The Power of Touch
by Bryana Walters
This week we again welcome guest blogger, Bryana Walters. Bryana started working with animals in 2003 and earned her veterinary assistant certificate. She has worked in an animal hospital, an animal shelter and most recently as a professional dog trainer and pet sitter. She has trained dogs for basic commands, behavior modification, aggression, special needs, such as blind dogs, and scent work. She has volunteered in shelters for several years and currently works with Pasado’s Safe Haven animal sanctuary. In November 2014, she became the proud Old Dog Haven Final Refuge foster parent of “Gramma” Rose. Bryana and her husband Jeremy also share their home with their nine year old Border Collie mix Puppy, and two cats Quiggly and Ziggy.
Two years ago, a blind senior Pitbull named Tee came into the sanctuary I volunteer with. Naturally I love old dogs, but something about this guy specifically took my heart. I have met hundreds of dogs over the years, but he is special. I immediately decided that I was going to do anything I could to make this guy have a great life despite his terrible past. I went home and researched what to do for blind dogs and found out about the power of “touch”. “Touch”, or targeting, is teaching the dog to touch a designated body part to a specific location.
Tee and I started playing “touch” where I had him target my hand. How, you ask, since he can’t see? His other senses are great, so we used a combination of smell and sound. My hand smelled of lovely treats, and when I asked him to “touch” I would snap my fingers so he knew where my hand was.
This skill has transferred to other useful cues like “left” and “right” to help him navigate where he is walking, and “careful” to warn him that he is about to run into something. We used his understanding of touch to help him navigate his yard. The sanctuary has a wonderful set up for their dogs, they each have a cabin and a dog door with a yard. Around the fence of the yard, we put rubber matting. That way he would feel the difference in the consistencies of the ground and stop running into the fence. On the outside and inside of his dog door we put a carpeted mat on the ground so he could find the door. We put a towel under his water so he could find it, and made sure to always leave his furniture arranged in the same way.
Tee has a tendency to get confused at noises while we are on walks. So “touch” again saves the day. If he is reacting to a noise he heard, we can stop and play a game of “touch”. It gives him something to focus on and a fun game to play so he doesn’t focus on the scary noise.
Today, Tee lives happily and confidently in his yard and cabin. He navigates his area very well. Due to the power of “touch”, a blind dog was able to quickly learn his environment and have a way to reduce his fear.
Several months ago, I started working with a fear-aggressive dog. She was very shut down and afraid of everything. She had a toy, a hedgehog, that her family had gotten for her but she didn’t know how to play with toys so it just sat with her in her bed. “Hmmm” I thought, “maybe I can do something with this?” I started playing “touch” with her hedgehog.
“Touch”, this little yet powerful skill, opened her up just enough to me to start relaxing more when I was around. She really started understanding the game and having fun. The next challenge was to get her to get out of her bed. She was basically fearfully frozen into her bed. Guess what we did? Yes you guessed it, “touch”! I would start by moving back one step from her bed and she would touch her toy, then 2 steps and so on and so forth until one day she followed me off her bed! Ok this may not seem like much to you, but if you have ever seen a scared dog offer to follow a person, it’s a win!
We were able to continue our progress until, one day, she actually started chasing her toy. Her owners and I were both so excited that she learned how to play. She had never played with a toy before this day, and she had a look of pure joy on her face. These are the moments that make me keep going. Sometimes you wonder with fearful dogs if you are ever going to get them to come out of their shell.
I have once again been able to transfer this skill to many other things to help her. She was afraid of her leash, so by playing “touch”, she now thinks her leash is a fun game. I was able to train her to go on her mat, another aspect of “touch”, only with her feet. I was able to get her to move around the house by having her “touch” her hedgehog. She has continued to progress due to the power of “touch”.
“Touch” should be a skill all dog owners are aware of. You see how I was able to use this for a special needs blind dog and a fear-aggressive dog. This is also how you can teach a dog to use a potty bell, turn on and off lights, open and close doors, play piano, dog dancing, loose leash walking, body handling, agility, scent work, wear their leash or harness, counter-condition fear of vacuums or scary things, distraction, anxiety reduction, in an emergency to get your dog to return to you, and the list can go on and on. As you can see this skill can help many behavioral problems as well as teach fun things.
So what are you waiting for? Are you ready to start playing this game with your dog and see what fun you can have? Here’s how to teach this skill at a very basic level and teach your dog to touch your hand:
- Get a tasty treat, put your hand flat, and shove that tasty treat between your fingers. Let your dog watch you do this.
- Show your dog your flat hand, and when he touches your hand to sniff and eat the treat, say “yes” and then release the treat that’s between your fingers. Repeat these steps a couple of times until your dog is excited and anticipating that treat.
- Next, do not put the treat between your fingers, and show your dog your flat hand.
- When he touches your hand to look for the treat that’s usually there, say “yes”, then give him a treat with your other hand. Repeat several times. Once your dog is reliably touching your hand, we can put this new trick on cue and teach the word “touch.”
- Say “touch” and then show your dog your flat hand. Say “yes” when he touches your hand, and then give a treat with your other hand.
I hope you enjoy playing this game with your dog as much as I do. Now that you have your dog touching your hand, what else can you do?
Have fun with your dog!