K9 Corner, Nov. 1, 2016

By HELEN PALMER

Contributing writer

Touching, for humans, is needed for optimal development in babies. Touching, for dogs, is a learned response. Therefore, it is helpful for potential buyers that the newborn pups have been touched and cuddled the first six or eight weeks of their lives or until they leave for new homes.

 Touching or petting a puppy seems to most of us a natural thing to do. However, since touching is learned, the right approach is needed. Try never to startle a pup or dog especially if it is sleeping, eating or otherwise distracted. Instead approach quietly from the side, but within the animal’s view, talk softly to your new pet, extend your hand, palm side down for the dog to sniff and then stroke along the cheek with your finger.

 The body language is understood by the dog. The sideways approach is neutral and friendly, the extended hand allows the dog to check you out just as it would another dog, the cheek stroking with one finger reminds the dog of the lick-greeting one dog will give another.  Rarely will a dog take offense if the body language displays friendliness and neutrality.

 There are several other gestures we as humans use between ourselves that the dog will misinterpret. First, while approaching a dog for the first time, never stare directly at it. Instead, turn your face at right angles to the dog and look out of the corner of your eye.

 Second, extending your hand over the dog’s head with the intent to touch is really a dominant gesture to the dog. Even a steady natured dog will crouch slightly in submission to this dominant gesture, while a dominant natured animal may challenge you for this right.

 Third, picking a dog up is dominant, reserved for mother dog until the pup understands that something pleasurable will happen when it allows itself to the lifted  That is why it is so important that the breeder take the time to lift the pups one by one each day until they leave for new homes. If started right after birth the pups should have no difficulty adjusting to the touch of the new owners. For a dog without this advantage, avoid lifting until there is a bond.

 Dogs that have learned how important it is for humans to be touched can become the best therapy dogs (those that give love and encouragement to people confined in institutions). Some dogs are able to sense the specific person that needs the attention the most.  They bring out loving responses in people who have not reacted to the “real world” in months or years.

Any dog can be a therapy dog, mixed breeds included. One of my favorites was Cocky, a medium sized mixed breed who went with me to visit a friend in a nursing home and walked over to the end of her six foot leash to sit quietly beside someone else’s wheelchair. The patient, I learned, had not acknowledged any of his surroundings for about a year, but he acknowledged Cocky’s presence and took comfort in reaching down and petting her.