Why is My Dog Sensitive to Touch?

by | Feb 23, 2023 | General Information

It’s not unheard of for well-meaning dog lovers, especially children, to promptly hover over a new dog and reach to pet them with great enthusiasm. That is a mistake! Just imagine a crazed stranger running up to hug you and run their hands through your hair and up and down your arms! 

Some dogs welcome the attention, while others most certainly do not. And those that don’t may show distinct signs, such as flinching, tensing, shaking, hiding, backing away, growling, or even biting in anticipation of pain. A touch on the wrong spot at the wrong time can trigger the dog’s defense (fight or flight) drive. 

Some dogs do not want to be touched by strange humans or even their own pet parents. There are several possible reasons for this behavior, which generally fall into two categories: physical or psychological. Does the dog seem physically sensitive to touch, or do they not like being touched at all? Perhaps there’s a combination of both in the works. 

If your dog is sensitive to some kinds of touch, you need to figure out what’s triggering the problem and then work on desensitization. You don’t want your dog to live for years with a fear of being touched, especially since there are times when other people’s touch is necessary, such as visits to the vet or groomer

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your dog. And when you need it, professional help is available!


Medical Causes Behind Touch Sensitivity

Dogs who are injured or ill can easily be sensitive to touch. Dogs and other animals are particularly good at hiding physical pain; in the wild, showing pain or illness makes them vulnerable to attack or abandonment. You might not know until you or someone else touches them.

The problem area may be local—pain in a leg or an ear. However, some injuries, such as subluxations of the spine or torn ligaments, can make wider areas of the body painful. 

Illness creates pain through inflammation, infection, and the body’s efforts to heal. An ear infection, for example, can make the usually enjoyable ear scritch unbearable.

Of course, your first and perhaps only task in reducing and eliminating sensitivity to touch is to take your dog to the vet and have them treated and healed. If your dog has a chronic condition, as may be the case with a senior dog, your vet can guide you and recommend how to deal with the sensitivity. 

Aggressive dog


Psychological Causes of Sensitivity to Touch

The psychological side of the sensitivity equation is more complicated, as there are a wide range of possible reasons for the sensitivity.


Not Enough Early Socialization

Animal shelters are filled with puppies and adult dogs that have never interacted with humans. Their first encounter was being trapped and brought to the shelter—an unfamiliar, scary place, at least at first. These dogs cram into corners, scream, or bare their teeth to protect themselves. They have no experience telling them that they are in a safe place. It’s a gradual, long-term process to get fearful dogs to trust and voluntarily go near one of these strange, two-legged beings whose intentions are unknown. 

Touches that the pet parent thinks of as showing affection may not be interpreted that way by the dog. Instead, they may perceive it as an annoyance. That is because they have yet to connect touches with positive feelings.


Your Dog Has Been Handled Roughly in the Past

If you’ve adopted an adult dog, you may not know what they experienced before they came to live with you. It’s hard to think about, but we know some dogs come from abuse, harsh punishment, and other rough treatment. They have learned that human touch equals pain and discomfort. If human hands have hit them in the past, they will develop an expectation that human hands coming near them are bringing another slap. 

They may have even learned to associate these negatives with specific types of people, such as tall men, or they have generalized it to anyone and everyone. They have been traumatized.

Neither puppies nor adult dogs want to be handled more roughly than their definition of comfort allows. Some dogs enjoy wrestling with the kids or don’t mind toddlers pulling their tails. Others take exception and want nothing to do with this sort of play. 

Young girl and dog playing tug-of-war


Fear of Physical Pain and Discomfort

The kids played with the dog too roughly, and the dog got stepped on. The groomer cut the dog’s nail too close to the quick. Any number of accidents can make a dog hesitate once again in a similar situation. Who wants to risk getting hurt again? 


Affection vs. Annoyance

Pet parents want to show their dogs love through petting. But to some dogs, this touching is nothing more than an annoyance. These dogs are naturally independent and don’t need this show of affection. 

Dogs originally bred to work independently may take more time to accept your affectionate touch. For example, Afghan Hounds, Beagles, Bulldogs, and Bloodhounds might need more encouragement to enjoy a good cuddle. 


Areas Sensitive to Touch on a Dog

While some dogs don’t like being touched at all, some are only sensitive in certain areas of their bodies. Typical sensitive areas include the dog’s paws and ears. Some want to avoid touches to their heads and faces. And as much as many dogs love belly rubs, others do not. Exposing this area is instinctively risky or is a gesture of submission. The chest, shoulders, and base of the neck are safe areas.


How to Make Your Dog Less Sensitive to Touch

Undoing what is often a deeply ingrained association between touch and negative experiences is a long-term undertaking. And if your dog is highly defensive, it may not always be safe. In the case of medical issues, it may be limited to whether the dog’s body can heal sufficiently to change behavior. 


What Dog Owners Can Do to Help Their Dogs

Desensitizing your dog means a commitment to consistent training and a whole lot of patience. When done right, this is a gradual, slow process that yields excellent results. When done wrong, it can result in anything from no change at all to a painful bite. Therefore, you need to seriously consider whether you can do this yourself. Can you stay calm and patient? Do you have the time to invest?

If you decide to proceed, consider using a muzzle if you think your dog may bite during training. Even with a muzzle, though, it may be too much to handle if the dog is growling, staring, and snapping at you.

You’ve decided to give it a try. Create a calm, relaxed atmosphere. Start by briefly touching safe areas while giving treats. Then, establish a repeated touch and treat pattern. Very gradually expand the touching to problem areas. Back off if the dog starts showing signs of discomfort. Repeat the process. 

Always move slowly and gently. The goal is to replace current negative associations with positive ones. You want your dog not only to tolerate but enjoy your touch. 

Young child petting a sleeping puppy


When to Call on a Professional

If this is too much for you to handle, that’s certainly understandable. Professional trainers, such as the expert team at K9 Basics, know the desensitization process well. If you are concerned about your dog harming you in the process, if your dog is particularly stubborn and unwilling to change, or if you’re not sure you have the knowledge, patience, or time to do this, contact us

Modifying long-held behavior and changing a dog’s mindset is a challenging task. Taking it on is not for everyone. If done improperly, it can backfire and even lead to injury and a damaged relationship between the pet parent and the dog. Every dog is different, so we will develop an approach that’s best tailored for your dog. 

We will also teach you how to reinforce the dog’s training so that the positive behavior will continue for the rest of your dog’s life. It’s our goal to help you build a fulfilling life with your dog and for your dog to be healthy and happy with you. We are here to help! 

Give us a call at (866) 592-2742 or, if you’re from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, or New York, visit us at 131 Kenilworth Road, Marlton, New Jersey 08053, to learn more about our dog training services. Also, browse our blog and social media for various topics about dogs and their lives with us!



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