Touch Sensitive Dogs

Touch Sensitive Dogs: Why Is My Dog Growling at Me When I Touch Him?

A touch sensitive dog exhibits behaviors such as growling, flinching, or snapping when approached. Touch sensitive dogs exhibit telltale reactions, such as when the dog flinches when touched

Pet owners asking, “Why is my dog so sensitive?” or "Why is my dog growling at me when I touch him?" must know that touch sensitivity stems from various factors, including pain, past trauma, or underlying medical conditions. A dog sensitive to touch associates negative emotions with touch or an existing physical ailment. 

What causes a dog to be sensitive to touch?

The causes of a dog being sensitive to touch include underlying medical reasons, behavioral problems, and specific breed characteristics. Medical conditions such as skin infections, arthritis, or other physical ailments make touch painful, making a dog sensitive to touch. Past trauma or abuse causes dogs with negative experiences to associate touch with pain or fear. An anxious dog reacts defensively to touch due to heightened stress levels. The behavior manifests deeper dog sensory issues. Genetic predispositions make certain breeds more prone to sensitivity. 

Why Is My Dog Growling at Me When I Touch Him?

Your dog is growling at you when you touch him to communicate discomfort, fear, or pain. “Fear-motivated aggression in dogs manifests as growling, snapping, biting, and low posture, especially when approached or touched, and can be effectively treated through optimizing owner-dog communication.” according to the study by Galac, S., & Knol, B. titled “Fear-Motivated Aggression in Dogs: Patient Characteristics, Diagnosis and Therapy,” 1997.

Dogs use growling to express their emotions, needs, and boundaries. Canines growl when they feel threatened, anxious, or in pain to convey a message to pet owners. Pay attention to the context of the growl and the dog's body language to understand the underlying reasons for the sudden behavior change. 

How can you tell if your dog is sensitive to touch?

You can tell if your dog is sensitive to touch by observing its behavior and reactions during situations involving physical contact. “Some common physical human-dog interactions, like petting and holding, are perceived as unpleasant by dogs and can lead to behavioral responses like freezing and withdrawal,” according to the study by Kuhne, F., Hössler, J., & Struwe, R. titled “Behavioral and cardiac responses by dogs to physical human–dog contact,” 2014.

Common signs of touch sensitivity in dogs include flinching when touched, whining or growling when certain areas are approached, or actively avoiding physical contact altogether. The behaviors indicate discomfort or pain in dogs. Seek guidance from a veterinary professional if signs of touch sensitivity appear consistently.

What are the signs of touch sensitivity in dogs?

The signs of touch sensitivity in dogs are listed below.

  • Growling: A dog growls as a warning signal to indicate that it is uncomfortable or feels threatened by touch. The vocalization is a precursor to more aggressive behavior if the discomfort continues.
  • Flinching: A dog flinching when touched is a clear sign of sensitivity or pain. Flinching is a sudden, involuntary movement indicating that the touch is unexpected or unpleasant.
  • Snapping or Biting: Snapping or biting occurs if the dog feels its warnings are being ignored. The behavior is a protective response to perceived danger or discomfort.
  • Whimpering or Crying: Vocalizations like whimpering or crying when touched imply that the dog is experiencing pain in sensitive areas.
  • Tenseness: A dog that stiffens or tenses its body when touched exhibits anxiety or fear. Tension is a precursor to more aggressive behaviors if the dog needs to defend itself.
  • Avoidance or Withdrawal: Dogs try to move away, hide, or avoid touch altogether. Avoidance behavior indicates the dog wants to escape an uncomfortable or painful situation.
  • Panting or Drooling: Excessive panting or drooling in the absence of physical exertion or heat is a sign of stress or anxiety related to touch.
  • Flattened Ears and Tail Tucking: Flattened ears and a tucked tail signify fear or submission, indicating that the dog feels threatened.
  • Licking Lips or Yawning: Dogs lick their lips or yawn when they are anxious, including when they are being touched.

How do you manage a dog that is sensitive to touch?

You can manage a dog that is sensitive to touch using the ten steps below.

  1. Consult a veterinarian. Schedule an appointment with a veterinarian to check for underlying issues, such as skin infections, arthritis, or other medical conditions causing the dog’s sensitivity.
  2. Identify the triggers. Pay attention to when and where the dog reacts negatively to touch. Note areas of the body that are sensitive and situations that trigger discomfort.
  3. Gradually desensitize the dog. Start by gently touching areas the dog is comfortable with and move closer to the sensitive areas. Use a soothing voice to reassure the dog.
  4. Use positive reinforcement training. Reward the dog for calm behavior during handling with treats, toys, or praise to create a positive association with being touched. Practice handling exercises regularly, but keep sessions short to avoid overwhelming the dog.
  5. Create a safe environment. Ensure the dog has a safe and comfortable space to retreat when it feels anxiety and stress related to touch.
  6. Apply gentle touch and massage. Light massages help the dog become more comfortable with touching. Pay attention to the dog’s body language and stop if it shows discomfort.
  7. Consult professional behaviorists. Consult a professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist if the dog’s sensitivity to touch is severe or persistent. Specialists provide training techniques and behavior modification plans tailored to the dog's needs.
  8. Include regular exercise and mental stimulation. Ensure the dog gets regular physical exercise and mental stimulation. A well-exercised and stimulated dog is less likely to exhibit anxiety-related sensitivity.
  9. Enforce a consistent routine. Maintain a consistent daily routine for feeding, exercise, and rest. Predictability reduces anxiety in dogs, making them more receptive to handling.
  10. Be patient. Managing a dog that is sensitive to touch requires patience and compassion. Progress is slow but consistent, and positive interactions build a dog’s trust over time.

How do Touch Sensitive Dogs Differ from Overstimulated Dogs?

Touch-sensitive dogs differ from overstimulated dogs due to their responses to physical contact. Dogs sensitive to touch display heightened sensitivity due to genetics, pain, past trauma, anxiety, or medical conditions, causing them to react negatively to physical contact.

The signs include growling, flinching, or snapping when touched. Touch sensitivity concerns physical discomfort or fear, whereas overstimulation is about being overwhelmed by the environment. 

Overstimulated dogs become overwhelmed by excessive stimulation, such as physical touch, too much excitement, loud noises, or crowded environments. Overstimulated dogs respond by displaying erratic behavior like hyperactivity, restlessness, or an inability to calm down.

Are certain breeds more prone to touch sensitivity?

Yes, certain breeds are more prone to touch sensitivity due to genetic predisposition and behavioral traits. Breeds like the Chinese Crested, Chihuahua, and Greyhound are susceptible to touch. The breeds have thin skin and lack a dense undercoat, making them sensitive to external stimuli and temperature changes. Sensitivity manifests as avoiding physical contact, yelping when touched unexpectedly, or displaying anxious behavior in response to touch. 

Can touch sensitivity in dogs be treated?

Yes, touch sensitivity in dogs can be treated through specialized training programs and the guidance of behaviorists. “Behavior modification programs, especially systematic desensitization and counterconditioning, are effective in treating canine aggression, while nutraceuticals show promise for overall aggression treatment,” according to the study by González‐Martínez, Á., Martínez, M., Rosado, B., Luño, I., Santamarina, G., Suárez, M., Camino, F., Cruz, L., & Diéguez, F. titled “Association between puppy classes and adulthood behavior of the dog,” 2019. 

Training programs desensitize touch-sensitive dogs by gradually exposing them to different tactile stimuli, helping them become more comfortable. The programs focus on positive reinforcement techniques to encourage desirable behaviors and discourage undesirable reactions to touch.

Is Touch Sensitivity in Dogs a Sign of CCD?

Yes, touch sensitivity in dogs is a sign of CCD. CCD, or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, is common in older dogs. “Signs of canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) include avoidance of getting patted, difficulty finding dropped food, and anxiety,” according to the study by Schütt, T., Toft, N., & Berendt, M. titled “Cognitive Function, Progression of Age‐related Behavioral Changes, Biomarkers, and Survival in Dogs More Than 8 Years Old,” 2015.

A dog displaying increased sensitivity to touch, such as flinching or reacting negatively to petting, indicates CCD in dogs. The condition manifests in various behavioral changes, including confusion, disorientation, restlessness, and altered sleep patterns. 

What are common medical reasons for a dog's sensitivity to touch?

The common medical reasons for a dog's sensitivity to touch are listed below.

  • Arthritis: A condition characterized by inflammation of the joints, leading to pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility. Dogs with arthritis react negatively to touch around the affected joints due to discomfort.
  • Skin Infections: Infections are caused by bacteria, fungi, or parasites that affect the skin, leading to redness, swelling, and irritation. Touching infected areas causes the dog to react sensitively due to the discomfort and itching associated with the infection.
  • Allergies: Allergies are immune system reactions to allergens such as pollen, food, or flea bites. Allergies cause skin irritation, itching, and inflammation, making the affected areas sensitive to touch.
  • Injuries: Physical damage to the body, including cuts, bruises, sprains, or fractures, makes the dog sensitive to touch and leads to defensive reactions.
  • Neurological Disorders: Conditions affecting the nervous system, such as intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) or nerve damage, cause abnormal sensations or pain, making dogs reactive to being touched.
  • Dental Problems: Dental pain, including periodontal disease, tooth abscesses, or broken teeth, causes sensitivity around the mouth and head, leading to a dog’s defensive response.
  • Ear Infections: Bacteria, yeast, or mites cause infections of the ear canal. Ear infections cause significant pain and make the dog sensitive around the ears and head.
  • Syringomyelia: Syringomyelia is a condition where fluid-filled cavities develop within the spinal cord near the brain. The condition causes severe pain and sensitivity around the neck and shoulders, leading to touch sensitivity.
  • Dermatitis: Dermatitis is Inflammation of the skin caused by contact with irritants or allergens. Dermatitis makes the skin sore, itchy, and sensitive, causing discomfort when touched.
  • Hip Dysplasia: A genetic disorder where the hip joint does not fit properly into the hip socket, leading to joint instability and arthritis. Dogs with hip dysplasia experience pain in the hip area, reacting negatively to touch.

How does touch sensitivity affect a dog's behavior?

Touch sensitivity affects a dog's behavior by provoking aggression, fear, or avoidance. Dogs with touch sensitivity are influenced by how they perceive physical contact. Some dogs exhibit aggression, such as growling, snapping, or biting, as a defense mechanism when feeling threatened or uncomfortable. 

Other dogs react to being touched with anxiety, such as panting, pacing, trembling, excessive licking, cowering, or trying to escape. Social interactions with humans and other animals strain as the dog becomes wary of being petted or handled. The wariness leads to defensive behavior against the owner or other pets. 

What should you do if your dog suddenly becomes sensitive to touch?

The steps you should follow if your dog suddenly becomes sensitive to touch are listed below. 

  1. Observe for underlying symptoms. Monitor the dog for signs of illness or discomfort that accompany touch sensitivity. Check for symptoms such as limping, swelling, redness, changes in appetite, lethargy, or unusual behavior.
  2. Avoid sensitive areas. Refrain from touching or handling the areas where the dog shows sensitivity.
  3. Schedule a veterinarian examination. Schedule an appointment with a veterinarian as soon as possible. Veterinarians conduct exams to identify underlying medical conditions and recommend treatment.
  4. Follow veterinary recommendations. Follow treatment plans or recommendations the veterinarian provides for effective management and recovery.
  5. Provide a comfortable and safe environment. Provide a stress-free space for the dog to rest and recover, with soft bedding, a quiet area, and easy access to water and food.
  6. Monitor progress and report changes. Track the dog's progress and any changes in their condition. Note improvements or new symptoms and keep the veterinarian updated.
  7. Implement gentle handling and positive reinforcement. Gradually reintroduce gentle handling using positive reinforcement techniques. Reward calm behavior with treats and praise, and slowly build up the dog’s tolerance to being handled again.

Are there training methods to help a dog with touch sensitivity?

Yes, there are several training methods available to help a dog with touch sensitivity. The most popular methods focus on positive reinforcement and desensitization. “Training with positive reinforcement was found to be more effective at addressing target behaviors and general obedience training, with fewer risks to dog welfare and quality of the human-dog relationship,” China, L., Mills, D., & Cooper, J. titled “Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement,” 2020.

Dog trainers or behaviorists combine positive reinforcement techniques like treats, praise, or toys to help the dog associate touch with positive experiences, reducing their sensitivity over time. Desensitization training involves gradually exposing the dog to the specific trigger for sensitivity, starting with less intense touches and rewarding calm behavior.

How can you desensitize a dog that is sensitive to touch?

You can desensitize a dog that is sensitive to touch using the steps below.

  1. Identify the sensitive areas. Observe the dog to determine which areas are sensitive to touch. Note the dog's reactions to different types of contact in various parts of the body.
  2. Create a calm environment. Ensure that the environment is quiet during desensitization sessions. A peaceful setting reduces the dog's anxiety and makes it easier for them to respond positively to the training.
  3. Start with gentle touches. Gently touch the areas of the dog's body that are less sensitive. Use slow, light touches to build trust and observe the dog's response.
  4. Pair touch with positive reinforcement. Use treats, praise, and gentle petting to reward the dog when touching them without a distressed response. Positive reinforcement created a favorable association with being touched.
  5. Increase the intensity and duration. Slowly increase the duration and intensity of the touch over time. Move closer to the sensitive areas in small increments, ensuring the dog remains comfortable.
  6. Use desensitization tools and techniques. Employ tools like a soft brush or a gentle massager to help the dog tolerate various types of contact. Start with less sensitive areas before progressing to more sensitive areas.
  7. Monitor the dog’s body language. Look for signs of stress or discomfort, such as tensing up, flinching, or pulling away. Reduce the intensity of the touch or take a break if the dog exhibits distress.
  8. Incorporate desensitization into the dog’s daily routine. Make desensitization practices a regular part of the dog's life. Consistent practice reinforces positive associations with touch and normalizes handling over time.
  9. Seek professional help if necessary. Consult a professional animal behaviorist if the dog’s sensitivity to touch does not improve with gradual desensitization. Behaviorists provide expert guidance and customized desensitization plans.
  10. Be patient and consistent. Desensitization takes time and patience. Regular, short sessions are more effective than sporadic, lengthy ones. Always end sessions on a positive note to reinforce good experiences with touch. 

What role does socialization play in a dog's touch sensitivity?

Socialization plays an essential role in a dog's touch sensitivity, influencing its behavior and responses to physical contact. Early socialization introduces the dog to tactile experiences, helping it become comfortable with different types of touch. 

Positive early exposure to gentle handling lets puppies learn to associate touch with comfort and security, reducing the likelihood of flinching as they grow older. Dogs lacking adequate socialization exhibit heightened touch sensitivity, leading to fear or aggression when touched unexpectedly. The increased sensitivity manifests as excessive licking, biting, or avoidance behavior. 

How can a vet help with a dog that is sensitive to touch?

A veterinarian can help with a dog that is sensitive to touch by diagnosing underlying medical reasons and recommending appropriate treatment options. “A veterinarian can assess a dog's pain in a hospital setting by observing its behavior, including its response to touch, to help determine if it is sensitive to touch,” according to the study by Holton, L., Reid, J., Scott, E., Pawson, P., & Nolan, A. titled “Development of a behaviour-based scale to measure acute pain in dogs,” 2001.

Veterinarians identify the root cause of touch sensitivity in dogs, whether due to skin issues, joint pain, or neurological conditions. The veterinarian develops a tailored treatment plan after diagnosis that involves medication, therapy, or behavioral interventions to address the dog’s sensitivity.

Can CBD Products Help Calm Down Touch Sensitive Dogs?

Yes, CBD products can help calm down touch-sensitive dogs by reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation. “CBD reduces anxiety in patients with generalized social anxiety disorder, related to its effects on activity in limbic and paralimbic brain areas,” according to the study by Crippa, J., Derenusson, G., Ferrari, T., Wichert-Ana, L., Duran, F., Martín-Santos, R., Simões, M., Bhattacharyya, S., Fusar-Poli, P., Atakan, Z., Filho, A., Freitas-Ferrari, M., McGuire, P., Zuardi, A., Busatto, G., & Hallak, J. titled “Neural basis of anxiolytic effects of cannabidiol (CBD) in generalized social anxiety disorder: a preliminary report,” 2011.

Many dogs exhibit sensitivity to touch, leading to anxiety and stress reactions in various situations. CBD oil for dogs has shown promising results in alleviating these symptoms in sensitive dogs. Consult a veterinarian before introducing CBD products to the dog's routine for proper guidance on dosage and application for best results.