Hand Shyness in Dogs

Hi folks!

It's been a while since I've blogged and part of the reason is because I was podcasting instead. Sometimes, the written word is even better, so here goes.

Many dogs have a natural shyness or fear of hands. And, I'm not talking about dogs that suffered some type of abuse. These dogs are going to be much more than hand shy. I'm talking about dogs that are simply afraid of hands - they haven't been hurt by anyone.

I believe strongly that dogs with hand shyness are suffering from a specific kind of proximity sensitivity that occurs when a person they either know or (more typically) someone they don't know approaches them with their hands extended. In general, dogs that have fear-based anxiety around humans suffer from "proximity sensitivity". These are dogs that are okay with people unless or until one gets a little too close and then they will show various signs of discomfort.

I have a dog that I'm working with right now - a West Highland Terrier that is continuously playing "keep away" and will run the other way when approached to put on a leash or harness or to simply secure from running out the door. Every time someone approaches her by bending down or walking toward her, she darts away in the opposite direction. She's fast and determined (typical of this breed) and very hard-wired, meaning it's apparently very difficult to change. The good and bad news is that this particular dog (she's about 10 months old) is still a puppy and very smart. So, there is hope that we can change the behavior. The bad news is that while I'm fighting the good fight to reverse or re-pattern the behaviors using sound counter-conditioning techniques, I'm fairly certain these techniques are not being reinforced at home. 

So, what are the techniques. Without giving away all of our tricks, there is a simple classical conditioning exercise (Pavlov, folks!) where you turn sideways and simply squat and open your hand and let the dog approach take a treat from you. You do this without looking at the dog until he or she is approaching without hesitation. Keep moving around and do this same exercise over and over from different angles and in different parts of the room. Switch rooms and start again. This is what it means to "generalize" an activity or behavior. The dog has to be able to apply what it has learned from one place and situation to another.  Skip the gym and do your squats that day by getting the dog to do this 100 times. It is said by experts who have done the research that for every time your dog has done something you want to change, you have to do 100 "trials" or have 100 opportunities to reinforce the desired behavior. So, if my Westie has run away from her owner 50 times, I have to perform 5,000 of these squatting exercises. Holy crap! That's a lot of work. Yes, it is! But it's worth it if you can get a dog that runs towards you and not away from you.

Helping dogs get over hand shyness is a labor of love and incredibly important. Before I became a trainer, I had a hand-shy, small dog (a Papillon/Chihuahua mix) that ran away from a human and right into traffic. It was heart breaking and tragic and something I want no one to go through. The lesson is to put in the time and get your dog comfortable with coming toward you and is not afraid of being touched. The end of that story is you get to have a more confident and secure dog that lives to a ripe old age.