The Importance of De-Sensitization

Teaching dogs to accept the touch of strangers

Huldah Nagel
Aug 15, 2019 · 2 min read
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Let’s be real — most people have no idea how to approach a dog. Dogs communicate through body language and as dog owners we all know that heart-stopping feeling we get while watching someone approach an unknown dog in the wrong way. And if you can’t read a dog’s body language, you can’t respond appropriately to his or her cues. That’s when people get bit.

So, what should we do as dog owners? Well, we train and we educate.

We should…jump in-between strangers and our dogs and educate the individual on dog behavior. It’s not possible to stop the approach of strangers — but if we can educate them on dog behavior, hopefully they’ll learn to approach appropriately. Show them the proper way to approach a dog and how to read the warning signs.

We shouldtrain our dogs to patiently accept the unwanted touch of a stranger. I understand that dogs like and need personal space from strangers. We all do. But it can’t be guaranteed. You can’t guarantee you’ll be quick enough to get in-between your dog and a stranger. So just like humans, dogs have to be taught how to handle an unwanted stranger in an appropriate way.

You may ask, how do you train a dog to accept the surprising touch of a stranger? The answer is de-sensitization.

De-sensitization is the process in which repeated exposure to a specific stimulus reduces the natural response to it. In other words, the more you are around something, whether it is positive and negative, the less you react to it.

In my experience, dogs react negatively to being touched in three different areas:

  • The mouth or head
  • The paws or legs
  • The butt and/or tail

In fact, some dogs get snippy if you even get close to those areas!

When I trained my dogs I made sure that they would accept being touched anywhere. I did this for two reasons: 1) it makes grooming and medical-related dog handling way easier, and 2) my dogs are constantly exposed to young children that are still learning appropriate ways to approach a dog. And young children will grab anything — tails, lips, noses, paws, etc.

SO HOW DO YOU DESENSITIZE? By touching your dog. It’s really that simple. When you’re petting your dog, playing with your dog, grooming your dog, training your dog. Whatever. Handle the sensitive areas. Touch the paws, rub the nose, grab the tail. Make it fun. Make it uneventful. Make it surprising.

As a dog’s owner, you have a special privilege that no one else does. Your dog trusts you. And if you handle a dog a certain way they learn to accept it, even from strangers. That is why de-sensitization must start at home.

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