For many years, I was curious about Tellington TTouch (pronounced TEE-touch) Method, a training system that uses bodywork and non-habitual movement to influence behavior and health. But I was skeptical that the hallmark circular touches with fanciful names like “Clouded Leopard” and “Tarantulas Pulling the Plow” would have much impact beyond helping an animal relax; wasn’t this just another form of petting and massage? It wasn’t until I witnessed a TTouch practitioner work with my young dog, Chance, that I realized there was more to TTouch than I had imagined.
photo by Donna Zetterquist
At that time, trust did not come to Chance easily. Her background as a feral dog meant that she was often overwhelmed during social interactions with humans. Her lack of trust manifested in hyper-social behavior. And, even though she had learned to sit when greeting people and she behaved well when asked, she was often on the verge of an eruption of nervous hyperactivity when interacting with people.
As I watched Jodi Frediani, a TTouch practitioner who holds workshops in the Santa Cruz Mountains (near the central coast of California), I saw a subtle change in Chance’s demeanor. It wasn’t that Chance immediately calmed down, though we did see a mild shift in her hyper behavior. It was the way that Chance and Frediani were communicating through the touches that was so impressive. When using TTouch, Frediani entered into a mutually respectful relationship with Chance, a noninvasive and nonconfrontational give and take. TTouch helped to create a dialogue between the dog and practitioner. Chance’s body language shifted from stiff and tense, to softer and more relaxed. The growing trust was evident.
What is TTouch?
The TTouch method was developed by Linda Tellington-Jones. The Canadian horsewoman had a long background in horse training and massage, but in 1970s, she began studying with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli physicist. Feldenkrais had developed a method of gentle manipulation of the human body, designed to improve pain and movement. He believed that by engaging non-habitual movement, you might be able to activate unused neural pathways to the brain and expand the potential to learn. Tellington-Jones’ study of the Feldenkrais method of “Awareness Through Movement” sparked a shift in her thinking about touch and movement in animals.
Tellington-Jones began to experiment with non-threatening manipulations with horses. Her experimentation lead to her development of the Tellington Touch Equine Awareness Method (TTEAM), a training system for horses that included a circular touching technique, ground work, and riding exercises. The approach seemed to help horses relax and move beyond instinctive responses into a more grounded and thinking state. Tellington-Jones found the method to be very effective and in the 1980s began adapting it for working with other animals, including dogs, and TTouch was born.
Tellington-Jones writes that the goal of TTouch is to “stimulate the function and vitality of the cells in an animal’s body, and to activate unused neural pathways to the brain.”
TTouch likely engages the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing muscle tension and allowing heart rate, blood pressure and circulation to slow, in effect bringing stress levels down. Bringing the stress level down may allow a dog (or person or horse) to have more body awareness, which can help if the body is compensating because of a past fear or pain, says Frediani. “The touches, in some fashion, help to release that memory and bring about healthy function in the cells.”
One study, done at the Biofeedback Institute in Boulder, Colorado, showed that TTouch can create changes in certain brain waves. During the study, the brain wave patterns that emerged during TTouch were different from those that emerged from simple petting, stroking, or massage. The results suggest that TTouch may relax the body and brain while simultaneously encouraging an alert, thinking state.
Tellington-Jones describes the effect of TTouches as “turning on the electric lights of the body,” but she acknowledges that no one really knows how or why TTouch works and that the secret may simply be the mindfulness of the method.
“TTouch is based on a mindful approach to working with the animals,” says Frediani. “Everything we do is mindful and thoughtful. I constantly read the dog’s body language, staying attuned to his emotional state as best I can. I pay attention to both the dog’s response to my touch, body language, and movement, and also the messages that my fingers are giving me. Is what I am feeling hard to the touch? Cold? Trembling? All of this is information that helps adapt what I do and how I do it.”
TTouch is Cooperation-Based
Perhaps the biggest influence of TTouch is that it promotes a philosophy of cooperation and respect in all of our interactions. “TTouch is about partnership,” says Frediani. “It’s about working in a collaborative fashion.”
Frediani trained with Tellington-Jones, and says, “It was an experience that transformed how I live my life.” Frediani continues to practice and teach TTouch, including working with a variety of animals throughout the world, teaching others to lead classes, and offering workshops for dog owners at her home in California.
“In the TTouch philosophy,” says Frediani, “most behavior problems arise because of fear or pain, or because the animal doesn’t understand what we want.” The TTouch method strives to alleviate these issues with three primary techniques: circular touches, body wraps, and movement exercises. These elements work together to bring about a relaxed, calm state that enables the animal to learn. TTouch can function as its own behavior modification program, but it is also often used to complement other reward-based training and behavior programs.
TTouch can be particularly helpful with anxiety-based behavior issues such as social fears or sound sensitivity. With these types of problems, the results of TTouch are often dramatic.
“The intention is to bring awareness, to get the dog to use his thinking mind and not his reactive, primitive brain,” says Frediani. “The touches get the dog to slow down and respond.”
I witnessed a stressed Border Collie fall into a deeply relaxed state in a matter of minutes during a TTouch demonstration. During my research for this article, numerous people related accounts of tail work, ear slides, and body wraps providing miracle-like results for sound sensitivity. For example, Dr. Evelyn Sharp of My Personal Vet in Santa Cruz, California, says she remembers using the TTouch “tail work” with her first dog, Cray, for his fear of thunderstorms.
“Cray would flip out, digging to try and escape, pacing, panting, ears back,” says Dr. Sharp, who had learned about the tail pulls during a TTouch course for horses in the 1980s. “For the first two or three pulls he was worried. But after five tail pulls, he just lay down and went to sleep.”
TTouch is also useful in highly arousing situations. Because it both calms a dog and seems to open him to learning, TTouch may be particularly helpful with performance dogs, for example, as a way to encourage focus before going into the competition ring. It may also be helpful with activities such as vet visits or training classes.
“I use TTouch to get my classes settled down,” says Sandi Pensinger of Living with Dogs in Capitola, California. “If something disrupts the class or dogs get aroused by motion or eye contact, we sit down and do relaxation with TTouch and breathing. The dogs settle down and often fall asleep. It’s amazing!”
But the results of TTouch are often more subtle, as with Chance and her hyper-social behavior. Chance is still often on the verge of a mini-over-excitement-explosion when interacting with people, but TTouch has helped shift her energy from nervous panic to simply excited.
TTouch can also be helpful as an adjunct therapy for hip dysplasia, lameness, and recovery from surgery or other illnesses. “It is not going to cure a dog of cancer or other ailments,” says Frediani, giving an example of the limitations of TTouch. “But it could help make the dog more comfortable and help with the bond between animal and person while the dog is going through the illness.”
TTouches in Action
There are over a dozen different touches used in TTouch. Probably the best way to learn about the touches is to find a practitioner in your area. But you may be able to learn about them from the books or videos available as well.
Many of TTouches employ the hallmark circular motion, but several are more akin to a stroke or lift. Some of the touches are done using only the fingertips, others the flat of the fingers and palm, still others use the whole hand against the dog’s skin. The circle movement is generally done clockwise, starting at the 6 o’clock position and moving around for a one and a quarter circle. The touch is generally light rather than deep like a massage and the goal is to gently move the skin under the fingertips.
Pressure is another aspect of the touches. The pressure scale ranges from one to six, with one being the lightest, and six being the heaviest. The pressure of the touches is much lighter than you might imagine. To get an idea of the pressure of the touches, try moving the skin around on your eyelid using the lightest possible pressure. This would be a number one. A number three is the pressure it takes to move the skin around on your eyelid as firmly as is comfortable. A number six is twice the pressure of a number three (too much pressure to use on your eyelid and with most dogs, and is generally used with larger animals). Each dog prefers a different pressure, and it helps to experiment to find the right pressure for the individual.
The circles are complete within themselves, but they are done in succession moving around on the body. As soon as you are finished with one circle, connect it to the next one by sliding along the fur to your next position, moving parallel to the spine or down the legs. The circular touches can be done anywhere on the body.
Here are examples of a few of the different touches and how they are used:
“The Clouded Leopard” – This is the basic touch and all of the other circular touches are variations of the Clouded Leopard. With the Clouded Leopard, your fingers are slightly curved and you use the pads of your fingers to create the circles. The Clouded Leopard is particularly useful for anxious dogs and regular work with Clouded Leopard may help develop trust. One variation of the Clouded Leopard is the Abalone touch, which uses a completely flat hand against the skin.
Ear slides – Using TTouch on the ears is an important technique and can help calm a stressed or hyperactive dog. The ear slide is done by stroking the ears horizontally from base to tip, or by making small circles starting at the base and working toward the tip.
“Ear work can also be a very helpful tool if you have a hurt or injured animal or an animal in shock. You can use an ear slide while going to the vet.” says Frediani. “There are acupressure points in the ear that are connected to the whole body, and without having to know specific points, one can activate them and stabilize pulse and respiration.”
Tail work – One of the most interesting TTouch techniques is a simple tail pull. With your dog standing or lying down, you hold her tail near its base with one hand, while supporting her body with the other, then gently pull, holding the tension for a few seconds and then slowly, gently releasing. You can also move the tail in a circular motion, or do “Raccoon touches” on the tail, a method that uses just the very tips of your fingers and a circular motion.
“Tarantulas Pulling the Plow” – This is my favorite slide type of touch. You walk your fingers gently up the back (like a spider) while letting the thumbs drag behind (like a plow). It can help stimulate circulation and may be helpful for dogs with touch sensitivity.
Beyond the Touches
There are several other techniques that are part of the Tellington TTouch Method. These techniques are all designed to help a dog gain a calm confidence. “It is hard to be emotionally confident when you are not physically confident. With physical confidence, the tail comes up, the posture changes, the dog feels good about himself,” says Frediani. “It is easier to feel good about the rest of the environment, other animals, and even people when you feel good about yourself.”
Leading exercises – TTouch employs a range of exercises designed to help a dog work in cooperation with the handler. The goal is to teach a dog to understand what is expected, and for the dog to move without pulling or straining on the leash. Some of the leading exercises use a double clip leash with the ends clipped to two different points on the dog; for example, one end might be clipped to the collar and the other to a front clip harness.
Confidence course – The confidence course, as the name suggests, is designed to build a dog’s overall confidence. It may include obstacles similar to those used when introducing a dog to agility equipment – a ladder, a low dog walk or A-frame, a tippy board or low teeter-totter, tires and cones. A simple labyrinth made from six poles on the ground is a common feature of the TTouch confidence course. “The confidence course can help a dog solve problems and learn physical balance, which is connected to mental and emotional balance,” says Frediani.
Body wraps – Traditionally in TTouch, the body wrap is done with an ace bandage wrapped in a pattern around the dog’s body, but I’ve also heard of people using scarves, tight t-shirts, and more recently a commercially designed product called a Thundershirt. Body wraps can be so effective in helping a nervous dog settle that when I was looking for examples of how TTouch had benefited dogs, the response was overwhelmingly related to great effects of body wraps for things like thunderstorm and firework fears. The idea of the body wrap is that a gentle pressure on a dog’s body can help calm the nervous system. One person I talked with said the body wrap was like giving your dog a nice reassuring hug.
Therapy for Dog Handlers, Too!
One of the aspects of TTouch that I like is that it is easy to do, and it feels good doing it. Perhaps it is the mindfulness approach, or the simplicity of the touches and movements, or the fact that it doesn’t have to be done perfectly to have a positive effect. It’s very forgiving and can be adapted to fit an individual dog’s needs.
“With TTouch, we allow the dog to lead the way,” says Frediani, “and mistakes are part of the process. If what you do doesn’t work, try something different. Set goals, but remain unattached and know that you can change what you are doing.”
Practicing the TTouch techniques is also a great way to connect with your dog. To help strengthen her connection with her dog, Chloe, Lori Rubin took a workshop with Frediani. Rubin says, “I rely on the circle touches when I think something might be stressful for my dog, like when I take her to the vet. It gives me something to do that I know is nurturing to the dog.”
Putting TTouch to Work
TTouch can have a dramatic effect on dogs. Sometimes the help offered through TTouch is subtle. And sometimes, like with all behavior methods, it might not help with a particular behavior or problem. But even that fits in with the TTouch philosophy.
“As with all systems there are times that the methods won’t be as effective and there are some animals that won’t respond,” says Frediani. “If I’m working on an animal, and the animal expresses concern, I might do the touches on a different part of the body, I may change the pressure, the speed, or which touch I use to make it easier for the animal to participate in the process.”
Frediani stresses that in TTouch, you always work for success, which, in this case, means moving forward together and allowing the animal to participate in the process. “I want the animal to be able to express how she feels. I don’t want to inhibit that,” says Frediani. “I don’t want a dog to go ballistic, but I also don’t want her to suppress her communication.”
In TTouch, communication and cooperation remain key to the process. TTouch improved how my dog Chance communicates with me, as well as how she relates to other people. She will often back herself into a person as if to say, “Would you like to communicate with me through those funny circle touches?”
Mardi Richmond, MA, CPDT-KA is a training enthusiast and writer who lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her partner and her heeler-mix, Chance.
Special thanks to Jodi Frediani of Transformational Training, for her assistance with this article.