Good and Bad Touch

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Aug 18, 2014, 10.55 PM IST

Touch is such an important part of social lives. If someone punched me in the face, I would have no trouble identifying it as ‘bad touch’. If someone shook hands with me I would identify that as ‘good touch’. But then again, is it? Is it a warm handshake between friends? Is it a cold handshake between business rivals?

And just like that, with that one touch we know what is going to ensue. In the former case, you start relaxing and let all your defences down for a good hug. In the latter, you tense up, getting your mental faculties as sharp as possible and you enter the meeting room ready for battle only to see your rival standing across the room with a big warm grin! Turns out that you misread his handshake. Turns out he had heard about your promotion and was genuinely congratulating you. We communicate a lot through touch and interpret each touch in many ways. It’s complicated. How does “touch” translate to man-dog friendship?


The first thing we will notice is that our dog is lacking the vital tool to touch — hands. So that should raise the first question in our mind. Are dogs used to touch at all? Wild dogs would be completely unfamiliar to touch. Free Ranging dogs on the other hand seem to accept it. So, it seems like there is ability in dogs to acquire a taste for touch.

But how do they interpret it and what do the nuances mean to them? Context plays a big role in interpreting touch even in the human-dog world. A stressed dog will naturally be more suspicious. Even an attempt to touch could be viewed with suspicion of a bad touch. So he may react with hostility. The extent of hostility will depend on many things — health, stress levels at that time, hunger levels, the environment (too hot or too cold), noises, people and space around him etc.


A sleeping dog, when woken up, is often confused about the touch and could mistake the touch for a bad touch and depending on his nightmares, may react very badly. Even a calm dog could one day, out of the blue, snap seemingly unprovoked. Often the reason is the pent up frustration arising out of touch-based-miscommunication.


These are all examples of dogs that are misunderstood to be aggressive. The truth is these are situations where there has been a breakdown in touch-based-communication. Touch is a very sensitive mode of communication and is open to a lot of interpretation. When we use this human tool of ours to communicate with the dog world, we are introducing something completely unfamiliar into their world.  How each touch gets interpreted depends on so many parameters that we can only at best guess what our touch could mean to our canine friend. So, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Avoid touch that your dog could misinterpret to be a bad touch: Do not touch new dogs. Talk to them. If they ask for it, pet them a little and take your hands off. Keep all petting sessions short. Pet only when a dog asks to be petted. Refrain from petting otherwise. NEVER EVER touch an agitated dog, even if you mean to calm it down. Growling, lunging, baring his teeth- these are all different ways a dog shows that he is scared that your touch is going to be a bad touch. He is begging you to leave him alone. Avoid touching a scared dog. You may talk to him in a calm voice. If he seeks physical contact, give him the contact he wants, but not more. No petting. NEVER touch a sleeping dog.

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