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Touch Sensitivity

Many dogs find human touch to be a positive experience that they will seek out and request. For others, it may not be such a positive experience, especially on specific areas of their bodies that are sensitive to touch or handling. It’s most commonly associated with paws or the collar area, but can be anywhere on the body. This may occur due to a negative experience with that body part being handled in the past, an injury or underlying health concern, or it’s possible that physical touch is new to them if they weren’t handled by humans before. Regardless of the root cause, you can change how your dog feels about touch and handling with time, patience, and a lot of yummy treats. 

Before beginning, take your touch-sensitive dog to a licensed veterinarian to make sure there is no underlying medical condition. Once your dog has been cleared medically, you can start increasing their comfort with handling using the process below. 

When modifying any behavior, it is always important to take your time and go at the dog’s pace. Like humans, every dog is an individual and the time it takes for them to become comfortable with handling can vary dramatically. What some dogs achieve in 3 or 4 sessions may take other dogs weeks or even months. This is okay and does not make one dog better than the other. It simply means they are unique living beings with different histories, experiences, and genetics. By respecting your dog’s pace, you’ll be much more successful and you’ll be building trust along the way.


Management (setting up your dog’s daily life to prevent the negative reaction) is an important piece of helping them become comfortable with touch. While you are working on changing how they feel about being touched, make sure you do not attempt to touch or grab that part of your dog. It will be much harder to teach your dog to be relaxed and comfortable with touch if those sensitive areas are being handled outside of training sessions. 

It is common for dogs to be sensitive with their collars/neck and/or paws being handled. If your dog has a sensitivity to their collar being grabbed or touched, do not use their collar to maneuver them around the home or grab their collar to stop them from moving forward. Instead, have your dog drag a short, lightweight leash in the house for you to pick up in case of an emergency so you do not need to reach for their collar. If you typically use their collar to get them off of furniture, into a crate, or any other maneuver, use food or treats to lure them to the desired location instead. If your dog is uncomfortable with their paws being touched but they get wet or muddy, place a plush towel on the floor and lure them with treats in a circle to help dry their feet instead of hand-drying by picking up each paw. It is important that everyone in the dog’s life is aware of the sensitivity and management plan. This will be the first step in reducing your dog’s stress, as they will no longer experience an unexpected touch or unwanted holds to areas where they are sensitive. 

Tools Needed for Training:

  • Quiet space with no traffic (no other animals or people moving around)
  • High-value treats (before beginning, test out different treat options to see what your dog really likes. Many dogs enjoy tiny pieces of cheese, hot dog, or chicken.)
  • Dog bed or mat
  • Patience 
  • Time

Choosing When to Train

It’s important to choose the right time to work on this behavior. The goal is for your dog to remain relaxed, calm, and stress-free throughout the session, so that is how they should start. Plan your training session for when your dog is settled and has had adequate mental and physical exercise earlier in the day. For example, you should not be training right after you get home from work and your dog has been cooped up all day. Your own mental state is equally important, too. You need to be just as relaxed as your dog. If you are feeling rushed or frustrated in another part of your life, do not attempt a training session. Wait until you are both mentally ready. This will be hard work for the two of you, and starting off on a positive note is important. 

Training Method

When working with your dog to change how they feel about being handled or touched, we’ll be using two techniques simultaneously: counter-conditioning and desensitization. Counter-conditioning is the method of pairing something positive with something that the dog previously found to be negative or aversive. For example, pairing high-value treats with touching a dog’s paw. Desensitization refers to the slow, step-by-step process of introducing that aversive trigger (touch) slowly over time. By slowly introducing the thing they don’t initially like while pairing it with something positive, you will be changing your dog’s association with the trigger. During this process, you will be using high-value food as the positive/reinforcement for your dog, and the aversive/trigger will be the body part they are currently uncomfortable with you handling. For example, you may be using small pieces of their favorite treat as you work on increasing their comfort level around having their paws touched.

An important part of your training session is observing your dog’s body language. Before beginning, please review our resources on dog body language so you are comfortable identifying signs of stress or discomfort.

Step 1: Settle on the mat | Have your dog settle on their mat or bed and reinforce them with high-value treats. If your dog is new to settling on a mat, check out Dog Training by Kikopup on YouTube for a video entitled "How to Train a Settle." Remember, your goal is a relaxed, calm dog, so begin by rewarding your dog when they are relaxed on the mat. 

Step 2: Introduce touch | Start by gently and slowly touching or petting your dog in an area they are comfortable with. This could be their back or under their chin, but will vary with every dog. Once you touch that area and your dog remains relaxed and settled, immediately reinforce them with a treat. If your dog gets up or moves, have them settle on the mat again and decrease the intensity of your touch. Once your dog remains relaxed and calm with touch in a spot that you know they’re comfortable with, you can move on to the next step. 

**If your dog is getting up, moving around, or avoiding touch, there are several possibilities. You may need to practice the mat behavior more before introducing touch. Your dog may have too much energy at that moment. It is also possible your dog has a sensitivity in an area that you were previously unaware of and them moving away is a sign of stress. Use your observation skills to help pinpoint why they chose to move away. Allow your dog to move away and re-engage when they are ready. 

Step 3: Begin touch in the vicinity of your dog’s known area of sensitivity | Remember, this is a slow process and the goal is to gradually build up to the full trigger over time. This means you will not immediately touch your dog’s sensitive area, but instead, touch close to the trigger zone. For some dogs, going slowly means simply reaching your hand towards them and not touching their body at all in the beginning. When you are able to begin touching your dog, do so gently and slowly to encourage calmness. When the touch is complete, reward them with high-value treats. For example, if your dog is uncomfortable with their paws being touched, start by gently touching their upper leg (elbow/shoulder area). Watch your dog’s body language throughout this process. If you see any sign of stress, stop! Remember, if your dog chooses to get up and walk away at any point, allow them to do so and wait for them to re-engage. Once they do, back up a couple steps and slow down, as your dog walking away can be a sign of you moving too quickly. If you are able to touch and reward while your dog remains relaxed for several sessions in a row, move on to step 4. 

**When applying touch, it is important to do so in a manner that promotes calmness. When touching your dog, use an open hand, palm down. Touch your dog with gentle, smooth, consistent pressure. Do not ruff up the fur or scratch. Although these may be positive for your dog in other situations, your dog may feel differently when you are touching a sensitive area and it will not encourage them to remain calm and relaxed. 

Step 4: Increase the touch | Be prepared for this phase to take a long time. During this step, you will slowly get closer to touching your dog’s sensitive area over time and during many sessions. This may take several weeks or months, depending on your dog. Begin by touching them slightly closer to their sensitive area than you did in step 3. Remember, this is meant to be a slow process, so only move a few centimeters closer at a time. Continue to watch your dog’s body language for signs of stress. If you see signs of stress, stop and go back to the last area of touch your dog was comfortable with. Over multiple sessions, you will slowly work your way closer to your dog’s sensitive area until you are able to fully handle/pet/hold the sensitive area and feed treats, all while your dog remains calm and relaxed. Once this happens, move on to the final step.

Step 5: Practice this behavior in other positions and locations | Now that your dog is completely comfortable with you touching and handling their formerly sensitive area while they are relaxed on their mat, it’s time to practice in new environments. When changing locations, keep the change minimal, such as moving from your living room to the dining room. When you change the context of the behavior, take several steps back in the process. For example, when you move to a different space, begin your touch farther away from the dog’s sensitive area and then build back up to touching the area. This will go much faster than the first time you followed the process, but it is still important to observe your dog’s body language and move at their pace. 


There are several other ways to help your dog feel more comfortable with touch and handling using force-free training techniques. Above is simply one of the options. A second option is using the bucket game developed by Chirag Patel which allows you to have a “conversation” with your dog. It gives your dog a voice to say “start” and “stop” to handling, touch, or a medical/grooming procedure. You can see this in action by visiting Chirag Patel on YouTube and watching a video entitled “The Bucket Game Introduction” as well as Katie Grillaert’s video called “Cooperative Care: Chirags Bucket Game Step 1.” 

As mentioned above, this is a slow process and may take several weeks or months to complete. Remember to be patient and go slowly while following your dog’s lead. If at any time throughout this process your dog becomes stiff, growls, lip curls, or shows any level of aggression, stop what you are doing and contact a dog training professional who is knowledgeable and committed to using force-free techniques for behavior modification. If you have additional questions, contact the Wisconsin Humane Society behavior department at or 414-431-6173