Touch Sensitivity

Bound Angels – Shelter Behavior Modification – study: hyper touch sensitivity

Portia was a young Cocker Spaniel that was found on a freeway off-ramp.  Since arriving at the shelter she has exhibited hyper touch sensitivity.  Although many people wanted to potentially adopt her, kennel staff was unable to safely remove her from her kennel.

Anytime she was approached to be leashed or handled she would scream and flail and attempt to bite.  To deal with her very unique situation I followed this protocol:

1. I approached the kennel neutrally and offered her treats through the bars of the kennel BEFORE every entering the kennel.
2. Before entering the kennel I closed off the back divider to prevent her from running around the kennel and getting stressed.
3. Once inside the kennel, I remained neutral and offered her treats until she slightly relaxed.
4. The leash was introduced in a non-threatening manner; placing it on the ground in front of her, gently touching her with it etc.
5. I draped the leash around her neck and allowed it to tighten gently.  I spent some extra time to get her used to the fact that the leash was no negative.  In fact you’ll notice that the leash slightly covered her ear and I tried to adjust it.
6. Once ready to leave, I opened the door and moved straight out of the kennel and out of the runs.
** the reason for this is that the more time spent in the kennel runs, the more stress will be induced in the dog from the other dogs in their proximity
7. I gave her slight freedom once in the yard for a few moments.

Once desensitization began I used a regimen of progressive desensitization as opposed to flooding.  I felt that her overall demeanor couldn’t handle too much stress so I would expose and remove the pressure, however I never let her fully flee.  The reason for that is because allowing her to completely detach from the process would increase her stress as the procedure stated all over again.  By giving her slight freedom we could always re-start from where we left off.

I also asked participants in the area not to talk to her or engage her.  This meant no clicking sounds no oohhss and aaahhhs.  I would be her only focus.  I would touch her gently and remove the pressure, rewarding her every time.  It is imperative that a dog in this mindset be rewarded after exposure to lessen the mental stress of the previous experience.  It will not serve to “mark” a negative behavior because the behavior is not done by the dog, it is a merely a re-action.  Using a reward here marks the behavior from my side showing it is not intrusive or abusive.

As you can see over time she began to understand this and even though afraid began seeking out the interaction on her own.  Once she understood that their were no negative repercussions to my touch she softened and eventually engaged not only with me, but with everyone there.

Although the initial observation seemed disturbing, the gradual but continuous engagement eventually broke down her fears and allowed her to accept the touch.  The very worst thing that could happen to this dog (which is what others did before) would be to engage her and when she screamed and flailed the human would stop.  Psychologically this would imprint on her that the human meant harm but stopped because of her actions.  Removing the threat completely when a dog acts out only enforces the idea that the action WAS a threat.

Conversely, putting more and more pressure onto the dog at this time might crush her spirit and push her into complete regression.  Since she attempted to engage (by taking treats) she showed some trust (which was overrun by fear when I attempted to touch her).  My demeanor to her would be easy and neutral, this would allow her to flourish and do her “thing.”  Removing the pressure from the handler gave her the opportunity to see there was no threat.

This entire process took less than 30 minutes and the majority of it is shown in the video above.  I recommended to the shelter that she be placed with another (neutral) do to increase her interaction and lessen her stress.  Two days later the shelter reports that Portia is doing much better with human presence and is coming along well.  The Cocker Rescue is considering rescuing her.

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