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How I Helped a Labrador Puppy Overcome His Fear of Human Touch

A rough start in life had one Lab puppy lashing out at his brother and cringing from human touch. Here's how I helped.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  May 5th 2016


I often feel sorry for dogs, even those living in the lap of luxury. One reason I do is because dogs are masters of human communication, both in how we communicate with each other and how we communicate with them. Human beings, for the most part, have very little clue what dogs are saying with their unique body language.

Canine communication can be extremely subtle and fast. It’s only been in the past decade or so that behaviorists and researchers have been actively studying it. Because dogs are the magnificent creatures that they are, many of us forget that they are, in fact, a separate species with completely different communication styles. Dogs have all but mastered us, but humans lag far behind in understanding them and they suffer for it.

Here is a recent case I worked on that demonstrates how sensitive canine language really is:

I met with the owners of two 6-month-old sibling Labrador Retriever puppies. They brought them to me because the brothers roughhoused with each other and sometimes that rough play turned into a fight. So far, neither dog had hurt the other, but their unruly play style was escalating.

When people bring their dogs to me, it can feel more like a human therapy session than a dog training one for the first hour. I ask for as much detail as possible from the humans, all while observing their dogs. While I was working with the pups, I noticed that if I put my hand down to pet the smaller one — the runt of the litter — he immediately curved his body away from me, licked his lips, and then nearly instantaneously redirected his energy onto his brother, who responded with what looked like a “Why, brother? Cut it out!” response. If they were not interrupted, I could see how a fight would ensue.

Labrador puppies at play by Shutterstock.

Labrador puppies at play by Shutterstock.

I asked if the runt puppy might have any known back pain as that was where I had been softly petting him. The owners lived in the country, and the brothers ran around in their horse pasture and sometimes did tumble over, so a muscle injury was a possibility. They had taken the puppies to their veterinarian before coming to see me so any potential pain issues had been ruled out. I asked the owners to watch the very quick change in the runt’s body language, posture, and frantic energy every time I reached down to touch him anywhere. The young dog could be in a lovely sit, focused on me and being still, but the second my hand touched him lightly, he became frantic and then redirected his anxiety toward his brother.

I knew the couple in front of me had not harmed this young dog — they were gentle and kind. I asked them if they knew of anything that could have happened to the puppy before they brought him home at 8 weeks, and that question brought us the needed information. The husband told me they had gone to the breeder to pick up just one puppy, but as they were making their choice, a 3-year-old child in the home came around the corner clutching the runt puppy by his front legs, carrying the puppy in a manner that looked uncomfortable and scary to the young dog. The owners looked at each other and said they would take two dogs that day.

A puppy brain is a vulnerable organ still forming, and if something happens during a puppy fear period (the first of as many as three happens generally between 8 and 11 weeks), that can leave a mark or memory in the brain that may remain as a fearful association. Even if the pup isn’t in a fear period, their little bodies and forming brains must be treated with care and protection.

My assessment was that the little boy neglectfully had been allowed to haul around a very vulnerable puppy who was also the runt of the litter, already stressed as he had to struggle to get food. This dog learned in a fear period that human touch can be scary. He had been with a loving family for a few months, and he was now conflicted about what a hand reaching in for him meant. With his new family, it meant a loving touch, but because he was sacred and hauled around by a rough 3-year-old child during his development, touch could also be aversive. We developed a plan to help this young dog learn that human touch was a good thing indeed.

To learn more about what puppies need during their early months, read my article on the subject. If you want to learn more about canine body language, I highly recommend Sarah Kalnaj’s DVDs “The Language of Dogs” and “Am I Safe?”. Another excellent resource is trainer Jill Breitner’s phone app, the Dog Decoder.