Updated: Jan 20

We take a lot of handling and interactions with our dogs for granted. Since we can rationalize that it’s necessary and won’t really hurt them – it’s OK to just do it. Their pulling away or avoidance is seen as dramatic, their aggression or attempt to get you to stop is stubbornness or dominance.

Vet Visits. Grooming. Nail Trims. Eye Drops. Toweling Off.

It’s easy to write these things off. We HAVE to do them, don’t we? Even if they hate it or they tremble in fear or we have to corner and restrain them to get it done, it’s for their own good right? There’s nothing we can do, right?

Wrong. There’s a lot we can do. We can prepare dogs. We can train them to tolerate or even enjoy these necessary procedures. At a minimum, we can easily take measures to keep them from hating them more, from going further and further down the rabbit hole of fear, anxiety and aggression with each experience.

The easiest time to prepare your dog is when they’re a puppy. If you bring home a new puppy during their critical socialization period, this is the easiest time to prepare them for all the things they’ll experience in life. Make a list or start with the one above. Handle your puppy and pair it with treats. Build a foundation of handling is awesome, rather than handling is uncomfortable. It’s a common misunderstanding that if we just DO IT (touch their feet, look in their mouth, pick them up) they’ll learn it’s OK and we’re preparing them for these procedures. Your dog experiencing it is not enough – it’s shaky ground. They may learn to tolerate it or they may learn that wiggling, mouthing, biting or running away is a great strategy to avoid that annoying or unpleasant sensation. With a little careful practice and a few handfuls of treats we can actually teach puppies that handling is awesome. That good things happen when you restrain them, they love nail trimming time and that vet offices produce their favorite foods. Colleague and fellow Academy grad Kristi Benson has a great video on helping her puppy Soleil learn handling is safe and predicts good things.

If you’re past that critical time when your dog is naive and primed to learn about these experiences, it’s still not too late. Even if your dog is already frankly fearful, becomes aggressive when you try to handle them or requires a muzzle during visits to the vet or groomer, there’s still a lot that can be done. We can teach them a variety of skills to cope with these situations and we can break down invasive procedures into tiny bits they can handle and help them to enjoy them. I’ve been working with my own handling-sensitive boy, Little Jack to improve his comfort. By teaching a chin rest and practicing basic procedures at home, he’s building up good feelings about equipment touching him. We also schedule regular “Happy Visits” to the vet clinic where no handling happens (but lots of treats do!) so the clinic doesn’t always predict unpleasant experiences. With two Fear Free Certified Professionals on staff, we’d be happy to help you create a plan to help your dog too!

At a bare minimum, we can not take restraint and handling for granted. We can have some compassion and understanding. We can help protect them from these necessary procedures getting more unpleasant, more scary and more stressful.

I’ve also made a commitment to Little Jack that if I am going to do anything invasive, it will be followed by an amazing treat party for him. If I need to inspect and dig into his ear to rule out a problem causing him to shake his head, I’m going to follow that with a trip to the fridge for 6 or 10 little bits of deli meat. Eye drops, ear cleaner or removal of a foreign object that requires restraint? Off to the closet for a dozen little pieces of freeze-dried liver paired with happy, upbeat praise. Even nail trimming sessions, which we’ve done a lot of training to help him enjoy are heavy on treats. Clip a nail, get a treat – that’s the rule we’ve made to maintain his enjoyment and cooperation during the necessary process. Little Jack has learned the rule that invasive interactions always predict an extra special treat party, which has over time and repetition made these processes easier for him. He still may not love being restrained, picked up or every “must do” procedure that comes up in life, but I know I’m doing what I can to maintain his tolerance and comfort.

We often take restraint and handling of our dogs for granted. We “just do it” regardless of how our dogs feel about it. Learning to read your dog’s signs of discomfort and fear is the first step. Respecting those signals and helping them feel better about the things they dislike is the next. I’ve made a commitment to my dog to minimize the things I “have to do” and help him feel good about the ones that I do. There's a lot you can do too. With a little guidance you can make the things you have to do to your dog just a little better each time.


LoriNanan.com has a variety of self-paced courses to help teach your dog to enjoy things like nail trims, tooth brushing and wearing a muzzle.

Fear Free Pets has resources on reducing fear and anxiety at vet clinics which can be applied to grooming as well.

Practical Obedience - Custom Dog Training - Since we offer customized on-location training programs, we can include any specific handling or restraint training goals along with anything else on your "must do to your dog" list that you'd like to become a less stressful, more collaborative process.

Successful training doesn't come from the big questions but from breaking down the BIG THINGS we want into many little questions.

The BIG question: Can Oakley (right) stay on his mat while I sit across the room with his canine brother Gravy in the room + baby distractions? Oakley's answer: You Bet!

I recently posted on Facebook that a "placement" behavior is a favorite among dog trainers. Asking a dog to go lie down on a designated spot (bed, rug, etc.) solves so many problems. If a dog is lying down on his place he's not jumping on guests, harassing you at the table or chasing the cat. It's a perfect replacement behavior that's incompatible with lots of problem behaviors, so it's often a "go-to" for solving dilemmas that owners bring to us. You may be thinking - there's NO WAY my dog could lie down on a spot while *all these things* (insert your unique household chaos here) are happening. And you may be right - if you asked your dog the question "Can you stay on your spot while this is happening?" today, he might answer "Heck no!" In dog training, to get the answer we want we usually have to change the question. A good trainer knows how to take that BIG question and break it down into many little questions the dog can answer "Yes" to.

I received a call to come help Oakley (above, far right) who recently welcomed a human-brother into his family. In addition to addressing a little concern Oakley was feeling with the new sights & sounds of being a big brother, we decided that adding a base skill to manage his behavior would be useful for the family. Being able to ask Oakley to hang out on his spot would allow him to slowly be incorporated into family activities in a safe and structured way. Once a decision was made regarding the behavior we wanted to build, two additional questions needed to be asked: What does the final behavior look like (what's the BIG question?) and what can Oakley do right now now? Although there are many distractions in the final question, we always need to start our questions with something we think the dog can do today.

Oakley's family opted for day-training which made it my role to do the foundation training. I visited Oakley to practice for a few sessions before asking his family to work with him. I broke the big behavior down into many little questions all of which could be incorporated into our final goal:

  • Can Oakley stay while I place a tempting treat on the ground?

  • Can Oakley stay while I carry the baby's car seat through the room?

  • Can Oakley stay while his canine brother Gravy moves through the room?

  • Can Oakley stay while I sit on the couch across the room?

  • Can Oakley stay while I step out of sight?

  • Can Oakley stay while the baby's swing moves?

At each step of training, I made a deal with Oakley: if you answer "yes" (and stay in your spot) you earn yourself a food reward. If you answer "no" (and move from your spot), no food reward - we'll reset and try again. Each question was repeated multiple times to ensure his "yes" wasn't a fluke. If Oakley said "Nope, can't do it" more than once or twice, I rephrased my question to something smaller. For example, when I asked Oakley "Can you stay while I sit on the couch across the room?" and he repeatedly got up when I sat down, I changed my question. I asked "Can you stay while I walk across the room & pause?" then "Can you stay while I walk across the room and bend as if I'm going to sit?" and in a few repetitions and successful repetitions, I was back to asking my original question. Oakley quickly learned that regardless of what I did, his job was to stay put and wait for me to bring him his next food reward. (Not a bad deal for Oakley, eh?)

Through stages of his training plan I ask Oakley all the little questions: Can you stay on your mat while I'm across the room? While I carry the car seat through the room? While Gravy lies on the couch? (P.S. Doesn't he look like he's having a great time - that's positive reinforcement training for you folks!)

Finally, after 3 sessions on our own it was time to meet for a coaching session and add the final piece to the puzzle: it was time to incorporate his human-brother into the questions we were asking. At a comfortable distance and a leash attached for safety, we asked Oakley the question: "Can you stay while a little fussing baby comes into the room?" And Oakley's answer: "No problem!" All our practice breaking down all the little parts prepared him for the next step. I'm happy to report that Oakley nailed his practice with 3 adults, 1 baby and his canine brother all moving around the room while Oakley earned his treats for hanging out, relaxed on his mat.

The ability to look at any training question or behavior and break it down is the hallmark of a good trainer. We want to make training questions easy enough for our dogs to win more than they lose - it makes training fun and ultimately leads to our dogs learning what we WANT instead of what we don't want.

Training is a very personal business - you let us into your homes and lives and open up during some of your most frustrating & joyful moments.  As we celebrate & reflect on the last 5 years we want to share a bit of that with you - how we ended up here, what our favorite moments are & why we do what we do.

photo credit: ML Photography and Design

Looking back, it seems training and behavior was always a part of my path from my days riding horses and early training of my first dogs, Baron & Wally.  As a career, it really came into light a bit later as I started to do some volunteer work with dogs.  Not only did I get my hands on a lot of different dogs and really enjoy working with them, I started helping train volunteers and solve some post-adoption struggles for new adopters.  The more I studied, the more I was able to help & the more hooked I became.  Honestly, the education required for this field is one of my favorite things - there will never be an end to what I can learn and gain from study & experience.  Before starting Practical Obedience LLC, my first formal education on dog training was through Animal Behavior College.  Five years later I'm in the middle of my second, more exhaustive coursework through the Academy for Dog Trainers.  Between there are countless seminars, webinars, books, videos and hours of shadowing & research.  There are so many facets to understanding these incredible creatures we bring into our lives combined with all the skills required to teach and coach people - I can't imagine a point where I will feel like I know it all.  

I knew immediately I wanted to teach individual training courses - I wanted to close the gap between what owners learned in basic classes and what they needed to be successful at home.  Countless times I saw how owners could teach basic cues - sit, down, stay, etc - but failed to understand how to use these skills to solve everyday problems like jumping or begging.  I felt addressing training at home would address both of these pieces to the puzzle: teaching the dogs the skills and the owners the best ways to use these skills.  After the first year or so of training, I realized there was another important component missing: knowledge about dogs.  Unless they were seeking this information out, most owners weren't being taught how to read and understand their dog's body language or to look at things from their dog's perspective.  So many behaviors that are completely normal for dogs are constantly vilified as having alternative motives such as dominance or stubbornness or spite.  There is so much misinformation available to dog owners that can send them in all the wrong directions. It became obvious that helping owners understand their dogs was important to their training success.

After teaching body language and other basic dog education in individual sessions and seeing the impact it had on the outcomes of training, I revamped our programs to include this information for all owners. In 2016 I reformatted our training programs to fully invest in owner education as a part of our process. I started our small group orientations to set the stage and serve as a foundation for all the individual training.  It allowed me to ensure that all owners we work with (beyond a single session or two) would have the opportunity to get a crash course in canine communication, prevention of problems, how dogs learn and I could bust a few common myths along the way. It followed right in line with my original plans: to empower owners with more that just a "do this" set of instructions but to understand how and why we want you to do it this way.

It's amazing that a tagline that I started five years ago "Training WHAT matters WHERE it matters most" could continue to drive our focus to this day. Often training *what* matters isn't just about a custom list of skills that are important to an owner. It's about giving owners the knowledge, skills and information they need to be successful with their dogs. Sometimes that's about training skills but often it's about perspective and understanding. My favorite part about training is helping owner's see their dog's perspective and opening their eyes to how their dog views the world. It's about letting them know it's OK if their beloved dog sleeps in bed, sharing that their dog is actually very afraid (not trying to be mean) and giving owners the tools to build a strong bond and positive relationship with their pups. From starting out on the right foot with puppies to resolving a difficult, entrenched behavior - our focus is and always will be to give owners the tools, knowledge and understanding they need to enjoy their dogs. Here's to five more years of "Training WHAT matters WHERE it matters most".

Practical Obedience LLC - Custom Dog Training

Certified Professional Dog Training in Green Bay, WI

Email: maggie@practicaldogobedience.com or Call: 920-471-4145

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