Can your puppy handle it?

Here a puppy is lying on a mat. This is the station where you will do the handling work.

My mom has a love affair with Pomeranians. She has had poms for years. She has shown them in both obedience and confirmation and enjoyed the grooming and training required when competing with these lively little dogs.

Pomeranians require a lot of brushing and scissoring. Never one comfortable not understanding ‘the details’, (she’s one of the most ardent researchers I know), Mom studied and learned how to groom her dogs and has taught me some tricks along the way.

Every single one of these amazing little creatures she has had the privilege of sharing time with has been a star in this department. Brushing, scissoring, nail trimming, bathing, you name it. She says that all of the early handling these dogs got as pups is the main contributor to them being so amenable whether on a grooming table or at the vets.

She is right!

My mom Suze B. with Small Lu and me.

Can’t Touch This!

Our dogs deal with a lot from us. We need to be able to attend to their basic husbandry requirements. Whether it’s nail trimming, coat or tooth brushing, or administering ear or eye medication.

Don’t forget the trips to the vet, the groomer or holding still because we want to dry muddy paws or fiddle with this or that.

Since dogs don’t naturally love all this attention we must handle with care and combine it with things the dog enjoys, such as yummy treats. This makes it more likely that we’ll have a dog who will be patient and tolerate it throughout his life versus stressing and trying to get away or bite.

UP Happy Handling

Here is a fun and simple training plan for happy handling that I teach my students in their Puppy 1 course. Add it to your prevention strategy and aim to raise a dog that feels comfortable with all life will hand him.

You will need:

*This is not something to rush through. Be patient and build on the exercises as the puppy is able.

You will also need your grooming tools and supplies – here is a list of items you may want to gather for your sessions:

  • brush
  • nail trimmers or nail file
  • syringe (to simulate oral med administered via syringe)
  • small plastic bottle (to simulate ear or eye drops)
  • a small washcloth (for face washing or paw wiping)
  • a spoon (to simulate scissors)
  • a spatula (to simulate a stethoscope)

Step 1 – Stationing

Goal – Upon seeing the station mat your pup moves to the station and sits or lies down.

Teaching this gives the dog a voice when it comes to how he is being handled. In the Fear Free community this is known as cooperative care.

This stationing behaviour will become the pup’s way to communicate ‘I’m In’ or ‘I’m Out’.

Put a no skid mat down, something large enough that the pup can stretch out comfortably on.

Sit at the top of the mat and look at it. When the pup comes over to explore the mat mark ‘good’ and treat the puppy on the mat. Give the pup 3 treats one after another.

(Note that we are not asking the puppy to come to the mat. We want him to do this on his own. If your puppy will not come over to the mat to explore, try throwing the mat up in the air a couple of times and having a little fun and games with it, this may peak the pup’s interest. If he’s still not interested see if you can get him over by luring him with a treat.)

Hand target or lure the puppy off of the mat and repeat 3 more times.

On the forth repetition do not hand target the puppy off. Wait and see if he stays on the station. If he sits or downs this is your cue to start.

Cooperative Care and Consent

Giving him a voice in this process combined with gentle and thoughtful handling will increase the odds of a cooperative pup over the years.

As you progress with the other steps in this handling series, if at any point the puppy leaves the mat, let him, this becomes his way of opting out of the exercises. His way of communicating I’m not comfortable with this. Honour this. Be patient.

Practice this step until you have a puppy that is happily romping to his ‘stationing’ mat when you put it down. Who will settle and look up at you.

At the beginning of each handling session do a couple reps of treats on the mat and hand target off before beginning the handling.

Step 2 – Reach then treat (Reach = Treat)

Goal – For your puppy to be comfortable as you reach (not touch) toward his head, mouth, neck, paws, back end and ears.

With the puppy stationed in front of you, have both hands lying in your lap.

Reach out with a hand toward the top of your pup’s head. The other hand quickly follows and feeds the puppy a tiny tasty treat. Both hands go back to your lap

Tip -Cooked boneless skinless chicken breast is one of my go-tos for this exercise. Most pups will find it high value and it is soft therefore perfect for multiple repetitions.

If your puppy flinches or tries to lick or mouth your hand move it farther away from his head on the next repetition.

Continue on with reaching toward all body parts you will need to handle: head, mouth, neck, paws (all four), ears, back end.

Step 3 – Reach + Touch = Treat

Goal – Your puppy is comfortable as you reach out and touch his ears, paws and nails. As well as the top of head, neck and back end.

Note – in a single session you may choose to practice touching only one body part, for example front paws or ears versus going though all the body parts.

With the puppy stationed in front of you have both hands lying in your lap.

Reach out with a hand to gently touch the top of your pup’s head. The other hand quickly follows to feed the puppy a tiny tasty treat. Both hands go back to your lap.

Tip – You may want to come from the side versus straight over the top depending on how your puppy feels about that hand over his head.

Continue reaching and touching all the body parts. Both ears, all paws, back end, mouth, etc.

Step 4 – Introduce The Tools (Tool = Treat)

Goal – Your puppy is comfortable when he sees his brush, nail trimmers, a towel for drying paws or what ever else may come his way.

Puppy is relaxed on station in front of you.

Have your hands behind your back with treats in one hand and a ‘tool’ such as your dog’s brush in the other.

Show the puppy the brush, take brush away.

Give the puppy a treat with the other hand. Take that hand away.

Now both hands are behind your back again.

Repeat 10 times.

Periodically switch the tool and the treats behind your back so the pup doesn’t anticipate which hand the treat is in.

Do this with all of the ‘tools’ you will be using for grooming as well as simulated ear and eye med bottle, and metal tools that simulate a tool the vet might use.

Tip – If you have taught your puppy a nose targeting behavior you can also cue him to touch the tool.

Step 5 – Reach + Touch + Tool = Treat

Goal – Your puppy is comfortable as you reach with your hand and then add the tool needed to do what you need to do.

For example, trim a nail, dry a muddy paw, brush your puppy or trim the hair around his eyes.

For this step your treats will need to be somewhere handy but out of reach for the puppy. You will need a hand for the reach and touch and a hand for the tool.

You will need the tools you are using for the session. For example a brush, your nail trimmers or a file, a small bottle to simulate ear drops.

Puppy is relaxed on station in front of you.

Reach and gently take your pup’s ear, bring the ear med bottle toward the ear and pretend to administer a drop.

Treat the puppy.

Do the other ear.

Try this with the paws and a nail trimmer.

Reach and take a paw in your hand.

Bring the trimmer toward the paw and touch the tip.

Treat the puppy.

Team Oli doing beautiful handling. A chin rest paired with a face wash, followed by a treat!

To Sum it all UP

In any given session work for a comfortable amount of time for you and the puppy. End before the puppy becomes impatient or nippy.

The Navy Seal motto is perfect to keep in mind as you practice.

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

Help yourself to the Ultimate Puppy Handling Training Plan PDF

visual representation of the Handling Worksheet PDF

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