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Some dogs LOVE petting and brushing – but many don’t. Many dogs are deeply uncomfortable with having their paws handled or being groomed.
If your dog doesn’t like being handled, there is a lot that you can do to help him. I strongly recommend checking out Deb Jones’s book on cooperative care.
Keep in mind that your dog is probably growling, snapping, or biting because he’s either AFRAID or IN PAIN. A dog who dislikes handling is trying to get away from you.
That’s why punishing your dog for this behavior is so counterproductive. We need to build trust and support your dog, not punish him for trying to get away!
Step 1: Check for Pain
If your dog doesn’t like having his paws touched, it’s important to get a veterinary checkup as your first course of action.
That’s because it’s possible that this handling sensitivity is related to pain.
When I worked at the shelter, we often saw dogs who didn’t like being handled. Some of these dogs actually had abscessed teeth, ingrown toenails, or painfully matted fur.
You can read the story of one of those dogs here.
Ideally, look for a Fear-Free Certified Vet. Keep in mind that assessing your dog for pain can be really difficult if your dog is terrified of the vet. But a thorough checkup is a MUST!
Be sure to warn your vet ahead of time WHY you’re coming in. Don’t spring this question on your vet after they’ve just finished up routine vaccinations!
Step 2: Assess the Issue
If we don’t know where your dog’s issue starts, we won’t know if what we’re doing is working.
Start out by keeping track of your dog’s issues for at least a week. When does he get upset about handling? What were you doing? What else was going on nearby? What did he do?
June 24, 2019: Fluffy allowed me to clip his leash on for our 7:30am walk no problem. It was quiet in the house (everyone else was asleep). I picked up his leash and he came over. I reached under his neck and clipped it on. But when I went to take his leash off, he growled at me. It was 8:00am and we’d returned from our walk. Jojo, the neighbor’s dog, was barking at us. I pulled Fluffy into the house and was talking to Ted about dinner plans. I reached for Fluffy’s collar, grabbed it, and rotated it upwards to unclip the leash. When I reached in with a second hand, he lifted his lips and growled. His eyes were really big.
If you keep a journal like this, you’re likely to identify some patterns. Do you see the difference between the 7:30am and 8:00am collar grabs? Why do you think Fluffy was OK with the earlier collar grab, but not the 8:00am one?
Consider Getting Help
It’s also time to consider getting help from a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. Some handling issues are easy to work through – but many are not. Check our aggression scoresheet to see how your dog stacks up.
If you feel like your dog might bite or needs a muzzle for safe training, get help!
Step Three: Teach Your Dog Consent
One of the best ways to help your dog feel comfortable with grooming and paw handling is to teach him that it’s ok to say no, thank you. I teach this using Pat-Pet-Pause.
Start by patting your knees and asking your dog to come over. If your dog does, great. If he doesn’t he just said “No, thank you.” Respect that.
Now gently pet your dog in an area that he’s normally OK with (don’t reach straight for his “problem areas”). Pet for 3-5 seconds.
Now pause. Does your dog more away, or come closer? Repeat if he comes closer.
It’s amazing how much this little exercise can help!
Step 4: Desensitization
When your dog is well-exercised, relaxed, and happy, you can try some desensitization.
- Make sure your dog is relaxed. I usually work on handling with my dog after a run and after his dinner. That’s when he’s most relaxed!
- Call your dog over. If he doesn’t come over, it’s not time for training.
- Start with some gentle petting. I usually start with petting or handling that I know Barley likes. If your dog is super hand-shy in general, check out this article to get him to be ready for basic petting.
- Start working your way towards the problem area. This is when you also introduce TREATS. Get some tasty treats ready! I use kibble, because hot dogs are so tasty they get Barley excited (and I want him relaxed). That said, if your dog is really nervous, you’ll need to use really good treats.
- Make sure to make the value of the treats worthy of the challenge of the task!
- Every time you reach for, touch, or stroke towards a problem area, give a treat. Take lots of breaks. Work in 1-minute increments with several repetitions per increment. This will look a lot like the training below.
Many times, the biggest problem with this training is that we just go too fast and expect our dogs to “deal with it” or “get over it.” Meanwhile, our dogs are getting more and more suspicious of our hands.
Be sure that your hands always = good stuff.
It’s also important to ask yourself if this handling is necessary. For example, you might not need to pick up your dog’s paws every day. While this might be needed for nail trims, you could also teach your dog to use a scratch board instead.
Good luck! Let us know in the comments below if you need more help.
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.
Hi I’m having trouble with my 3 yr old terrier mix. He is an anxious biter. I have done desense with “touch” and he does very well. When he’s in a focused training session he does great. He will mood swing at various times through out the day. Usually when he’s in trouble and I go to reach for him he does it. He will do it to other dogs and people. Is it helpless and just who he is?
Hi Laurie, have you had a chance to take your dog into the vet to ensure that there’s no undiagnosed pain or medical issue at play? If he also tends to bite defensively when you reach for him to discipline him, it sounds like he’s scared of what you may do to him. Reassessing your approach in those situations oughta help, I’m happy to offer more thoughts through a consult.
Hi I’m having trouble with my 6 year old Shih tzu . He has anxiety very bad . Any loud noise people talking loud, thunder, anything like that he starts pacing then scratching at my legs I pick him up to comfort him he bites. He has been kicked out of several groomers because when they go around his face or front feet he bites. I have also tried trimming around his face but he snaps and bites. He has always been like this but seems like it keeps getting worse .
Hi Francie, have you been able to confirm that he’s free of pain? Have you tried the counterconditioning described in this article?
Hi, I am having a problem with my 10 month Bichon Frise. Ever since she was 8 weeks old and we got her, she has been growling and biting when we touch, wipe or wash her paws to the point of someone bleeding! I have tried the desensitisation technique however there has been no success.
Hi Anju, if things aren’t working out I’d love to schedule time to chat. I’m sure we can tweak the training a bit to give you more success!