Has your puppy or adult dog ever squirmed when you checked his ears? Squealed as you touched a toe? Or slunk away when you brought out the brush? If so, you are not alone. A very few easygoing dogs seem to have been born enjoying all types of touch and handling. But many puppies and dogs need a little help when it comes to sensitive areas and intrusive touch.
My dog Chance actually needed a lot of help in this area. When we first brought her home, she was fine with petting and scratches as long as she could move away if she wanted to. But if we wanted to handle or restrain her, for example to cut her nails, she would panic and try to run away. We spent a long time helping her understand that we were safe and would do our best not to scare or hurt her. I was very pleased yesterday when I sat on the ground with the Dremel tool to file her nails and she sat next to me and presented me with her paw.
Helping a dog learn to accept handling isn’t difficult, but it does take a patience and practice. The basic idea is that you pair your touching with something your dog loves (such as a wonderful treat). And that you move at your dog’s pace. You look for your dog to be comfortable and happy with the touch. Let’s say your dog is not thrilled about having his ears touched. You may start with your hand a few inches or more away from his head and treat when your hand moves an inch towards the head. Gradually, while your dog is comfortable, you move closer to his ears, until you can touch them, and then look inside. You move from one step to the next only when your dog is comfortable with the last step. How do you know if your dog is comfortable?
- your dog’s body will be loose and without tension
- your dog may make a connection, often by looking at you with soft, blinking eyes
- your dog may gently lean into your handling
Also, watch for the signs your dog may not be comfortable and you may be going too fast. These include
- wiggling and squiggling (sometimes in a playful manner)
- licking or mouthing your hands or arms
- moving away when given the chance
- turning away or refusing to look at you
- becoming tense
Taking it slowly is key. Some dogs have trouble with only one place on their body, for example just their ears or paws. Others have trouble with many areas or even their whole bodies. Remember too that even if your dog is OK with your touch, they may not be OK with others touching them. You may want to do handling exercises with other family members, friends, your vet or vet tech, and groomer to help generalize this behavior.
If you are starting off with a new puppy or dog, handling exercises are a must. If your dog is not happy with handling, you can help them become more comfortable. However, if your puppy or dog is very upset, growls, or seems as if he may bite when being handled, please call me or another qualified behavior specialist. We can help.