If your puppy or new dog flinches when you move your hands around his head then he is “hand shy”. Some puppies can learn this by being grabbed or hit, other movement sensitive breeds like Border Collies can be born with that reaction. Regardless, your friend can be taught to enjoy, not fear, your hands. To do this you must stop any and all hitting and grabbing of the dog (if that has been happening) before you can start retraining him.
Start with a piece of cherished food in one hand. It has to be something your dog is wild for. It has to be special – only given in these sessions. It has to be spectacularly enticing. Your dog’s eagerness for it will help him overcome his fear.
- Hold a small piece of treat right in front of his nose. As he’s sniffing and licking it, slowly raise your other hand over his head. If he accepts this without worry, give him the treat. Use lavish verbal praise anytime your dog shows confidence.
- Start with just raising it up. Work with that. When your dog is relaxed with that, then and only then start sweeping it downward past his head. Start that a few feet from his face. Only move closer when your dog is at ease, tail wagging and enjoying his treats.
- If he is anxious any time you stand near him with your arm up, try kneeling or sitting on the floor at first. Few dogs have been hurt by a kneeling or sitting person so they won’t fear these positions. Make sure you keep talking to your dog happily throughout for the same reason. Be playful, have fun!
- Repeat this procedure, slowly increasing the speed with which you raise your hand. Once he tolerates this without a flinch, move to the second level.
- Now, do not hold the treat to his nose. Instead, while you are a step or two away from the dog, raise your hand slowly over your head and slowly step toward him. As you near him, give him the treat with the other hand while you lower the raised arm down to stroke his head. Praise him enthusiastically!
- A little trick that helps a shy dog is to back up a step or two every time he takes the treat. Not only will your retreat give him confidence, but it releases any stress he may feel being close to you and allows him to approach you again for the next round.
- Over many sessions, gradually increase the speed of the hand raising and the step toward the dog. Always follow this with a treat and much praise. Your dog will learn to have no fear of you or your hand motions.
- Stay relaxed. Have fun. Move between repetitions. Stay more process focused then goal focused.
This type of training takes as long as it takes. Some dogs will relax completely in two weeks, others in two months. It’s not a race.
Dogs who make no progress after several sessions (or a dog who reacts with any sort of aggression at any point) need the help of a professional trainer or behavioral counselor. But with patience and a playful attitude, many dogs can make tail-wagging progress pretty quickly.