Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Critically Important Thing to Teach Your Dog

The saying goes that if there are three dog trainers in a room, the one thing any two of them will agree on is that the third is doing something wrong. As in any field of endeavor there will be differences in the approaches that people take, and dog training is no different. However, despite the many different opinions on many different aspects of dog training, there is one thing that every trainer, behaviorist and veterinarian will agree on. And what is this one thing that is so important, so critical and yet so infrequently implemented by dog owners? This extremely important thing that you must teach your dog is to accept handling by humans. Actually, not just to accept handling, but to enjoy and welcome it. This makes the dog's life less stressful since he must be handled for veterinary care and grooming and he most likely will be touched by people in many different contexts. It also makes the dog less likely to bite if he is touched by surprise or if he is ill or injured and someone touches him. Conditioning your dog to enjoy being touched and handled may save his life and may prevent the pain and heartache that follows a biting incident.

It is best to start conditioning your dog to enjoy handling when he is a puppy, but it is never too late. Many people believe that once they have done some work to condition the dog for handling, they can stop and the dog will be fine with being handled for the rest of his life. THIS IS NOT TRUE! You must continue with pairing handling with treats and other good outcomes forever throughout the life of the dog. You don't need to work on it as frequently as you do at first, but you must not stop and just assume that the dog will never develop a dislike for handling.

There are various different ways to condition the dog for handling. Any of them are fine as long as the dog is enjoying the sessions. The goal is not just to cause the dog to tolerate handling. We want the dog to like and enjoy the handling. Toleration is not adequate since the dog may not tolerate handling from others or in stressful situations. This tolerance may wear out at some point or in some situations.

Here is an example of teaching tolerance. Let's say the your puppy does not like having his feet touched. So you hold him on your lap and touch his feet anyway. You keep doing this until he finally gives up and puts up with you touching his feet. He now tolerates you touching his feet, but he does not like it and he may still feel a lot of stress at having his feet touched. Many people believe that this an adequate approach, but it is not sufficient just to touch the dog until he gives up and accepts it.

A better way is to teach the puppy to enjoy and not just tolerate having his feet touched. You could let your puppy lick and and chew on a tasty bone while you touch his feet, very slightly at first and then with more force and for longer periods. The good feelings that are associated with licking the bone will become associated with having his feet touched.

An even better way would be to teach your puppy to offer his paw into your hand voluntarily and to give him treats for doing this. Sometimes this is the only way if he has reached a point at which he cannot be touched at all and even the tasty bone or the offer of treats will not convince him to let you touch him. With this approach, handling becomes a predictor of good things for the dog and he will become to like handling over time.

Read an article by Joan Orr about how to prepare your dog for veterinary care and grooming.

Watch these two videos that show some examples of ways to condition your dog for handling. The first one shows general handing exercises. These should be done every day with a puppy or when just starting out and then every week for the life of the dog. Do these even if your puppy or dog shows no sign of objecting to being handled. The second video shows a solution to a specific (and all too common) handling problem - nail trimming.

Handling Exercises 

Nail Trimming with a Reluctant Dog

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