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 cannot 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.
Fresh & Fearless - a self-pace grooming course by Good Wolff & Kristi Benson
Fear Free Pets has resources on reducing fear and anxiety at vet clinics which can be applied to grooming as well.
Practical Obedience! - 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.