What it is:
The dog is briefly touching the palm of your hand with a closed mouth. It is not a punch or prolonged push, it is not licking, and it is not going after food in the hand.
How to teach it:
Teaching touch is über-easy. Start by holding the palm of your hand in front of the dog’s nose, and it won’t hurt if it smells like cheese or chicken. Almost every dog will be drawn to the hand and automatically touch it. The moment he does, mark with a verbal yes or a clicker-click, and give a treat from the other hand. Always treat from the hand that is not the target hand, because you want your dog to learn that it is not about food in a hand. In addition, feeding from the other hand moves the dog’s nose away from the target hand immediately, and we’ll get the brief soft touch we are after.
Once your dog deliberately targets the hand to score a treat, switch hands.
Only mark and reward when you get a nose touch. You don’t want a lick. However, if you have an avid licker, initially do reward so you don’t discourage your dog, but once he understands the command, reward only when he licks a little less, and then a little less, and so on until you have the closed-mouth touch.
When your dog solidly targets both hands on cue, move the target-hand farther away, higher up, or lower. In other words, play with it and have fun.
What it is good for:
- The interaction can become a reward in its own right, which means you can use it instead of food to reinforce another behavior. When you teach loose leash walking, for example, you become a moving target and your hand, not a treat in your hand, is both lure and reward.
- When it is familiar and fun, it can re-center a dog who feels uneasy in a new environment. Anything familiar can lower anxiety, but with touch you have the added benefit that it engages the dog, and he gets to move, and that can also relieve stress.
- It is one of the best ways to redirect a dog from an unwanted activity, specifically jumping. Once your dog follows your hand on cue, you can bring four paws to the floor, or structure jumping if you own a spring-loaded dog with a strong intrinsic drive to bounce up - boxers and some terriers come to mind.
- Touch is an excellent way for children to interact with a dog, and to move the dog away from their body and face. The dog learns appropriate and rewarding ways to engage with kids.
- Touch closes the dog’s mouth and can help with puppy nipping.
- It can help with aroused herding dog nipping. Play catch-me-if-you-can, and when the dog is getting close to your legs, stop and direct him with an outstretched hand away from you. With quickly aroused dogs you may have to start with only a few, slow steps, but building on that you should increasingly be able to run faster and become more animated. It teaches the dog space balance, and a routinely closed-mouth while aroused during chase comes handy when the dog plays with other dogs.
- Touch opens up a different way to communicate. Often dogs that grab or mouth do so to get a human’s attention. That kind of mouthing is often labeled as biting, but typically happens either because the dog has never learned a proper way to communicate, or because the dog is highly aroused and hasn’t been taught acceptable outlets. Touch will help with both.
- Once the dog follows the hand as a pointer, teaching tricks, for example to ring a bell, is easy. Put your hand behind the bell and each time your dog touches the hand, the bell rings. Reward, and incrementally move the hand away. You can also lure your dog without food to: twist around his body, move around yours, weave through your legs, in a certain position, or on an object.
- Place a postage stamp on your hand and teach your dog to touch that. Once he targets the stamp, you can place it anywhere and teach him to touch different body parts, and objects. It can help with dogs that are fearful of, for example, a broom or the nail clipper. The idea is that the scary thing becomes part of a familiar game, and the dog, at one point, will seek it rather than shy away.
- Touch does not solve aggression issues, but the familiar and feel-good cue can shift a dog’s mind when he too close to a person and suddenly becomes tense. It can serve as an emergency signal that closes the dog’s mouth, and hence can prevent a bite. And if you reward your dog generously when he returns to you, you train a touch/walk away combination and have a built-in copout, a habitual behavior how to return to safety, and that can also lower stress.
- Touch works with dogs that are defensive of their space. Inviting the dog to follow the hand gets him to move, but in a non-confrontational way. To reiterate, you still must address the underlying reasons why the dog is aggressive, but for the moment you defused a potentially dangerous situation, and touch is in fact part of my space guarding behavior modification protocol, because when a person is playful, the dog perceives him as less threatening, which can lower the need to be defensive.
I mentioned that touch can become a reward in its own right, and with many dogs that is indeed the case. They seek the interaction and no treats are needed to reinforce touch once it is learned, plus it can take the place of treats in other contexts. However, if you have a highly food motivated dog, don’t skip treats. Touch, like other life rewards, shouldn't be seen as instead of, but in addition to, and one more way of having structured fun with your dog.