A Weekend of TTouch

Join us on Saturday, May 16th at 4pm for a free informational session about Tellington TTouch. Jenny White of Dog-Ed will introduce you to the methods of this unique approach to training, which is based on respect and compassion for our animal friends.

Last November, several of our employees and their dogs had the chance to take part in a 2-day TTouch workshop, taught by Kathy Cascade, a Certified Tellington TTouch Instructor. Participants could sign up either with their dog as dog/handler team or as auditors without dog. Almost everybody taking part in this workshop was interested in helping their own dog with specific issues, such as reactivity to other dogs and people, fearfulness, barking, excitability, body awareness and arthritis. Both dog handlers and auditors had a chance to practice covered materials with the dogs that joined the session. It was a great individual and group experience.

If you are not familiar with TTouch, it may appear like a type of massage. However, during this workshop, we learned there is a lot more to it than just “touches”: TTouch is a unique method of teaching animals through encouragement and mutual respect. Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of TTouch, first experimented with touches on horses in the 1970s and 80s. The astonishing positive results of non-habitual, mindful touches caused her to develop the Tellington TTouch Method with the goal of triggering positive behavior changes. Instead of the then-popular theory of dominating animals to teach behaviors, Linda’s methods succeeded by increasing body awareness and reducing stress, while simultaneously improving the relationship and communication between people and their pets. Since stress reduction and force-free training methods are core values for us at AHNA, we were thrilled to learn the principles of this amazing way of helping our dogs and patients to overcome fear and other behavior issues at the hospital and in our homes. 

TTouch consists of a combination of body work, ground work, and the use of various tools to aid sensory perception. “Body Work”, as the name implies, uses the sense of touch on an animal’s body. The heart and soul of body work are different light pressure touches, strokes, and lifts. Touches vary in pressure strength and surface used, meaning some touches may be exercised using only the fingertips, while others require the whole surface of the hand or even only the back of the hand. Sometimes, touches are performed with soft brushes, especially if an animal is fearful of the human hand. Each touch has its own colorful name, such as “Clouded Leopard” or “Tarantulas Pulling the Plow”.

Different techniques are applied depending on the behavior problem or health issue at hand. For example: Ear TTouches (touching the animal’s ear is a certain pattern) and Hair Slides (stroking the animal’s hair in a particular pattern) are calming and soothing. “Tarantulas Pulling the Plow” (“walking” your fingertips of both hands over the animals body) and the Zigzag TTouch (stroking the animal’s body with the whole hand in a zig-zag pattern) improve circulation. The basic touches are fairly easy to learn and to apply. They are pretty relaxing for the person applying them too!

Another major component of TTouch is “ground work”, aka the “Confidence Course”. It is a bit like slow motion agility. Dogs master obstacles like tires, poles, labyrinths and novel surfaces with slow and intentional movements, focusing on the task at hand rather than running through the course at high speed. Working the Confidence Course has both physical and psychological benefits. It improves body awareness, balance and coordination, while at the same time increasing confidence and focus. It can also help to reduce aggression and fear. Centerpiece of the Confidence Course is the labyrinth. Other obstacles may include poles, tires, cavalettis, jumps, boards, and various surfaces such as plastic and wire mesh sheets. 

Picture 1: Tristan and Bluebell work through the labyrinth

Picture 2: Evelyn and Roana explore new surfaces

So how does walking through a labyrinth of lines on the floor change behaviors like fearfulness, reactivity (often labeled as “aggression”) or hyperactivity? Dogs have to slow down their walk and concentrate on non-habitual tasks, moving other stimuli to the background. Equally, handlers have to focus on subtle weight shifts and correct leash handling, easing their own tension and stress about their dog’s problem behavior. Dog and handler become a team in both physical and emotional balance. Even during this short weekend workshop, we witnessed amazing changes in some of the participating dogs. For example, a dog that was initially over-stimulated by the surroundings and unable to focus, slowly let go and was able to walk without pulling, barking or reacting to the usual triggers. 

For fearful dogs, something as simple as new surface textures can be alarming. Letting them experience new stimuli in a safe and supportive way helps the dogs build confidence that transfers to other situations as well. Arthritic dogs or adolescent dogs who don’t quite have control over their adult body will become more aware of the placement of their feet and body. The possibilities to apply TTouch ground work are endless.

Both body work and ground work are supported by various tools, such as body wraps, double-clip leashes, wands and head halters. Body wraps are soft, elastic bandages that are applied around the dog’s body in several different ways. The head and body wraps apply light pressure to increase body awareness and confidence. In many dogs, they provide effects similar to a Thundershirt®. TTouch practitioners therefore often use wraps on fearful or nervous dogs, although enhanced body awareness can also be beneficial for older, arthritic or injured dogs during the healing process. It can help dogs in competitive dog sports be more aware of their gait.  

Picture 3: Dorothy has applied a full body wrap to help Dutchess relax

Head wraps can be useful for barking or otherwise restless dogs. Several canine participants of the workshop were quite vocal at times. Others were unable to settle down. Placing a wrap on the dog’s head (like a head band) or gently over the muzzle without restricting opening and closing of the mouth brought relief in both situations. That said, please be advised that all wraps should only be used for short periods of time and when you can supervise your dog.

Picture 4: Dutchess with head wrap

Other tools are harnesses, head halters (such as the Halti® or Snoot Loop) and double-clip leashes, which provide two points of contact. Having two points of contact is very important to help the dog stay in balance and improves recognition of leash signals given by the handler, which can make walks a lot more enjoyable for both human and dog. We expect our dogs to know which way we want them to go without giving helpful signals. Imagine ballroom dancing with a partner who doesn’t lead well. If you have been in that situation, you will remember that both partners stumble and step on each other’s feet, making the dance a very unpleasant experience. Just like ballroom dancing, proper leash handling is a skill that requires some practice. To demonstrate handling a double-clip leash, our Kathy R. (a tech at AHNA) volunteered to be the “dog”, while Instructor and “handler” Kathy Cascade clipped the leash to the “dog’s” belt loops. Kathy R. (the “dog”) would start to walk in front of instructor Kathy C. without looking back or receiving any verbal cues. When the leash was attached to only one point of contact, the “handler” had to make big movements to get the “dog” to move in the direction she wanted her to go. Consequently, the “dog” lost her balance frequently. With 2 points of contact, the “handler” barely had to move her wrist, and the “dog” could immediately and clearly tell which way to go. It was truly amazing how the “handler” could influence movements of the “dog” with only minor shifts in body weight and gentle leash strokes. All human participants had the chance to experience what is like to be on the other end of the leash. What an important learning moment for all of us!

Picture 5: Instructor Kathy Cascade (left) and Kathy R. (right) demonstrate the use and effects of a double-ended leash

Learning how to use the double-clip leash is essential for TTouch Leading Exercises, which are an important part of working with fearful, reactive or unfocused dogs. One of the exercises we were able to try out during the workshop is called “The Journey of the Homing Pigeon”: Two people are leading the dog, one on each side, providing clear guidance and making it difficult for the dog to pull ahead.  

Picture 6: Linda and Tristan pracice the “Journey of the Homing Pigeon” with Coal in the labyrinth

Kathy Cascade frequently works with reactive dogs and gave us a glimpse of her techniques on day 2 of the workshop. When getting a reactive dog used to a stranger, it is important that handler and dog approach the stranger rather than the stranger approaching the dog. The stranger should be sitting and act neutral (no eye contact with the dog, no reaching out, no movement towards dog or handler).

For dog-dog-reactivity, live-sized plush dogs can be used as decoys. Again, the reactive dog approached the plush dog, which is placed in a non-threatening position on the floor (either lying on the side or facing away from the reactive dog). Walking a reactive dog on a leash with two points of contact helps keeping the dog in balance and can help reduce reactivity as well as increase control by the handler.

Picture 7: Reactive Roana learns to approach the plush decoy

Working with reactive dogs is a complicated matter and unfortunately can’t be covered in depth in a 2-day workshop. Nevertheless, the insights we got during this short time were priceless. If you have problems with dog reactivity, we strongly recommend working with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) and getting your dog used to wearing a basket muzzle for everybody’s safety.

Over the course of the 2-day workshop, it was amazing to see the difference in both the dogs and their handlers. By the end of the sessions, dogs who had been unable to settle for any period of time, as well as dogs who were highly reactive to the presence of other dogs, were relaxed and calm. It seemed that everyone took away a lot of important information: a different perspective of working with dogs, new ways to decrease stress levels, and techniques to be in balance with the dogs. It was an amazing and emotional weekend!

Many of us brought back different touches and approaches to add to our gentle handling at AHNA. These touches are very subtle, so you may not notice us doing them, but we certainly have seen a difference in the dogs who respond to them.