When I first adopted my Border Collie Barley, he ducked away from petting. He wasn’t abused or shy – but he was hand-shy. He didn’t like petting and seemed to dislike being touched in general.
He approached people with a wagging tail, then shoved a toy in their hands to stop them from touching him. “No,” he seemed to say, “We’re going to play my way.”
I was bummed that my new dog didn’t seem to like being touched, but he was perfect in every other way. He was optimistic, outgoing, smart as a whip and enthusiastic about work.
But he hated being touched.
That was March of 2017. It’s now February of 2019, and things have changed a lot.
Now, Barley leans into butt scratches, his eyes closed in delight. He flops onto his back, draped over our laps for belly rubs. He lets me stretch him before and after runs and even sighs happily when I massage his muscles after a workout.
To be fair, he still doesn’t like when strangers reach out to pet him (I don’t, either). It’s mildly amusing to watch him playing with them – he drops the stick, then backs out of their reach. They bend to pick up the stick and attempt to pet his head; he backs away. It’s just not his thing.
How I Taught My Hand-Shy Dog to Love Petting
When I first realized that Barley didn’t like petting, I kind of assumed that was just an unchangeable trait. My dog didn’t like petting. So that was that.
Over months of living with Barley, I started noticing he was accepting petting more and more. Why?
Because I’d been using the skills I learned while working as a dog behavior consultant with aggressive and fearful dogs.
Barley started liking petting because I listened to him.
If I reached out to pet Barley and he ducked away, I listened. I withdrew my hand. If I petted him and he seemed to tolerate it, I paused every few seconds to see what he did.
This is called the Pat-Pet-Pause framework. Here’s how it goes:
- Pat. Invite the dog over by patting your knees. If he doesn’t come over, that’s the end of the interaction. No biggie. Avoid calling him as a command, or you’ll weaken the command.
- Pet. If he does come over, pet him gently around the chest, ears, shoulder, or rump.
- Pause after 3 seconds of petting – take your hands away. See what the dog does. If he stays close or leans in, pet more. If he moves away or looks uncomfortable, stop.
I used the Pat-Pet-Pause approach to learn which types of petting Barley liked most. He could say no at any point by just shifting his weight away from me – and I’d listen.
I discovered that by letting Barley say, “No, thank you,” he started choosing to say YES to petting more.
Many people try to teach a hand-shy dog to like petting by just petting the dog more.
This doesn’t work. It just tells your dog that you’re not a very good listener.
But if you really pay attention to what your dog wants, you’ll learn how to be a more attentive petter who can actually make your dog happy.
Of course, many dogs already love petting and can’t get enough. But if your dog is hand shy, it’s really important to not overstep your boundaries and breach that trust.
Constantly chasing your dog around in attempts to pet is likely to just teach your dog that you’re annoying and grabby. Pat-pet-pause shows you’re ready to listen and learn.
There’s something extra-sweet about giving a good belly rub to a dog who normally doesn’t let others touch him. It’s worth it to take the time to make things work.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but currently lives on the Panamerican Highway. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. She is currently putting her knowledge to use as a freelance writer while she builds Journey Dog Training. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her dog Barley and her boyfriend Andrew.