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Prepare your dog for real life: The importance of handling!

Behavior and Training  •   Jasey Day  •   Feb 01, 2017

In your pup’s life, he will experience being handled for many reasons:

  • Veterinary procedures and exams. It’s not easy to medically treat a wriggling, resistant dog.
  • Grooming and hygiene procedures. It’s almost impossible to perform brushing, tooth brushing, nail trimming, and ear cleaning on a wiggling, strong dog!
  • Touching (petting or exams) by humans. In addition to having a social pet, having a dog accustomed to human touch will enable you to pass portions of the Canine Good Citizen test and to consider doing therapy dog work!

If your dog isn’t accustomed to being handled by humans, he will experience stress and resist. Handling isn’t the most exciting or fun skill to train, but it’s a necessity. We want the human hand to be associated with positive things. If you have a puppy, begin immediately so that your dog does not develop a squirming or resistance habit – it’s easier to train something the right way from the get-go than to un-train undesired behaviors later. Dogs of any age can learn to better accept and to be unperturbed during handling exercises.

You can do several short sessions of handling each day. It will be easier to work on handling if your dog is already well-exercised and is in a cuddly, affectionate mood. Avoid doing handling exercises on a dog that is bursting with energy and wants a play session. As mentioned in my veterinary visits blog, you want to teach your dog to accept restraining hugs and holds and to hold still for paw, eye, ear, tail, belly, mouth, and teeth exams. You also want to acclimate your dog to being held, lifted, and carried.

Practice handling by using baby steps. This means slowly desensitize your dog to a skill by gradually making the skills harder over time.  Ideally, make the increments between each skill level easy enough (small enough) that your dog does not struggle as you slowly increase the difficulty.  After each successful repetition in which your dog does not resist, release your dog from being handled/examined and give a treat. For example, if you are working on having your dog hold still for ear cleaning, the progression of skills over time may be gently touching your dog’s head, then touching his ear, then lifting his ear, and then holding his chin while you lift his ear, then pretending to clean his ear with a dry cotton ball, and then cleaning his ears with a medicated cotton ball and dry cotton balls.

If your dog starts to wiggle and fuss during your fake exam or gentle hug, wait for a moment of stillness, release your dog, treat your dog, and then repeat the skill again. When you repeat the skill again, make it easy enough that your dog does not resist the handling. Then treat! You don’t want to create the pattern of “be calm and still, struggle, be calm and still, then get a treat!” Instead, create the pattern of “be calm and still, then get a treat!” Make sure each session ends on a pleasant, relaxed note and does not proceed past a level with which your dog is not comfortable tolerating.

After you have mastered handling your own pup, appoint friends or family members to help examine, groom, and pet the dog. You may need to start the baby-step process all over again when you first switch the handler to someone other than you.

Radiate serenity. Our dogs tune into our moods and take signals from us. Breathe normally and speak in a tone that is happy instead of coddling and concerned. Avoid saying, “it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok;” that will surely tell your dog that you’re worried about something and that things are indeed not ok! Instead, tell your dog, “You’re full of courage and behaving so well!” Your voice tone normally matches the words you say, so you may find it easier to say confident, joyful, and encouraging words.  

Continue to practice and maintain handling throughout your dog’s life. Practice handling skills, such as holding a paw or giving a restraining hug, in exchange for giving your dog his dinner. Use handling weekly during the performance of doggie hygiene duties. Continue to socialize your dog throughout his life so he continues to accept new environments and new people (especially new people touching him). As the saying goes, “Use it or lose it!”  

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