.  It is all his choice.  We ask many times a day if he wants a pat or scratch, he is allowed to say “No thank you” and walk away.  He will hang out with us, sleep at my feet when I am typing, join Sarah on the couch where he may or may not cuddle.  When my oldest is home from college he will investigate the room and hang out.  But he may not want to be touched. It is all his choice unless it is a time when touch is a must.

Foster Best Jr Handler

Foster is an awesome little Juniors dog for my daughter, but when out of the ring, he is particular about being touched – picture from Hunter Run and property of Karen Peak


I have other critters that are very eager for attention and will ask for scritches and scratches many times a day.  However, I have taught them to ask in a polite manner.  That is another blog for another day.

As pet owners, it is OK to advocate for your pet and say “No, he does not want to be touched.”   Touch needs to be with consent unless is it a situation where it must happen.  When we force situations on our pets when they do not want it, we can create trouble for our critters.  If you want to pat someone’s pet and are told “No” it is your duty to respect that.  No matter what you think, not all animals love you or want your attention.

The more we respect our pets, the happier they will be.

Obviously I am an advocate of allowing pets decide when and if they want to be touched – especially by a stranger when we are out somewhere.  However, there are times handling is a must: home checks for lumps, bumps or parasites; grooming by owner or professional; veterinary exams; canine events where a physical exam is needed; etc.

Before I continue, if your pet is tough to handle, if he bites or scratches, is fearful, showing stress, etc., it is a good idea to contact a good trainer or a veterinary behaviorist to help you get on the right track.

Teaching pets to enjoy handling begins with the source of your animal. This means the breeder or rescue group with the babies must start the foundation.  Failing to do this work puts the new owner at a disadvantage.  It is important that the little ones learn hands are good and to be touched all over.  If you are a breeder or work in rescue there can be no excuse for not doing the early work to set the foundation.  If you are not willing to do the work and do it well, then you should rethink what you are doing when it comes to placing dogs.  Owners builds upon what you do, please make sure they have a solid foundation!


Foster is being shown and he happily accepts handling by strangers here because it is his job.  He was taught this is a time when touch is must.  Picture by Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training


Be aware of how your hands are used. How can I teach an animal to trust my hands f I am using them to hurt or intimidate? This means I should not be hitting, scruffing, alpha rolling, etc., as part of my training.  It is easier to start off right than it is to retrain and regain trust later. Feeding while touching, licking peanut butter from a spoon or a unit like the Chase and Chomp Sticky Bone I can fill with things for my dog to work on while I begin handling lessons can all help my pet associate my touch with good things. If my pet begins to stress, I will ease up, take a break and try again later.

I will add gentle grooming to my handling work. It is easiest to teach grooming before your pet actually needs it.  Waiting until he is shedding or has tangles that need removing is not recommended.  As I am fighting with knots and heavily shedding coat, it is harder for me to make this a positive experience for my pet.  I cannot make grooming pleasant when I am trying to yank out fur.  I will start gently – soft bristle brush or wiping with a cloth.  I will work up to whatever I need to get the job done with my pets.  With clippers, I will not immediately clipper the pet. I will have the dog see the clippers.  I will make the clippers great in his eye.  Then I will touch him with the clippers but they will be OFF.  When the dog likes this, I will start having the dog listen to the clippers and give positive associations.  Then I will move to gentle touch so the dog feels the vibration and eventually to clippering.


Sarah at age 4 learning to groom. D’Argo was way too big for show and no amount of grooming would bring his size down.   But he learned from a young age to enjoy grooming.  Sarah was taught from a young age how to gently groom.

Please, as a pet owner, no matter what species, take the time and work to get your animal able to be handled. There are times it is a must.  This is a safety thing for your pet and people who need to handle him.  Remember, this is not the same as every Tom, Dick and Mary wanting to pat your dog while you are out.  This training is for when touch has to be done.


About westwinddt

I am a dog trainer in Northern, Virginia (USA). I have been involved with training since 1982.
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