The Secret Handshake
Updated: Aug 27
Some dogs feel better around people if they have control over whether or not they get pet. The Secret Handshake gives your dog a way to say "Yes, please pet me!" or "No thanks, don't touch me".
Predictability = less stress! In this example, we’ll use a nose touch to the hand. Your dog might have a different signal, such as a paw to the hand.
Step 1: Hand Touch
Teach your dog to hand touch with you.
Watch your dog’s body language. If she is giving signals of stress, such as lip licking, tensing her body, or moving away, she may need a break. Start the next session at a less intense level.
Step 2: Teach your dog to hand touch for petting
You can now teach your dog that when she nose touches, people will pet her.
Have a few short sessions where you add in a chest scratch with the same hand you do the handshake with. The pattern becomes HAND SIGNAL - NOSE TOUCH - CHEST SCRATCH - TREAT. (This is how you'll help your dog transition from expecting treats to expecting touch!)
The treat should come at the same time as or slightly after the chest scratch.
For one week, ask your dog to hand touch before at least 1/3 of her petting. (Unless your dog is only needing to work with strangers/people that are not you. In this case, practice a few reps a day.) If she does not do it, she should not get pet. If she needs some extra incentive initially, you can help her by giving her treats while you pet her.
Stop using food after 3-5 days. Offer your hand for a hand touch and then wait for it. Do not say anything. (Unless we talked about adding a "Do you want pets?" phrase. Say this before you present your hand.)
If she touches, she gets pets. If she does not, she should not be pet. (This becomes her way of saying "No thank you , not right now.")
When your dog is automatically doing a hand touch for attention, she is ready to move on!
Step 3: Teach your dog to do the Secret Handshake with Familiar “B” people
If your dog will be working on feeling more comfortable with other people, you can start her transition with people she already knows and likes.
Have the person offer the Secret Handshake signal. Ideally, they stay still and you and your dog approach them. (Think about giving your dog control.) Do not pressure her to do anything.
Wait to see if your dog does her Handshake. If she does, the person can gently pet her on the chest for a few seconds. (Not over the head. "She likes to be pet on the chest.") If she does not do her Handshake, the person should not pet her.
Watch your dog’s body language. If she is giving signals of stress, such as lip licking, tensing her body, or freezing, let her have more space away from the person. If recommended, use “Come” to help your dog exit the situation. Don’t ever force her to interact.
Step 4: Allow your dog to Handshake with new B people
Follow the same procedure as above with unfamiliar/new people that you'd like your dog to know.
This should only be done if it has been an established part of your dog’s plan.
Some guests may not be able to listen to instructions or your dog may be extra-sensitive to them. Ask these guests not to pet your dog. Putting a brightly-colored bandana or cape on her can help to remind them :)
Some dogs will be happier to never have to interact with people who are not a regular part of their lives. If your dog isn't doing the handshake with other people, she's letting us know! You've just learned more about her! Talk to me about other ways she might interact with guests that are fun and enjoyable for her.