On Sensitive Dogs

Sweet, smart, and sensitive.

is she 90% nose?
And prone to immobilizing me with cuddles.

They’re great traits in a dog, right?

But if you’ve lived with a sweet, smart, sensitive dog before, and particularly if you’re kind of a pushy training nerd like me, you might know that that isn’t the whole story. Sensitive dogs can really challenge us as trainers, and they freak out when we drop things. If you’ve never lived with this kind of dog, though, or if you’re new to them, you might be a little confused. So let’s look at Nala as a case study for why we might whine and moan about our sweet, sensitive smartypantses.

Nala is Smart

so helpful!
You wear these when you walk me. I would like to go for a walk. 

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced a new behavior to Nala. I was supposed to shape whacking a target on the ground with her paws.

The instructions said, “click noticing the target. Click approaching the target. Click any interaction with the target…” and so on until it got to “click for a paw on the target” and then adding a verbal cue once the dog was doing so reliably.

Within two clicks, Nala had tried smacking the target. By some time between the third and fifth click, she was confidently bopping the target with her paws and looking at me expectantly. I was adding a verbal cue (“punch!”) by the end of that session, and the next time I took the target out, she immediately tried to smack it with her paws. It quickly became one of the fastest, happiest behaviors in her repertoire.

In a pet store a few days later, just for fun, I put a flyer down on the ground and asked Nala, “What do you do with that?” She immediately smacked it with a paw and looked up at me as if to say, “Treat please!”

Yup: Nala learns new skills frighteningly quickly. And she generalizes incredibly well for a dog, provided that she’s not worried about anything in her environment.

Nala is Sweet

Nala will only get in your space if you bend over sideways, sit down, or lay down and invite her in. When you do bend down and talk sweetly to her, she wiggles in, head low and mouth smiling, her ears back, bunting against your legs and wagging gently. More often than not, she then hits the floor and rolls over for a belly rub.

Or maybe she's 90% ears
I’m out of breakfast, and I love you. Come cuddle me?

Nevertheless, she’s a really cuddly dog. She frequently requests, if I’m in the house, that I move to a piece of furniture that will make it easier for her to nap on my legs or squished against me. When I get up to comply, she races ahead of me, pauses at the bed and waits for me to lay down, then leaps up and settles in against me. Before she settles in for a nap, she’ll frequently solicit petting, butting her face against my hand until I rub her eyebrows or scratch her long, soft muzzle.

If I’ve been away more often than usual, she’ll bury her head in my lap or under me when napping, wait on the bathmat while I shower, and generally act as though her dearest wish would be to sew herself to my hip.

If I’ve been laying down, napping, reading, or blogging for a while, Nala wags with pleasure when I get up and licks my face.

In short, I’m at a serious risk for cavities, living with this dog.

Nala is Sensitive

And it’s a double-edged sword.

I get migraines, and, like most human beings, I get sick from time to time, too. Whenever I’m feeling poorly, Nala herds me into bed. Whereas she’s usually contented to lay down on or by my feet, if I’m sick or anxious or exhausted, she’ll often crawl forward and put a comforting paw on my chest, or lay almost on top of me. She’s my perfect little canine nurse, and my own personal therapy dog.

so concerned
“You stay here and rest. Can I get you anything? Juice? Tea? Aspirin?”

I love her to pieces. But.

Do you know how hard it is to teach a dog a simple behavior like target when she won’t come into your space when you’re standing? To condition a positive emotional response to collar grabs with a dog who looks personally injured when you reach toward her quickly? I couldn’t even use a body block to keep Nala back from something–even a slight body block was so much pressure that as soon as I stopped Nala would bolt away to relieve the pressure of that crazy lady who kept getting up in her space.

I’m a bit accident prone, dropping stuff, bumping my head into cabinet doors, and similar. I’m also, uh, crying out in pain and cussing prone. And shrieking when I see a bug prone. That relatively normal human behavior of mine used to cause Nala to run away and hide in her crate. I’ve had to learn to be better–to tone down my temper tantrums, and calm down more quickly. And Nala has learned that even when I’m upset, I won’t hurt her–these days, when I’m surprised or hurt and cry out, she tends to come and check to see if I’m okay.

It’s rarely useful to make up stories about our dogs’ pasts, so I don’t really spend much time thinking about what Nala’s life before me might have taught her about the behavior of humans who train her. But whether she simply never was asked to use her brain to solve any kind of puzzle or associated training with bad, scary experiences matters less than what I saw when I first started trying to train with her: a dog who would get totally overwhelmed within seconds during a training session. Nala would work for kibble in our backyard, but she would also appear to have steam coming out of her ears after a couple of behaviors. Her expression, during training sessions, was always worried and serious. And she was very, very nervous to try any behavior other than sitting or laying down for about three months. She was terrified of being wrong, and you can still see her visibly wilt if she suspects that she might be.

Once again, I’ve had to learn to be better. We played the Gimme a Break! game from Control Unleashed. I had to impose strict rules for myself so that I wouldn’t try to push Nala past her ability to focus for a training session, counting out 10 or 20 or 50 treats for a session and forcing myself to quit when we ran out, not when the behavior was done. I had to resist the urge to try free shaping, even though it is shiny and exciting and fun. I’ve had to learn to quit training if I get frustrated, or to cuddle Nala instead of playing with her if I’m in a foul mood. I learned to break some rules so that Nala would find her reinforcers extremely motivating and fun, and break more rules to build and maintain her confidence. In other words, I had to start at less than zero to build a positive emotional response to training with me with Nala, and I have to remind myself, every day, not to break my promise to her that training with me will always be fun, will never be scary, will always consider her needs and desires.

Even so, sometimes I get it wrong, progressing things before Nala is ready:

Remember that paw whack behavior I described earlier?

You can see how happy Nala is to play this game at the beginning of the video. Given her obvious fluency with the verbal cue, it’s time to add distance and focused enthusiasm. The tutorial we’re using suggested that I do so by making use of my dog’s opposition reflex–restrain her to build arousal, then release her to punch the target.

At :37, I reach toward Nala to restrain her, and you can see her edge away, lick her lips, put her ears back, and look away from me. She does spring toward the target when released. It’s about the same when I try it again at :45.

From just this session, we might say, no harm done! The goal was accomplished: Nala’s springing toward the target with more energy, then she looks happy and waggy when I mark “yes!” Surely that will carry over. Keep doing this!

Unfortunately, that’s not how it shook out for us. Instead, the whole behavior became slower and more careful, presumably because Nala is worried that I might do that scary thing where I restrain her and confuse her before asking for the thing she understands.

I’ve only recently begun to condition Nala to have opposition reflex when I’m in her space, to enjoy and become more aroused from that kind of pressure instead of just shutting down. I was wrong to try to use it here, even if it works well when we play. I need to go back and do more work conditioning opposition reflex with something that creates the right mood–in Nala’s case, a toy or the hose–and do something else to expand on this behavior.


This week, I’m planning a few more posts on confidence building and trouble shooting for sensitive dogs and newly adopted rescues who haven’t learned to use their brains. I hope you’ll join me! In the meantime, tell me: does your dog have her sensitive moments? Feel free to complain, commiserate, and celebrate your dog’s worry or empathy with me here!


9 thoughts on “On Sensitive Dogs

  1. Nala is so cute! ❤ You're right, having a sensitive dog is challenging. Most people really don't have a clue how hard it can be sometimes. I always say that training a sensitive dog requires Skill Level: Excellent. They are way harder than a "hard" dog! People tell me all the time how easy I had it, bla bla bla.. and I'm like, really!? You have NO idea what we've been through! While they are amazing, it's not always rainbows and butterflies. 🙂


    1. Yup, that’s how she hypnotizes me so I’ll do her bidding. 😀

      I mean, yeah, there are plenty of rainbows and butterflies (I love that!). But yeah, I think that working with a “harder” dog that will push through anything is a lot easier–or, at least, doesn’t require as much sensitivity on the part of the handler. And allows you to use a bigger “toolbox” without any extra work. Of course, watch me eat my words if I ever get one of those!


  2. First I have to tell you how hard you made me fall in love with Nala in this post. You described her so beautifully and I just adored it.

    I’ve described Honey as timid. But your word choice, sensitive, is probably better.

    In particular, our klutziness and dropping things is very scary for her. But we have found training exercises great for building confidence. And I taught her to shut doors and cupboards because I thought it would be helpful for her to associate the loud banging with something she loved.

    I also have found Honey’s sensitivity to be helpful. It has taught me to remain calm and not show frustration. I’m not usually a cusser and stomper but my husband is and it has helped him too.

    Finally, I’ll just point out that some dogs are just sensitive by nature and it isn’t necessarily related to their treatment by previous family or some kind of trauma (of course, maybe it is).

    Honey was born to a responsible hobby breeder who slept beside the whelping box for the first two weeks to keep an eye on the puppies. She was socialized to children, household noises, and all kinds of situations from the very beginning. And she’s still sensitive.

    More sensitive than her siblings.

    So maybe Nala had negative experiences in her past that contributed to her sensitivity. Or maybe that’s just who she is.


    1. Nala is easy to love. And thank you for the kind words. 🙂

      I think that Nala’s sensitivity to body pressure, to noise, and to my feelings–including her fear of being wrong in training–is mostly just who she is. I follow a couple of online dog forums, and there are plenty of dogs who are very similar to Nala and Honey who came from great breeders and went to homes who did everything right, just like you. The main difference between Nala and those dogs, I think, is that she seemed to miss out on brain games as a puppy–she had to learn to make guesses and to keep trying. That doesn’t mean she had a bad life or bad owners–just that she’s sensitive and needs a little extra help to build enough confidence not to quit immediately. And like Lauren said, I think it requires a lot of skill and sensitivity on the part of the trainer to build confidence for dogs like ours.


  3. What a great post! Blueberry is so seemingly laid back and sweet – but she too, has issues with noises or me dropping things. If a fly gets in the house and I chase it down with a swatter or bug spray – even if I try to be quiet about it – it is upsetting for her (does she think she’s next?) and she’ll leave the room or even go through the dog door to the backyard. And if I trip when we are hiking – she takes it as a personal attack and will try to run ahead of me to steer clear of the lumbering human behind her.

    I loved watching the video where Nala is learning to do a “smack down”. I may have to teach that to Blueberry. I taught her how to catch treats I throw at her – and by far it is her favorite game!


    1. Oh, yes. Fly swatters were the first thing I ever saw Nala have an outright fearful reaction to. These days I just use chemical warfare when I need to take out a bug. Laid back, sweet, scared of fly swatters–they have a lot in common. 🙂

      I’m glad you liked watching Nala punch stuff! She thinks it’s pretty fun. She’s not great at catching treats, but she loves it.


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