Monday, August 13, 2007

Puppy Handling Exercises, part 1

Every day, clients complain to me: "I can't trim his toenails; he'll bite me!" "Can't you just give her a shot? There's no way I can give her a pill every day for a week." "He won't let me brush him out." "She hates it when I try to clean her ears."

Why won't our dogs let us do these things to them? Because they don't like it - these are unnatural behaviors for dogs. How many wolves in the wild get their teeth brushed? I'll bet not too many. But, we ask our dogs to do many unnatural things in order to fit into our lives. We expect them to live in houses and walk on leashes and not steal food or "spend a penny" on the carpet. (Ask your British friends what this one means.)

If dogs are going to be a part of our lives, living in our homes, then they have to be brushed and combed and bathed and have their toenails trimmed. And, sometimes, vets will have to look in their mouths and in their ears and draw blood samples and do all manner of rude and undignified things to them, which will not be described here, in the interest of their health. And, those same vets are going to ask you to medicate your dog from time to time, and No, there is no "shot" that is going to take the place of regular daily or twice daily pills and ointments.

So, if we know from the outset that we have going to have to do these things to our puppy throughout his life, let's start getting him ready for the rest of his life right now, while he is young and malleable. Our 2 to 4 month old puppy is like a sponge, ready to absorb anything we want him to learn. The key part of this sentence is "2 to 4 months old." Don't wait until he's 6 months old to start training. A 6 month old puppy is the same as a 14 year old kid. Can you tell a teenager anything that he doesn't really want to hear? No, you cannot. Likewise, you cannot teach your 6 month old puppy anything unless he already has a foundation in basic manners. (Well, you can, but it is a lot harder.) The critical window of opportunity is 2 to 4 months old, and if you miss it, you miss a lot. I am such a believer in early age manners training that I won't get a puppy if I know I'm going to be too busy to train her during that period.

I feel that puppies should not be held down and forced to undergo their first examination. Oh, yes, it's quicker, it gets the job done, but it teaches the puppy nothing, or at least, nothing positive. It teaches our new pup that big strange people with strange smells on their hands are going to grab him and torture him for no good reason. Wouldn't you learn to hate people who did that to you?

Instead, I want the puppy to learn self-control, to learn to sit quietly and tolerate the weird stuff that is happening to him. To that end, I have developed a series of what I refer to as "handling exercises." I demonstrate it to all new puppy owners, usually between the ages of 2 and 3 months old. Puppies less than 8 to 9 weeks old are too young for these exercises. Puppies over 5 months old aren't as accepting of these techniques, though I might try it in some cases, and they don't work at all for adult dogs.

I expect owners to practice these exercises at home, and I can tell at the next visit who did and who didn't
do their homework. I ask them to put their puppy up on a table, a counter top, a washing machine - some place up off the floor. It reminds him that we are working now, not playing games, and it mimics an exam table. If you practice these skills once or twice daily - it takes less than 5 minutes each time - you will be much more successful than if you only do them once or twice a week. The key here is repetition - many brief, easy, fun sessions not one or two painful marathon battles.

The first thing we need to work on is getting our puppy to sit quietly. That may be all I do for the first few attempts, depending on the puppy's temperament. "Soft" puppies get this right away, "pushy" ones take a little longer.

With the puppy wearing a flat buckle (or snap) collar, hook your thumb through the collar under his chin. You will use that thumb to pull the collar down, to apply pressure to the
back of his neck. This is the same point where his mom picked him up or where a dominant dog would push on him with his front feet or chin or chest. It's a natural "accupressure point" for a dog, and reminds him who is in charge.

"Soft," compliant puppies need almost no pressure on the back of their necks. They relax in my hands and don't complain. Puppies who struggle and squirm against this pressure are what I call "pushy" puppies, and when they resist, I increase the pressure. Most "medium" pushy puppies struggle for a bit, then relax. The instant I feel one of them relax even a bit in my hands, I relax my pressure. (Remember Rule 9: Timing - the release should be immediate.) Our puppy soon learns that when he cooperates, the pressure goes away, when he resists, the pressure increases. The important point of this exercise is to SAY NOTHING. (Rule #2: People are verbal, dogs are physical.) You don't need words, your hands are talking to the puppy better than your voice ever could.

Next, I want the puppy to sit quietly on the exam table. I am not teaching the word "Sit," so I don't say it. I don't like sits that involve pushing down on a puppy's lower back or yanking her collar up and choking her. Instead, I am going to "shape" her into a sit. The way I do that is by tucking her fanny under while lifting up on her chest. (My thumb is still in her collar, and the palm of my hand faces her chest.) SAY NOTHING.

Left hand tucks the fanny under while right hand lifts up on the chest

... and voila! One sitting puppy.

To finish, scratch puppy's chest and praise her.
"Good puppy!"
(Ordinarily, my left hand would not be pulling her head up,
this was just to show the position of my right hand.)

You can do this the opposite way, too, with your left hand on her chest and your right hand tucking her fanny under. In fact, it might be a good idea to practice it both ways, so neither one of you develop a right or left-sided preference.

If she gets up and walks away, SAY NOTHING and return her to the sit position. If she lays down, as some soft puppies do, SAY NOTHING and return her to the sit position. Do this over and over until she gets the idea. She must sit here until you say she can quit. When she gets it, give her a release word ("OK" or "All right" or "Free" or whatever works for you) to signify "Exercise complete." Don't forget to praise her in the sitting position and SAY NOTHING when she is doing anything else but sitting. (Rule 7: Praise more than you correct.)

Next time: The three big areas dogs dislike being touched


About the model:

Pebbles is a 12 week old mixed breed puppy I saw last week. At her 8 week old visit, we talked about these and other handling and training tips. At her 12 week visit, she ran up to me in the exam room and sat in front of me. Of course, I immediately praised her ("Good Pebbles!") and rewarded her with a liver treat. I did NOT pat her on the head - this is not enjoyable for most dogs. Instead, I hunkered down on my heels, to avoid looming over her, reached under her chin and scratched her chest, which IS pleasing to most dogs.

Pebbles sat very well for her exam and vaccinations, and was so cooperative that I asked her owner for permission to photograph her for the blog. (Thanks, Pebbles' mom!)

Later, as the appointment was winding down, Pebbles' 5 year old person was waving a liver treat around, in front of, and over the puppy's head, saying "sit, sit, sit, sit, sit" over and over. (All new puppy trainers do this, even little ones! Remember Rule 3A: Say it once.) Most puppies of that age would have been jumping around and snatching at the treat and might have nipped her or knocked her down, but Pebbles sat quietly until her little girl finally gave her the treat.

See the benefits of teaching your puppy basic manners?


Susan Gets Native said...

Keep spreading the word, Kath! Too many people think their dogs are people!
I love your instructional posts. They should be required reading for dog adoptions.

Liza Lee Miller said...

Love, love, love your message on puppies! I wish you would move to my town so you could be my vet.

I have always ensured that my puppies have a great relationship with the vet. They always have to be good but they get treats and praise and fun there too. My dogs may dread bathtime but a trip to the vet . . . no big thing -- just another person to meet.

When they are big dogs and need something big done, it's very, very helpful if they aren't stressed out by a visit to the vet's office.

Are you sure you don't want to move to California??? Please???

Anonymous said...

I think that you are giving away a lot of free information that cost you a fortune for your education.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. The very best thing we learned from our breeder was to "practice" with the puppy from day one. Things like spreading her paws and handling her feet made nail triming so much easier. Now we have a terrific dog who totally accepts tooth brushing, paw pad triming, nail triming, ear cleaning, etc. Our veterinarian loves to see her coming.

And it's thanks to people like you (and our breeder) who share such good words of wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Any words of wisdom for people who have adopted year old dogs from the animal shelter, who have come with enough baggage to take an around the world trip? Kathy

Holly said...

Oh thanks! NOW you share this information....after I decided to adopt 2 **adult** shelter dogs!! (j/k!)

Holly said...

Ok, so my girls aren't as good as yours - but I was very proud of them while were on vacation. Not knowing how they would respond to being up there, I was a little apprehensive. It's a kind of easy-living place, boundary lines aren't strictly adhered to, we've known the surrounding camp owners for years. And there are a lot of people coming and going, neighbors, cousins, friends.

Lucy of course barked at everyone and Libby would go racing with her to see what it was but my fears about their reactions to new people were unfounded. For being constantly confronted with new people *everyday*, they were great. I was so relieved. Everyone fell in love with them. Lucy ate it up. But one day I was on the wharf with Lucy and my cousins came over in the boat. Lucy stared at this strange thing approaching by water, barked a few times and wagged nervously. I could read her mind..."Omg, they're coming by sea too? I have to watch EVERY border here!"

I had to laugh.

KatDoc said...

Anon #1: Thanks for your comments. My "education" on dog training didn't come from vet school. We got absolutely ZERO hours of classes on behavior. It comes from 20+ years of being a dog mom, reading books, taking training classes, attending seminars and lectures, and handling a million and one puppies and dogs in the exam room.

Until I write my book (don't all vets have a secret desire to be James Herriot?) I will "give away" my tricks to as many people as possible. If only 1% of them use it, I will have saved any number of dogs and their people, so it is worth it to me.

Anon #2: Yup, handling feet, mouths, and ears are essential. See part 2 of this series for the details. Good breeders give their puppies a basis for learning by handling them every day, and instructing the new owners to continue. Vets LOVE puppies and dogs who have had this training. It makes it so much easier to do our job if we can avoid the stress of a wrestling match.

Kathy & Holly: For adult dogs, especially shelter dogs and those who come with "baggage," my best advice is training classes. Reading books, watching TV shows (where hours of training are compressed into 15 minutes of "magic") and getting on-line advice are no substitute for a good trainer in real life. I suggest a one-on-one session with a trainer, who can evaluate your dog and assess whether you would do better in a group class or if it needs individual help first. Look for a positive, motivational trainer and run if he/she suggests hanging, alpha rolls, or other harsh methods. ("Choker" collars aren't harsh, if used appropriately - NOT for choking - but pinch collars are rarely needed and too easy to abuse, in my opinion.) DO take a training class where you attend with your dog, DON'T send him to doggie boot camp where someone else trains him and sends you back a "finished" dog. 75% of "dog training" is really "owner training," which is a lot harder. A good book to help you understand your adult adoptee is Carol Lea Benjamin's "Second Hand Dog."

Liza & Susan: Thanks for the positive reinforcement. Your blogger is wriggling all over with glee and eager to continue posting, despite chronic dial-up issues.