Like a lot of small dogs, Bob the Shih Tzu was suspicious of a hand approaching him (learn more about “hand shyness” here). He was more than “hand shy” – instead of merely ducking away, he would snap and lunge if his owners touched him. In Bob’s case, there was some history of pain and painful handling following a tick infestation. Grooming and general cuddling became a big NO. As you can imagine, it is heartbreaking to not be able to pet and handle your own dog.
Our first order of business was following a strict “Pet-Pet-Pause” approach, which involved training the humans more than the dog 🙂 Second, we started off on a DS and CC program to accept handling by the human hand as well as by the brush. Using a lot of treats, we started short (read: 5-15 sec) grooming sessions on his back for a total of few min. It was a two person activity initially, with me tossing treats and the owner brushing Bob. Over the course of a few sessions, we moved to a) handling other parts of his body – back paws, front paws and the most sensitive area, the face, b) using our hands c) one person being able to treat and groom at the same time and d) sitting at different positions around Bob as he got comfortable looking at the hand/brush. This was a very slow process, really working on getting Bob to trust us again.
The biggest success was not that we could now pet Bob, it was that the owner became fluent in the smallest body language cues predicting a snap. The owner would stop at Bob’s earliest sign of stress, and change the game – moving to easy nosework/fetch activities or bring his toys out.
In addition to changing Bob’s reaction to handing (tactile stimuli), we also often kept grooming scissors out during these short DS&CC sessions (engaging with visual stimuli) to ease him into getting used to them. The last thing we tried was targeting our hand. We went really really really slow! And yes, sometimes I got impatient too, but any haste would have impeded any sustainable progress. We didn’t want Bob to stop reacting, we want him to enjoy handling and trust his owners! Behaviour suppression is never the answer.
We were also working through more minor issues of low food aggression and possessiveness and fussy eating. The owners managed this mostly by themselves, reinforcing common sense rules around meal times.
By session 7, we went to a grooming salon, one with a reputation of being gentle and patient with the dogs. They meticulously went through all of Bob’s knots, gave him a good shampoo/conditioner bath and he came out looking absolutely spiffy. Of course, he tolerated it, but that was good enough for then. The real measure of success would be when the owners themselves can groom Bob.
The pandemic hit soon after the spa session, and we haven’t been able to resume sessions since. But I got a few updates over text:
March 2020 – Bob was demanding pets from his owner, and his owner was happy to report that they could handle his face and body for several minutes.
April 2020 – No snapping or reactive behaviour at all!
May 2020 – The owner reported being able to massage and bathe Bob, and mentioned he was happy throughout the process 🙂 They are trying to get him used to scissors now.
June 2020 – The owner noticed a skin infection and was able to clean it with cotton, however, they also reported that Bob was snappy for a few days (remember, one of the early reasons for being touch-aversive was pain!). Based on the vet’s advise, they bathed him regularly (which they have been able to do peaceably) and Bob is doing much better.