In last week’s article, I talked about the why behind teaching a dog to relax and cooperate for necessary handling during vet care or grooming. In today’s installment, I’d like to introduce the how of this training.
To begin, you’ll need to pay close attention to your dog’s signals and behavior when you handle his body in various ways. Some dogs are remarkably relaxed about all sorts of body handling, and folks who have dogs like these are lucky indeed. For the rest of us, we need to be observant and respectful of the dog’s signs of unease when he’s handled in a certain way, and put any handling issues we find on our list of things to work on.
Overt signs of unease – like actively squirming, grumbling, growling, showing of teeth, swift orientation of muzzle towards your hand, air snapping, or biting -- are easy for pet parents to understand. But, if we’re carefully observing the dog, we’ll see much earlier signals of unease, which will then allow us to adjust our strategies. Not only will this increase our own safety, but it also reduces the dog’s stress because we’re listening to and respecting his subtle communications. Some subtle signals that your dog may display when he is uncomfortable about you handling a certain part of his body include:
Averting eyes or turning head away
Avoidance – leaning away, ducking, moving away
If you’re lucky enough to be reading this at the same time as having a new puppy, get to work on handling exercises right away, pairing it with lots of yummy treats, and working in small enough steps that the puppy never gets concerned. It’s SO much easier to start out right with a new puppy, rather than having to undo a history of combativeness about handling down the road.
The desensitization protocol is essentially the same, no matter what body handling makes your dog uncomfortable. You’ll begin with such a small approximation of the handling that your dog does not show any discomfort. Immediately after exposing him to this small handling step, you will deliver a superb treat. With patience and repetition, the dog will soon be quite happy about that handling step because it reliably predicts a yummy treat. At that point, you’ll expose the dog to a slightly bigger approximation of the handling, and continue in the same step-by-step manner until you reach your goal. Once the dog is relaxed with you, he'll need practice with other people doing the handling.
Here’s a sample protocol for desensitizing a dog to handling his paws. I’m breaking this task down in a way that would work for many dogs. Some dogs may not need all these steps, while others may need you to break down the steps a bit smaller. If you’re observing your dog carefully for any subtle signs of unease, you’ll know when to break things down into smaller steps. Careful observation also lets you know when the dog is perfectly comfortable with the current step and thus ready for you to go on to the next one.
With the dog facing you, move your hand to his shoulder area and touch it briefly. Mark that moment with a click or a verbal marker like “Yes!” and then deliver a treat. Repeat until he’s completely relaxed with this touch.
Now touch his shoulder and slide your hand down slightly, perhaps as far as the dog’s elbow. Mark and treat. Repeat until relaxed.
Continue the downward slide on his leg, breaking it up into small enough increments so the dog doesn’t lip lick, flinch, lean away, or move away. Mark and treat. Repeat until relaxed.
Before long, your hand will reach the top of his paw. Mark and treat. Repeat until relaxed.
Next, you’ll grasp the paw lightly. Mark / treat / repeat.
Next, you’ll lift the paw. Mark / treat / repeat.
Then you’ll gradually increase the amount of handling you do to that paw, until the dog is perfectly comfortable with you holding it firmly and for extended periods of time, spreading his toes, and examining it more thoroughly.
Keep sessions short and fun.
Throughout the process, occasionally throw in some very easy reps to help reduce any subtle pressure the dog may be feeling.
If at any step the dog expresses concern, deliver a treat and then create an easier training rep when you continue again.
The dog is the one who sets the pace. There’s no sense trying to rush the protocol by making the steps too big, or by skipping steps. This will only yield more work for you in the end, and will undo some of your previous good efforts. It will also reduce the dog’s trust.
Another technique I want to briefly mention is about teaching a dog to do a specific behavior to let you know he’s ready for the handling. For example, you could teach the dog to rest his chin on your hand or your lap. As long as the dog maintains that position, you are free to continue handling (following a step-by-step desensitization plan). If the dog aborts that position, pause for a bit so he can collect himself. Before you know it, he’ll be willing to offer the ‘starting position’ behavior again. If you see him aborting frequently, that means you’re pushing through the desensitization protocol too fast.
Here’s a video of Bond doing a chin rest as a way of saying “Yes” to the handling I’m introducing. If he raises his chin off my hand, I would stop to give him a break. Then I present my hand again to see if he’s ready to say “Yes” to the handling again.
You may be wondering what to do if your dog has an upcoming vet appointment that absolutely cannot be postponed, and he’s not yet ready for that handling. One idea is to talk to the vet about using an anxiety-reducing medication, like I mentioned in the first article. The other is to discuss the administration of short-term sedation, which will allow the vet to get the necessary and sometimes uncomfortable handling and medical care done without stressing out the dog. Once that’s behind you, I encourage you to prioritize body handling exercises moving forward.
If you need assistance with handling exercises, including teaching a ‘starting position’ behavior, I’d love to help!
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies.
She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in the northern areas of Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120