Rubbing A Dog The Wrong Way

Behavior Clips

By Gary Wilkes

From my experience, dogs have varying sensitivities to human touch. I say this after almost 40 years of handling between 20 and 30,000 dogs. Some dogs don’t like being petted. Some dogs don’t seek physical affection (I owned one for almost 15 years).

Some dogs are highly selective about what kind of rubbing they get. My current Cattle Dog really doesn’t like having his ears rubbed. He’s also sensitive about his tail. Many dogs will allow you to firmly hold a hind paw but are picky about how you hold a forepaw. From a behavior standpoint, this isn’t just about not being able to automatically use physical touch and rubbing as positive reinforcement. Sometimes it bleeds over into how they should be handled at the vet and at your salon.

Here’s what first woke me up to this problem. I was working with a 3 year old Dalmatian that bit his owner in the face—a pretty nasty bite. The scenario was this. They had a camper. The owner and dog were sitting at the table, side–by–side. The owner started gently scratching the dog at the withers. He absentmindedly made this a constant stimulation for about ten minutes. The dog let out a single bark and nailed the owner in the face. I’d never heard of that before. I chalked it up to a unique event and that maybe there was some back–story the owner wasn’t telling me.

About six months later, I was working with a Redbone Hound. Same problem—a single bite to the face. The dog was in all ways normal. The bite appeared to come out of nowhere. Because of the Dalmatian, I started asking questions. This scene unfolded eerily like the other one. The owner was sitting on the couch, watching TV. The dog was sitting right next to him. The owner started gently scratching the dog at the shoulders and absentmindedly kept it up for about ten minutes. The dog let out a single bark and nailed the owner in the face.

I have seen similar things many times, though none so puzzling. When I worked in shelters there were dogs that were ‘prickly’ about being handled. In that environment it is impossible to know if their reaction was from some prior event or if they simply didn’t know me well enough. However, these two cases pointed toward a smoking gun.

Many humans gain calming sensations from rubbing their dog. If you need confirmation of this, just look at all the costly research studies over the last 20 years that promote the idea that dogs calm people down. That is the origin of therapy dogs. The problem is that some dogs may not perceive this as pleasant. This also shouldn’t surprise us. Sometimes, we don’t like it either—like when you have the flu and your skin is super-sensitive. “Stop that!” is the normal response when someone simply won’t stop touching you. This is where the phrase, “rubbing a cat the wrong way” comes from.

To see this common event, just start watching your clients interact with their dogs. If you are talking to them, they rub the dog constantly without conscious thought. Depending on the dog, that may not be a good idea. I often have to ask my clients to not continuously pet their dogs merely to get them to pay attention to the lesson. I want physical affection to be rewarding. If the dog gets it constantly, it loses its power.

While the tale of my two biters is novel, there is an underlying thought that may benefit you. Some of the grooming you do takes time. Stripping out a coat may last for an hour or more. It may be difficult to judge just how much fussing a dog will stand.  One way to avoid overwhelming a dog is to not focus on one spot for long periods of time. If you are cutting out mats, move from place to place around the dog’s body. If you pull the skin in the same spot over and over, the stimulation may become seriously annoying. Depending on the dog, that could lead to a snap or bite.

I discovered my knowledge of this during a personal experience. I once shaved a horribly matted Lhasa at a shelter. Matted and filthy, he had no chance of adoption. It would have been far easier to just put him down, but we gave him a shot at an adoption. It took three people, three hours of work. We didn’t linger long on any spot because he let us know when he’d had enough. By switching to another location we ‘reset the clock’ and let his nerves calm down. Once we got the mats removed he was very cute – and his whole attitude changed. He didn’t want to bite us anymore. And yes, he got adopted.

You may never come in contact with a dog that bites merely because of constant skin stimulation. It’s a rare thing. Knowing that it can happen leads to a simple way to avoid it. Make a habit of moving skin contact from place to place so no single spot gets all the attention for a long period of time. Rubbing a dog the wrong way can lead to problems. Rubbing them in many ways and many places is often the safest practice. ✂

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