A term typically seen with dogs, most often rescue or formerly abused dogs, but also seen in a lot of small or toy breed dogs. It refers to the reaction when a human hand gets close to a dog’s head or face, and the dog either winces, cowers, shuts their eyes, or otherwise moves away from the hand. Other cues that typically accompany this behavior is crouching, the dog tries to make himself smaller, and often tucks his tail between his legs.
Some small dogs are hand shy even though they have never been abused. I’ve known some dogs who came home straight from the breeder, but they show signs of being hand shy when approached. Mostly it is because they are quite small compared to us. If you were the size of someone’s foot and they approached you with their giant hands, you might be a little apprehensive as well. That’s why it is especially important to slowly and calmly approach these dogs from the side, showing less threat, and with a hand palm-side up to portray openness, and talking to them with a soft, friendly voice.
When I adopted River, the volunteers at the rescue told me he had been tied up outside for most of his life and that he had been neglected and abused. When he was new to my family, he would wince as if to prepare for a blow and lower his head when my hand approached him. If I or someone else held an umbrella and tried to approach him, River would crouch down and tuck his tail, which was enough to convince me he had been regularly hit by an umbrella or something like it. After a lot of love and some time, he learned his new name and he learned to sit and hold his head up, happily and proudly, because he knew he was loved and safe.
If your pet is showing signs of being hand shy, go slowly and offer a hand palm-side up for them to sniff and let you know if they’d like to be pet. Then tell your friends and house guests this, as well.