The room had been set up with round tables, and I was sitting with my back to the presenter. Which was fine, until she walked up behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. My friends around the table could all tell immediately that I wasn’t happy, but I don’t think the trainer ever noticed.
In that way, it was a lot like many dog-human interactions I have observed over the years.
It’s not that I hate touching under all circumstances. I love hugs with my family. After years of conditioning, including one intense semester in Costa Rica, I have even learned to enjoy social hugs with friends. And, of course, I love cuddling with my animals, especially when I am upset or have had a hard day.
I don’t like strangers to come up behind me and touch my shoulders. I don’t like hugs at business meetings.
Many dogs have similar preferences. While there are a few who love all contact at all times, most don’t. They may enjoy a cuddle on the couch or snuggling up in bed, but they may not be able to tolerate a small child who walks up while they are chewing on their toy. They may enjoy a belly rub in the living room, but not want the same belly rub at the dog park or during training class. They may appreciate you scratching that hard to reach spot, but not want you to clean dirt from their face when they’re nervous.
I often remind clients and friends to consider whether that pet is a reward for their dog, or a reward for them. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always what we want it to be. In certain circumstances, it may make sense to condition our dogs to be more tolerant of certain types of touch, like grooming and veterinary handling. This should be done carefully and patiently. At other times, we are better served by respecting our dogs and the messages they are sending and giving them their space when they ask for it.