I wanted to write a bit about handling rams, but realized it was becoming a really long post, and that this topic deserves its own post first.

A long time ago, I took a seminar from an unusual kind of dog trainer who was invited as a guest at my dog training club. Not somebody who competes in precision obedience, agility or herding, but somebody who mostly works on remedying problem pet dogs, especially neurotic and fearful or pushy, out-of-control dogs. She was into the TTouch methodology (a book I’ve always meant to read, and someday I will!). Admittedly, I attended kind of thinking who is this lady, she seems like a nobody, a wannabe dog trainer, she doesn’t compete and win, and what is all this hippie TTouch jazz? But, she was actually really gifted, and I learned something amazing from her which changed the way I handle animals forever. This is what she shared (in my simple language, because I’m not well-versed in the science behind it).

Animals, and humans too, have two different brain reactions to the sensation of physical touch. One kind activates more of the instinctual, brain-stem, automatic kind of reactions. The other activates the frontal cortex, the thinking, paying-attention part of the brain. Hard touching does the former. This includes jerking choke chains or yanking an animal’s halter, pushing, shoving, and… even vigorous massage, petting, patting, hugging and scratching. So, interacting with an animal in this way engages his “unthinking” brain. When animals are touched or handled in this way, they tend to offer a lot of unreasoned behavior in return. If in play, or casual interaction with a well trained animal, this can be OK. But with difficult animals, it can render resistance, pushback, fear, fight, flight, etc. And it is very automatic, unthinking, behavior, where conscious learning is not happening.

Very, very light touching does something totally opposite. It “lights up” the thinking brain, and allows the animal to become very focused on the touch, very crystallized, calm, and “in” the moment, in learning mode. The instructor demonstrated it on us, and it was incredible. She used what she called a “wand”, which was essentially a flexible dressage whip, with a tassel end (and the irony is there, how differently you could use and name the same tool). I volunteered to be a class example and she had me stand up. She stood near me, and stroked my arm with the wand, so, so lightly it was barely detectable. Tickly. I felt my frontal brain light up, my body relax, and my head and attention turn toward the touch. Distractions faded. She did the other side, it pulled me there. I could feel my attention focusing solely on that very light sensation, it was very pleasant, I sensed good intentions from the toucher, and I wanted more. The wand literally was like a magic wand, pulling me lightly wherever she led my focus.

Next, she took somebody’s rowdy Bulldog that was a chronic, obnoxious leash-puller. As  he barreled ahead of her, she stroked his side with the wand, every so gently. And, it caused him to turn, to focus back on where the touch came from, and stop yanking his leash. Within minutes she had him following that wand like a magnet, fully engaged, looking at her, curious. She did it again with a neurotic, fearful Sheltie who was immobilized by anxiety. The wand caused the dog to loosen, focus, and walk forward; completely shifting out of flight mode.

The message was clear. Yanking on the leash of a puller, pushing a fearful dog forward, fighting a fighting dog, hollering at an upset dog, these all engage the instinctual brain stem, and the dog is not learning, he is reacting. But light touching flips a switch in the brain, and now the animal is engaged, thinking, learning, and too focused to be influenced by instinctual drives. One brain turns off, the other brain turns on. They can’t operate at the same time.

So, what I’ve learned is that if you want to diffuse an animal that’s being reactive, stop pushing, shoving, yelling and pulling (as tempting as those things are when an animal is being a pill). Instead, wait for a moment of yield from the animal, and then switch to the lightest touch possible. This rewards the yield, and helps the animal shift gears. It is amazing what a big gear-shift it is!

I used this method a lot on Bronte, our guardian dog, when she was young and literally went through a feral stage. As I re-introduced the notion of handling, I did a lot of gentle massage combined with this very light touching. I often use it on sick animals, especially to repair the relationship after I may have done unpleasant things, like give injections. With sheep who are curious but shy, often I will stroke them with a blade of grass. It has the same effect, and is less intimidating than having my hand too near. My dog Maggie loves this kind of petting, as rowdy as she is, light touching will make her sit perfectly still, un-focus her gaze, relax her jaw, and gently puff her breath in ultimate relaxation. And she often yawns, which is another sign of yield.

This is not to say that I don’t also get down and wrestle, scratch, ruffle, deep massage, pat, butt-slap, lean-in hard, squeeze, smoosh, smooch, and otherwise manhandle my animals in a jovial, rough-and-tumble way some of the time. When the moment is right, and intentions are clear, they love this silly, mock roughness and engage with abandon. Just as the sheep will sometimes give each other a rowdy mutual butt scratch or initiate a very silly pushing game, or the big guardian dogs will wrestle like grizzly bears in play.

I should say here too: I’m not averse to giving a tough correction to an animal that’s out of line and being aggressive or dangerous. Animals certainly sometimes communicate to each other in intentional roughness, whether it be a dog flashing a warning growl and snap at another, or a sheep butting a peer to express displeasure. This is a language they understand. But we just have to remember that when we push back on an animal, we’re pushing him into that automaton mode, and he’s not doing a lot of learning there. So we want to look for opportunities to flip the switch soon after. If an animal gets a correction from me, I am looking for him to offer me an adjustment in behavior immediately. Then I can reward, inviting him back in to the relationship, reinforcing the behavior I want to see, and ending on a good note.

Yawning is a sign of relaxation and submissionThere is a time and place for everything. With an animal that’s going through adolescence, or owner transition, where it’s learning a new role, it’s best to limit the pushy stuff, and maximize the gentle touch, as much as possible. And to make it crystal clear to the animal how to invite positive touching, and that rude behavior has regrettable consequences. Invitations for physical interaction from animals are not inherently bad, as long as the animal learns that it’s not a demand, it’s only a request; which may or may not be granted. “Good” touching develops a sound and trusting relationship with an animal, where he can learn we are predictable and mean him no harm; and that we have desirable rewards to offer, if only he offers pleasant behavior in exchange.

If you’ve not experimented before with this light kind of touching, do give it a try on the nearest dog, cat, sheep, human, horse, or what have you. Do it as lightly as possible, to where you are just grazing the tips of their hair, so that it’s barely detectible. You can use some kind of “wand” or just your fingertips. It is amazing how it settles them.