How to Help a Dog Sensitive to Touch

White dog who is sensitive to touch being handled in a positive manner with head pats

A dog sensitive to touch is not uncommon. Some dogs have touch sensitivity all over while others only have small areas, such as their paws, that they don’t like being handled. But there are steps you can take to help your dog become less nervous and even enjoy touch.

Why is my dog sensitive to touch?

Several factors can influence a dog’s comfort level with being touched. Here are a few examples:

  • The dog’s nails were cut to the quick. Cutting a dog’s nails too close (which usually results in bleeding) is very painful. So the next time someone tries to lift and hold a paw, the dog might anticipate pain.
  • The dog was badly matted or overdue for grooming. If their coat was in poor condition, their hair might have been pulled during grooming. Plus, mats themselves can become painful because they pull on the skin.
  • There was a lack of socialization as a puppy. This is a common reason why some dogs don’t enjoy touch as much as they would if they had been properly socialized and handled when they were younger.

If you’ve adopted a dog with an unknown past, you might never know what experiences triggered your dog’s aversion to having certain areas of their body touched. While that knowledge can be helpful, the process to work through a dog's touch sensitivity is the same.

How to help a dog with touch sensitivity

You can teach your dog that handling can be a good thing, even if they might not currently like being touched. First, see a veterinarian to rule out any medical causes for the discomfort. You want to make sure that your dog isn’t in pain. The training you will do won't help if your dog hurts whenever you touch them. After you get the OK from the vet, you can begin to work on teaching your dog new associations to touch.

For the first training session, consider turning on some soothing music to reduce distractions, and have several high-value treats ready. Place a treat in your hand and offer it to your dog. Continue doing this as long as your dog remains relaxed.

Signs that a dog might not be relaxed include panting, suddenly closing their mouth when you reach toward them, licking their lips, or turning their head away from you when you reach out.

During the next training session, repeat what you did during the first session, giving treats while your dog is relaxed. If your dog remains relaxed, you can try touching them. To do so, start on the spots that are within their comfort zone. For example, your dog might be more comfortable with having their neck and shoulders touched rather than their rear end. As you touch your dog, move your hand slowly so you don’t startle them. Again, give treats as rewards for being relaxed.  

Depending on how sensitive your dog is, you might see them relax quickly or not relax much. You might have to do several sessions before you see and feel the changes in energy and body language.

All sessions should be short; five minutes or less is a good starting point. When the dog begins to relax, you can add five more minutes and continue adding time until the dog is able to rest while you’re touching them.

Handling specific body parts

Some dogs need help on specific body parts, such as their feet or ears. If that’s the case with your dog, you don’t want to jump into touching those areas during the first few sessions. Over several sessions, you can work closer and closer to those areas. If your dog does not like their feet touched, for example, start by just touching their shoulder. Then, work your way down their leg closer and closer to the foot.

Always keep an eye on your dog’s body language. If they move away or show signs of stress or fear, slow down. Stop and back up, touching other parts of their body. Gradually work your way back to the sensitive area. Lightly touch it, and as soon as you do, start giving your dog a steady stream of treats. As soon as you remove your hand, stop the treats.

At first, only touch the sensitive spot for a second or two. Then, as your dog becomes more comfortable, you can touch the spot for longer periods. Make sure that you remove your hand — and the treats — before your dog begins to get uncomfortable. The goal is to change their association of having the sensitive area handled from one of discomfort or fear to one of excitement. (“Touching my paws means I get treats!”)

Remember to keep the overall sessions short until you have a relaxed dog. Once you have a relaxed dog, you can proceed to more involved touch, such as lifting and holding paws, lifting up lips and rubbing gums, giving hugs, combing and brushing, looking in the ears, etc.

Trimming nails on a dog with sensitive paws

If your dog is sensitive to having their paws touched and you want to progress to trimming their nails, the first step is to simply move the nail clippers near your dog’s feet. As you bring them close, start giving your dog delicious treats. Then, as you pull the clippers away, stop giving treats.  

Depending on how fearful your dog is of the nail clippers, you might have to just show them the clippers, give lots of treats, and then put them away. Moving toward your dog with the clippers might be too scary at first.

When your dog is comfortable with the presence of the clippers, you can slowly start bringing them closer and closer. At first, you might only be able to bring them within a couple feet of your dog’s paws. However, with patience and good treats, you can slowly bring them closer and closer. Next, just touch the clippers to your dog’s nails, watching their reaction. 

If your dog pulls away or acts nervous, that is a sign you’ve moved too quickly and need to back up a few steps in the process. Be patient. It can take a while to build your dog’s confidence, but it will be worth it in the long run.