Handling tends to be a part of our pups training that gets overlooked. We know our pups love to be pet and loved on by us, so handling shouldn’t be a problem! Right? Not necessarily. Handling doesn’t just mean petting and loving. We are really talking about our dogs being okay with having blood taken, their ears looked inside, looking inside their mouth, clipping their nails, clipping their fur, and all kinds of things that don’t happen every day. Most dogs are not thrilled with that type of handling, or the restraint that usually comes with it. But there is good news! We can help them to like it a lot more, and we can make it fun for them.
You may hear these skills referred to as a few different things. In the pet industry they tend to be referred to as cooperative handling skills, but if you ever hear a zoo keeper talk about husbandry skills it’s the same thing! Zookeepers can’t really pin down a tiger and make it comply with vaccinations, they have to teach the large animals they deal with to opt in to being handled and cared for. There has been a recent push to bring these same skills into the pet world, and it is a push I am happy to help along.
Check out some examples of zookeepers working with their charges.
One of the big components of this new way of working with our dogs is consent. This means that we teach our pets to choose to be a part of the situation, to consent, and we teach them that we will respect it if they say “no”. I like to think of it like church. When we are younger most of us hate church. We are forced to go, and we do, but we do it begrudgingly and with lots of whining and complaining. As we become adults, and it becomes our choice to go to church, most of us become very enthusiastic members of the community and even look forward to going to church. It is a lot easier to be an enthusiastic participant if you have the ability to say “no”. What this means for us is that we need to learn to pay attention to our dogs and listen to what they are saying. Unless it is a true life or death emergency, respecting our dogs communications will get us a lot further in the long run.
The first step is simply helping our pups get used to being handled. When they are little, mess with your pup a little. Look in their ears, look in their mouth, play with their feet, and make sure that it’s a good experience for them! Give lots of cookies while you are handling your puppy, and the second you stop handling, the cookies stop. Always make sure your puppy is comfortable as well. Never force your dog to sit through the handling. If they are very upset, you can create bad associations with being handled where there were none if you push too far. The more our pups enjoy being handled in weird ways, the better! You can even have one person treating while the other pokes and prods. If you find it difficult to do alone and you don’t have a second person available, try sticking some peanut butter somewhere at nose height for your pup to work on while you practice. Just pay close attention to the peanut butter and make sure you stop when it runs out.
If you would like to teach your dog true cooperative handling, the next step is to teach a sustained target. This is usually done with either a nose target, or a chin target. I find it a lot easier to teach with a chin target as most dogs usually grasp duration on this behavior a little easier, but it is up to you and your dog which will be easier. The idea of cooperative handling is that your dog will be able to hold this target while being vaccinated, groomed, examined, or whatever you need. To start this, you first pick a target. I usually recommend picking something small and portable like a hand towel. Pick a specific hand towel that will always be there target no matter where you go. This will make it easier to take this skill on the road. For the first couple of steps of teaching the chin rest, check out this video:
Your chin rest will also be where consent comes into play. Once our dogs understand the chin rest and are able to hold it for extended periods, and while we are touching them, we will also teach our dogs that if they remove themselves from the target, we will stop what we are doing and wait for them to be ready again. Hitting the target implies consent. They can earn treats by maintaining the target while things happen, but a really reinforcing thing for our dogs is knowing that they can trust us and that we will respect their communication. Teaching cooperative handling takes a long time, but it is well worth the effort. Especially if you start working it from the beginning.
Part of working on our dogs handling skills is getting them used to all of the crazy tools we might use when handling them. Everything from nail clippers and brushes, all they way to things like stethoscopes and muzzles. It is important for our dogs to get low pressure, positive introductions to these tools. Having them around while fun stuff is happening will help our dogs feel at ease about these tools. Muzzles tend to be a hot button issue with most of us. Muzzles are something only bad dogs have to wear! Truthfully, muzzles are most often used with dogs who are afraid or in pain. They are common during emergencies at vet offices. I think it is very important for dogs to be introduced to muzzles in a fun, positive way so that if they are ever in an emergency situation and a muzzle needs to be put on them, they see it as a positive treat basket instead of as another stressful item.
What handling boils down to is respecting communication from our dogs and teaching them that handling brings them yummy things. Like most things with our puppies, it’s also about practicing it when we don’t need it. We have to teach our pups to enjoy handling before we can expect them to handle it well.