No, the title doesn’t refer to the current heatwave New Zealand is experiencing! I’m asking if you can handle your dog’s body. Can you check ears, eyes, mouth, feet and ‘private bits’? Can you groom, trim or apply minor first aid if needed? If the answer is “Umm, no…” or “well, sort of…”, this is for you.
All Dogs Will Need TLC
No matter what coat type your dog has, at some point in their life ‘stuff’ will need to be done to maintain ‘health and beauty’. Or maybe that should be ‘health and bear-ability’!
- Nails need trimming to avoid painful scratches (and maintain paw health).
- Unmentionable substances in coats need washing off.
- Ears and eyes can get seeds and debris in that require removing – and even the application of medication.
- Teeth need cleaning and can collect twigs and food shards that require very prompt intervention.
- Bottoms and ‘private bits’ can need cleaning or trimming for hygiene – daggy dog anyone?
- And we’ve not even considered what the vet will do yet!
If you have a long or rough coated dog you can look forward to a lifetime of grooming, clipping, trimming and ‘vegetation’ removal. Those grass seeds get EVERYWHERE and can cause untold misery, damage and expense if not promptly dealt with.
No dog is immune to these events so it is in both of your best interests to teach your dog to at least accept them calmly, and preferably to enjoy them. If you have a new puppy this can be a pretty quick and simple process. If you have an older dog that already has opinions, then it can take a lot longer but is certainly possible.
The Softly Softly Approach
No matter which bit of your dog you want to handle, groom or check, the process of teaching acceptance and trust is the same. Take it slowly and never force the issue, as it is counter productive and will often come back to bite you – literally in some cases!. Obviously, if you have a medical situation, that’s whole different ball game and the job needs to be done as quickly and safely as possible, even if your dog objects in very strong terms!
Here at Hotdogs we use what is called a ‘touch gradient’ to gradually teach dogs that intimate handling is both normal and as pleasurable as possible. If you can teach an elephant or lion to offer body parts for blood draws, there is no need to traumatise a dog to clip its nails. My dogs line up for nail trims and everyone wants to be first in line!
The secret is in starting as early as possible. However, if that boat has sailed, don’t despair, change is possible it just takes a longer, more dedicated training process.
1 Find your start point
Start where your dog is already comfortable. That might be not actually touching your dog at all, just moving your hand an inch towards the target area.
2 Make a plan
It can be very helpful to write down as many steps as possible from where you are now (“wriggles and mouths as soon as I try to brush him”) to where you want to be (“stands like a rock while I give him a full groom, cut and blow dry!”). The greater number of tiny steps you can put in your plan, the easier it will be to progress smoothly through them.
3 Keep sessions short
You cannot rush this type of training and for many dogs there is only so much they can take in any one session, no matter how careful you are. Keep your training sessions very short – literally only a few minutes at a time – so your dog doesn’t become overwhelmed. Multiple short, fun sessions over many days will do the job far more effectively than one or two marathon sessions which stress your dog, and probably you too.
4 Make the training positive
Be sure to pair ALL the components of the final ‘picture’ with high value treats. For example, nail trims have a number of ‘triggers’ that dogs often dislike:
- The sight of the clippers or dremel (a grinding tool often used by professional groomers)
- The sound of the ‘clip’ of the clippers or the motor of the dremel
- The hand reaching for the paw
- Paw restraint
- Pressure on the toes as a nail is held for clipping or dremeling
- The tap of the clippers on the nail as they are placed or the vibration of the dremel as it buzzes
For successful pairing always introduce the ‘trigger’ at a low enough level that your dog remains calm and THEN reward with high value food. You want the ‘trigger’ to predict the high value food – not the other way around! There are plenty of dogs who run for the hills when the peanut butter jar comes out because peanut butter predicts yucky-things-for-dogs.
Felix and His Sun Screen
Below is a video of Felix having sun screen applied to his nose. He’s not that keen so to make it easier for both of us, every time I have to do it, I go through a condensed version of a touch gradient:
- hold his head
- show him the zinc stick
- touch his nose with the stick
- apply the stick
- and finally rub it into his hair.
If he resisted at any point I would instantly stop and give him a short break. When starting again I’d back up a bit in the process to help him feel comfortable again. Obviously the very first time I did this I took a lot longer (added breaks) and did more reps at each stage. In this video he is familiar with the routine, just not that keen to go along with it – he’d rather be jumping on his brother’s head!
Handling Need Not be a Battle
Obviously this is only a very quick overview of teaching your dog to love being handled. I don’t have space here to write long detailed plans and directions, unfortunately – it would produce a book! However, if you’d like to know more about positive reinforcement training, please get in touch (or check out my online course). I can’t wait to hear from you 🙂
– Sarah and the Gang
PS Want to read more like this? Find out how here.
PPS. New to using food in training? Find out how to use it effectively by downloading the HotDogs guide, Top Tips for Food Use.
PPPS. Like what you have just read? Don’t forget to share so others can also enjoy it 🙂