Cats and dogs who respond to certain forms of handling with fear, anxiety, arousal or aggression may be considered “handling sensitive.” This can be problematic, because most pet parents would like to pet, handle or even cuddle their pets, and basic forms of handling are often required to care for and keep cats and dogs healthy. Most pet parents do not wish to cause emotional distress for their animals, and handling sensitivities can lead to forms of aggression such as snapping or biting if left unaddressed or unmanaged. With a little education in cat and dog body language and by preventing unpleasant experiences and having patience with a new training plan, pet parents can change the way their pet feels about and responds to handling.
For moderate cases of handling sensitivity, working with a qualified professional force- and fear-free trainer is highly recommended.
Identifying Handling Sensitivity
Identifying signs of fear, anxiety and stress through body language and behavior is a necessary skill for modifying any behavior. Dogs and cats do not speak human languages and instead communicate primarily through body language and behavior. To learn about dog and cat body language, use one of the many resources available on YouTube for dogs and cats.
Once you are able to identify a pet’s emotions through their body language and behavior, the next step is to identify the triggers or specific actions and events that produce signs of fear, anxiety or stress. For example, if a dog is sensitive to being picked up, a trigger could be an arm reaching under the dog’s abdomen, at which point observable changes in the dog’s body language and behavior would indicate an underlying negative emotional response, such as fear or anxiety.
Preventing Handling Sensitivity
Build Your Relationship
In the same way you may not be thrilled about touch or hugs from people you don’t know, your cat or dog may have similar feelings and opinions. Naturally, cats and dogs are more likely to tolerate petting, handling or restraint from a familiar person. To begin forming a positive relationship with a new pet, simply:
- Create a predictable routine: Interact with your pet in a consistent manner, by creating and implementing a daily routine for meals, walks, downtime, social interactions, training and play.
- Feeding tip: Do NOT leave out free food. Aim to offer meals twice a day for breakfast and dinner.
- Playtime: If your pet enjoys play, engage with them in play using toys every day.
- Positive reinforcement training: Treat training is a fun, easy and rewarding way to build a relationship with a cat or dog, teach new behaviors and provide mental stimulation. Get some treats that your cat or dog likes and dedicate time to training.
- Enrichment: Enrichment is an activity that engages an animal's senses and encourages the expression of healthy, species-typical behavior; this often comes in the form of chews, bones, Kongs, puzzle feeders or other brain games. Use a variety of chews, treats, puzzle feeders, toys and other enrichment items. Rotate between different types of enrichment to keep things interesting.
Avoid Inducing Fear, Anxiety or Stress
Keep your pet as comfortable as possible by minding the following to avoid inducing fear, anxiety or stress:
- Avoid surprises: Never surprise or “sneak” a few pets in while your cat or dog is not looking or paying attention. Petting when they are not looking, paying attention or are asleep will most likely come as an unpleasant surprise. Make sure all interactions are predictable and consensual.
- Avoid triggers: The more often you take actions that induce fear, anxiety or stress, even a seemingly minor response such as tensing or freezing, the more likely your pet is to escalate to more “loud” behaviors such as growling, snapping or biting. Once you have identified their triggers, avoid them.
- Coach others: Visitors, veterinary staff, dog walkers and anyone else interacting with your pet should be made aware of their sensitivity and triggers, and should be asked to avoid them.
- Avoid trigger stacking: When stressors (also referred to as triggers) quickly occur within a short timeframe, that may result in “trigger stacking.” To relate, imagine a day when you spill your coffee, lose your keys and get a flat tire all on your way to work: How would you feel by the time you arrive? Probably a lot less resilient to or tolerant of additional stressors. Reduce and remove any perceivable trigger (stressor) for your pet, and be aware of the moments or days when trigger stacking may be in effect.
- Vet visits: You wouldn’t likely drop your child off at the doctor's office to navigate the experience without parental guidance or social support; the same care should be taken with our pets. These experiences can be traumatic, especially for a handling-sensitive pet! Work with a vet who will let you be present, and even assist with procedures. Be picky with the vet you are choosing, as many vets are willing to work with you and meet your pets needs to provide a more positive and less stressful experience. We recommend looking for a Fear Free Certified® Vet.
Installing a Training Plan
A professional force- and fear-free trainer can help you create a detailed training plan to modify your pet’s handling sensitivity. Be picky, and shop around for a qualified trainer. Ask them which types of training methods they use and listen for the mention of this key concept: desensitization and counterconditioning or DsCC.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
Desensitization refers to gradual and systematic exposure to triggers or fear-inducing actions and events. Through repetition over a period of time, emotional responsiveness diminishes. Desensitization can only be accomplished when exposures to triggers are so gradual, that they do not induce a negative response.
Counterconditioning involves changing an animal’s emotional response. This is accomplished by pairing a trigger or fear-inducing event with an animal’s favored reward, such as food. In order for counterconditioning to happen, the “scary” thing must happen first and should always be followed by the reward. Through repetition over a period of time, an animal can develop a positive response toward what was previously a trigger.
Desensitization and counterconditioning (DsCC) can be utilized in conjunction to build a positive response to handling.
Creating a Training Plan
Let's pretend we are creating a training plan for a dog who is sensitive to handling on their back. The dog tenses up and leans or moves away from people who reach over the dog’s back. Because the dog is showing clear signs of fear when this happens, hands reaching over their back is an apparent trigger. This dog has a keen appreciation for hot dogs as a high-value treat, so these are selected as training treats for the exercises below. Every action in each step of this training plan is always followed with hot dogs:
- Shoulder pet → hot dog
After many repetitions of this, the dog begins to wag their tail in response to this action. At this point, the training plan can advance.
- Back pet → hot dog
Next, a shoulder pet is followed by brief pets over the top of the dog’s back before hot dogs are offered. After many repetitions, the dog begins to wag their tail in response to this action. At this point, the training plan can advance.
- Arm over pet → hot dog
Next, a pet over the top of the dog’s back is followed by brief pets on the other shoulder, in one solid motion from shoulder to shoulder, over the top of the dog’s back before hot dogs are offered. Slowly and incrementally, this training plan works toward the goal of teaching the dog to associate petting over their back with the good feelings they have about hot dogs. These steps are slow and incremental but will help build a new, positive emotional response to this form of handling, through repetition over time. This plan should be followed by every member of the household or person engaging with this dog, so that this dog can generalize these feelings to other people.
Training Tips and Considerations
Mind the tips and considerations below, when creating and installing your training plan:
- Motivation: The animal’s response to DsCC will be stronger if the animal is strongly motivated by or interested in the reward being used. Increase motivation by training prior to meal time, and using a special high-value training treat, reserved for training only.
- Order of operations: Remember! Scary thing first, followed by your reward. Never offer rewards prior to triggers or other scary events, since this may have the opposite effect and your pet may develop a fear of or aversion toward treats, if they predict a scary event.
- Body language: Always read body language, and STOP when your animal asks you to.
- Starting points: Start out easy each time you begin training, and “warm” your animal up.
- Repetition and patience: Working through DsCC in a training plan takes a lot of time and a lot of repetition. Work at a slow-and-steady pace, always waiting for positive responses before moving forward.
Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team
For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!
Questions About Public Classes
San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.
Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.
Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-299-7012, ext. 2398.
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