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Please Don’t Touch

In this article the author shares a tale of nature versus nurture based on her experiences with Zia, whose reluctance to be touched led her to seek a behavioral consult to help snap her out of the training impasse she suddenly found herself in.

You know how some clients start their story about the current dog they’re having problems with by describing their previous dog’s behavior? How the last one “was perfect, but this one……” Okay, so bear with me, because I’m going to be “that client.”

In describing my own dog’s behavior, I, not unlike other humans, can be a bit myopic at times. You can blame it on emotions, human nature, or trying to replicate the unreplicate-able.

First Italian Greyhound

Let’s start at the beginning, with Leo, my beautiful Italian greyhound who died in 2017 at the age of 14. Back in 2003, I was a “big dog person,” but decided to get a toy breed for portability.

I knew little about their behavior, but I’d been intrigued with an Italian greyhound a few years earlier while volunteering at a dog shelter. His unusual demeanor had reminded me of a strange little alien being and I soon had my own Italian greyhound puppy.

I named him Leonardo. Leo blew me away with his biddability, his loyalty, his affection and most of all, the trust I saw in his eyes. He had two recalls: the usual “Come! Sit!” and the “Come! Jump!” which ended in a leap from several feet away into my arms.

We travelled together often. We did 20 plane trips together and many more by car. Leo and I had amazing adventures. They were some of the best times of my life. When he passed, I couldn’t look at another Italian greyhound without falling to pieces.

Fast forward to September 2020 and I was finally ready to fulfill my aching wish to experience life with another Italian Greyhound. A trainer/friend of mine asked me, “Are you sure Leo was the most amazing dog ever because of his breed, or because he was Leo?” It was a good question…

Choosing a Puppy

From now on, this story is all about Zia. With the conviction that confidence was the requisite trait for a travel partner, my quest for the perfect breeder and puppy began in earnest. I was informed, experienced and methodical – a real smarty-pants you might say.

I found a wonderful breeder who indulged me and when a litter became available, I started receiving weekly pictures of the growing puppies. Immediately, I honed in on Zia: she was the puppy who looked directly at the camera, while the others turned their heads. Her tail was always straight out from her body, while the others’ tails were sometimes tucked underneath.

When I sat on the floor with the litter to make my final choice, 10-week-old Zia showed me that she didn’t really want to be held. I rationalized it, thinking, “She’s so young; she hasn’t met many people; I’m a trainer.” In hindsight, I probably over analyzed the whole thing.

Choosing a Confident Puppy

One thing was for sure, I was really good at choosing a confident puppy. With Zia’s confidence, however, came an aloofness and a reluctance to be touched. Her darting away from my approach or my hand was not accompanied by fearful body language, just a “Don’t touch me, please,” attitude.

She was indifferent to me coming home after being gone and she did not want to be picked up.

Sometimes when I touched her she flinched. This was heart-breaking, as Italian Greyhounds are known for their affectionate nature and propensity for cuddling.

I started fantasizing about the puppy I didn’t choose (the one who was jumping all over me trying to engage). The realization that Zia and I were having difficulty bonding was discomfiting, to say the least.

Excessive Play Biting

Zia’s play biting was excessive and sometimes felt more like frustration than play. She would jump, dart and bite hard when approached, when greeting, or when she became over aroused. I taught her to “Get A Toy!” instead.

This worked well. She soon started getting a toy if I even said, “Ouch!” and eventually she’d stop herself before play biting and get a toy and then generalized it to getting a toy when frustrated.

I did my best to enlist the help of other puppies with Zia’s bite inhibition, but she was an absolute bully with them. I was afraid to have her interact much with my adult dogs because she was so annoying I didn’t want them to hurt her.

Impulse Control

I began analyzing videos of myself interacting with Zia and definitely saw some areas I could improve upon. I was using my hands too much around her, something I was careful not to do with clients’ dogs, but here I was, a pet owner, making this common error.

Thankfully, Zia is wicked smart and eager to learn. She loves training and dives headfirst into any type of enrichment game or puzzle. This gives me opportunities to work on her impulse control, sometimes making her enrichment exercises contingent on simple behaviors.

I hoped our great training and enrichment sessions would increase our bond. I was cognizant not to tarnish her amazing recall by then touching her. At six months of age, I decided to seek help from Dr. Sally Foote, a veterinarian based in Tuscola, Illinois, who specializes in behavior.

We did a virtual consultation and Dr. Foote summarized my goal perfectly in her report: “…To understand how much of Zia’s behavior is genetic/developmental – her nature, compared to what can be modified through behavior modification – the nurture.

Dr. Foote approved of my use of Adaptil and advised adding the calming supplement Composure. She also gave me some simple instructions for using counterconditioning techniques whereby I would feed Zia her kibble while I touched her. In addition, she included Tellington TTouch® massage techniques in her behavior change plan.

Touch Sensitivity

In my own practice, I often deal with extreme fear cases amongst my canine clients. As part of the behavior change protocol I recommend, I provide the dogs’ owners with handouts detailing the use of counterconditioning to touch. I use these handouts all the time for treating fearful dogs, but it did not occur to me to apply the same techniques to my own dog – because Zia displays no fear.

I was so thankful to have another professional snap me out of the training impasse I found myself in. Dr. Foote also enlightened me about Dermatomes, which she described as “the section of skin supplied by nerve branches for sensory input.”

She explained that “they are often more highly sensitized in confident dogs, who have little fear as puppies and develop strong impulse drive. In short, Zia sees and feels the movement and touch quicker than another dog and will startle, jump and grab to either engage or disengage.”

This clarification helped me realize that unlike Leo, as explained by Dr. Foote: “For a dog like Zia, holding and petting can be stimulating rather than soothing.” With this understanding, I was able to put my emotions aside and be more objective, allowing me to come up with a few more ideas.

Consent Testing

As a rule, I practice and teach asking for consent when picking up toy breeds. I’ll say, “Can I pick you up?” But this wasn’t working very well with Zia. It just became a cue for her to dart away. So I broke it down into two parts.

I worked on the “Stand,” cue, which I would click/treat when she was standing perfectly still in front of me sideways.

After a few weeks I added the “Can I pick you up?” using a treat in front of her nose as I did so. I also taught her the “Settle” cue before I put her down.

The next step was asking, picking her up without a treat and then carrying her to the cookie jar.

Sometimes I’d carry her outside and give her a glimpse of what was happening over the fence, i.e. a novel view, or into another room where there was a new puzzle toy waiting for her.

Three-Second Rule

I spent a lot of my free time making myself available to Zia but did not initiate physical contact. When she initiated it, I’d adhere to the three-second rule.

This meant that after three seconds of touch or affection, I’d stop, wait for her to display distance-increasing or distance-decreasing behavior, and respond accordingly. This let her know I was “listening.”

When I’d sit in a chair watching TV with a super soft baby blanket on my lap, she’d jump up, and I’d make an “Adaptil Burrito” out of her. When watching my iPad in bed, she would burrow under the covers (a common Italian greyhound behavior) and snuggle.

The goal was to make any physical contact Zia initiated pleasant for HER. I was praying to the spirits of Pavlov and Skinner asking for an intervention.

I think they heard me. We finally seemed to turn a corner when Zia began greeting me enthusiastically upon returning home.

Now, when I sit in the chair with the blanket, she will jump on my lap and sometimes rub her face and neck all over my face and neck (like some alien greeting ritual) and she seems to enjoy the reciprocation this elicits from me. My clumsy primate expressions must remain brief, however, lest they trigger a canine response of overarousal.

Recently, just a few times, Zia has come and put her front legs on me asking to be picked up, then settling comfortably in my arms. I’m thrilled with our progress! But at this point, it doesn’t really matter, because I’m already hopelessly in love.

Susan Claire CPDT-KA is the owner of PlayTrain Positive Dog Training, Inc., in Broward County Florida. She is a certified puppy behavior consultant and holds a popular puppy kindergarten class. She is also a Fear-Free certified animal trainer, specializing in fear cases and puppy development and has over 20 years’ experience as a professional trainer including shelter work and continuing education. As assistant director of SPOTS, a behavior initiative of the Miami Veterinary Foundation, she teaches and mentors the next generation of animal guardians and professionals at Felix Varela High School.

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