Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Puppy Handling Exercises, part 2

Continuing on with our basic handling of our puppy:

Now that we have him sitting quietly on our mock exam table, it's time to start introducing our puppy to being handled all over. Touch your puppy everywhere (yes, even on his "private parts.") Lightly comb or brush him. Tug on his tail, pull his ears, rough up his coat, mess with his face and his nose and every other part of him. Some day, somewhere, somebody is going to touch your dog in the "wrong" way. Won't you be happy when your well-mannered dog just looks quizzically at you as if to say, "Mom, why in the world did that kid poke me in the eye?" It's much better than explaining, "Well, he bit because he doesn't like his (face, feet, tail, etc.) touched. Sorry."

I especially want you to focus on the "Big Three" places - areas that no dog likes being touched and at the same time areas we often have to work with. The taboo body parts for dogs are: their ears, their mouths, and their feet. Don't wait till your dog has a bone wedged between her upper teeth to try to get into her mouth. The first time you mess with her ears shouldn't be when she has a painful infection. And trimming toenails - Code Red for most dogs. But, if you get your puppy accustomed to having these areas touched in a non-threatening way, it makes it so much easier for you to medicate, clean, trim, or treat these sensitive spots.

With your puppy sitting as previously shown, flip the ear flaps up so you can see the opening. (if you have a dog with upright ears, like a Husky or Shepherd, this doesn't apply to you. Your pup's ears are already up.) Lightly touch the ear openings with your finger tips and wipe them with a dry cotton ball, tissue or gauze sponge.

There are two goals here: First, to get you used to what is normal for your dog's ears. Healthy ears should be clean and pink, with no odor, discharge, redness or pain. Second, to get your puppy used to having somebody fooling with her ears. If she does well, praise and treat. Otherwise, SAY NOTHING.

Next, the mouth. It is very difficult for a puppy to understand why we can touch their mouths, but their mouths can't touch us. Still, we must be able to get into our dog's mouths, so they need to learn the difference right away. Not only must we medicate our dogs, we should be brushing their teeth (yeah, I know - I don't do it regularly either. But, I have good intentions, and my dogs will let me do it, when I remember.) They should even allow strangers, like veterinarians and kennel employees, in their mouths, because sometimes there is an emergency. My favorite illustration of this involves one of my own dogs.

Gracie was at a doggy day care one hot day. They had wading pools set up and hoses with running water. Grace got so excited, snapping at the water and grabbing and shaking the hose, that she bit her own tongue, hard enough to draw blood. Because I had taught her to allow people to handle her mouth, the staff was able to grab her tongue and put pressure on the spot until
the bleeding stopped. They told me about it at the end of the day, and I was both proud of her, and glad I didn't have to leave work in the middle of the day to pick her up. (So much for the vicious Rottweiler rumor!)

To get a puppy used to having her mouth handled, start with her in the basic Sit position. Lightly touch her lips, running your fingers from the tip of her nose back towards her eyes. (Don't go the opposite direction; it bends the whiskers the wrong way, which is annoying.)

If she nips at you, tell her "No" or "No Bite." Use one or two words only (Rule 3, Dogs don't speak English,) say it once (Rule 3A), use a stern, Mom-dog tone (remember paralanguage in Rule 4) without being loud (Rule 3C,) say it quickly (Rule 9, Timing is everything) and as soon as she stops biting, praise her with a "Good puppy!" (Rule 7 - Praise more than you correct, and Rule 9 - Timing.)

Go back and do it again. If she nips again, repeat above process (Rule 10 - Consistency.) If she struggles, squirms, or tries to get away, return to the previous lesson on collar pressure and self-control. If this turns from a lesson on handling into a power struggle, stop. DON'T coddle her ("Oh, poor puppy! I'm so sorry, I won't do that again." Paralanguage, remember? Whining makes you weak.) DON'T reward the puppy with treats or playtime. Put her in her crate or bed, and let her settle down. Maybe she's tired or cranky, maybe she is teething, or maybe she isn't ready for this lesson. You don't have to win every battle, sometimes a draw is the best you can expect. Try again tomorrow.

Once she is comfortable with that step, proceed by lifting up her lip, just enough to expose her canine ("fang") tooth. Repeat on both sides and stop. Praise and treat. Correct nipping behavior as above. Stop before she gets fussy, when you can end on a positive note.

Repeat daily till you can do this easily, then move on to lifting the lips along the length of the mouth, exposing all the teeth. Praise and treat.

(Notice no one is holding my model still.
He has learned the self-control needed to accept
that people sometimes do crazy things.)

Small steps are the key here, don't push her too far too fast. It is human nature to want to get through all the steps at once, to get to the end. We humans are goal-oriented, but the point here is the journey, not the destination. You don't win any prizes if you can open your dog's mouth faster than the next person.

Finally, we are going to open puppy's mouth. DON'T do this by grabbing the tip of her nose and the bottom of her jaw and prying her mouth open. The end of a dog's nose is sensitive.


Instead, use your thumb and finger tips BEHIND the canine ("fang") teeth, avoiding the tip of the nose, and she will practically open her mouth for you with very little effort on your part. Eventually, you can open her mouth wide. Praise, praise, praise - this is a really hard thing for a puppy to tolerate.

Good Dog!

Feet. I know, you were all hoping I would skip this part, but believe me, it is the most important bit. I don't know a dog in this world who likes having his toenails trimmed, but we can at least make it tolerable for him by handling his feet A LOT. Every time I put my hands on a young puppy, I touch one or more of his feet. During our handling exercises, we will be a little more formal. Hold every one of his feet, one at a time. If he pulls back or nips your hands, correct him (gently, we don't want to make him fearful) and HOLD ON until he relaxes. SAY NOTHING. (Are you sensing a theme here?)

Hold firmly, but don't pinch. Massage each foot. Play with his toes, spreading them apart. Wipe his feet with a rag or paper towel, as if you were wiping off the mud or salt from his paws.

Rub his feet with a pair of toenail trimmers or something similar, in preparation for trimming his nails (But, DON'T trim them yet.)

Why do I keep repeating SAY NOTHING during handling? Talking to a puppy is distracting, not productive, and at worst, may be self-defeating. If you are anxious or stressed, you will communicate your unease through your voice. Tension results in a tight, higher pitched voice which says to the puppy "Worry. Fear. Stress." (Paralanguage again.) Remember Rule 2, Dogs are physical, not verbal. Let your hands talk to him. He will learn better. Save your words for your praise at the end of each step.

I thought I had a unique thing going with my handling exercises until I read this book, "A Dog in Hand, A Guide to Hands-on Puppy Parenting." It turns out, someone else had the same idea I did - to help clients help their puppies through physical handling.

It is by Dr. George Gates, a veterinarian who came to the same conclusions I did, and who uses very similar methods to teach puppies (and their owners) exam room manners. It doesn't have the "zing!" of a certain high profile and flamboyant popular TV dog trainer's book, but I think it is a lot more practical. I highly recommend it if you want more information on puppy handling.

Final word: These exercises are for puppies of 2 to 4 months old only. DON'T try this with adult dogs who already have phobias about being touched. Seriously. I'm not kidding about this.


Holly said...

What? No model credits this time? ;)

CKC spaniel, yes?

Speaking of massage and pets, I used to practice on Rascal last summer, before I was in practice. Especially around her joints, hip and shoulder, where she was getting stiff. She just melted into a great big puddle of labrador. One of Robbie's friends came in one day while I was doing this and said "LOOK at that dog! She's SMILING!"

I think it made a big difference in her mobility those last few months.

LauraHinNJ said...

The only time my old dog Buddy ever showed his teeth to anyone was once when the vet shined that light in his eyes! Quite a surprise coming from an 8 year old dog who was often at the vet.

You offer good advice and I'm taking it all to heart. Wish my vet were as forthcoming with advice on behavioral issues.

I did basic obedience with my old dog, but I think he was too young and headstrong at the time. We had much better success when he was a bit older and we had bonded more. Does that make sense?

I'd love your opinion on something. I'm in puppy classes with my new pup. My main goal at this stage is socializing him with other dogs (he's just 10 weeks) and having fun. There's only 2 other dogs in our class - one is 5 months and the other is 16 months (but recently adopted from a shelter).

I feel like he might be best in a class with other pups his age and am thinking about switching into a different class. Do you think it's important that he be socialized with other pups or is it okay that he's with older dogs that are at a different level than he is?

KatDoc said...


Definitely get your puppy into another class, ASAP. The differences between a 10 week old puppy and a 16 month old dog are enormous, especially if the pup is of a smaller breed and the adult dog is larger. Even a 5 month old Boxer might not be compatible with a 10 week old toy breed - what kind of puppy do you have?

Little ones need a "puppy kindergarten," sometimes called "puppy manners" class that involves socialization with other puppies and all kinds of people, handling (as I have been discussing,) and "low impact" obedience. These classes are usually for puppies 3 to 5 months old and last 4 to 6 weeks, instead of the typical 8 weeks of a standard class.

In one of my puppy classes, we played "Pass the puppy," where we all sat in a circle and handled our puppy, then passed the puppy to the left and handled each other's puppies. There were 8 or 10 puppies in the class, and some puppies had more than one person with them, so by the end of the exercise every puppy had been exposed to a lot of different people with different ways of holding a puppy. Very useful!

By "low impact" obedience, I mean methods of teaching sit, stand, down, and heel that don't involve walking around a ring with your puppy dragging on the end of a leash, but sitting on the floor and using treats to guide him into position.

This process will be the next in my puppy series, so hold on - it's coming.

About your former dog: I don't know what age you started him in obedience the first time around, but: (a) He might have been too young, (b) He might have been too old (that is, in his rebellious "teenager" phase) or (c) He might have needed more bonding time with you. There are lots of reasons why training didn't work too well one time, but better another.


My post had already gotten over-long and I was tired. The same doggy is my model for the next series, and I will give him his credit then, but yes, you are right, he is a Cav.


Anonymous said...

I have no problem opening my dog's mouth. Which is a good thing, because she picks up everything you can, pine cones, clumps of dirt. She comes to me with a certain look and I can tell she has something in her mouth. She seems to think "drop it" means, "dad's going to open my mouth and stick his fingers in it again."

Julie Zickefoose said...

Katdoc, what a post. You're putting your heart and soul into these and it shows. And on dialup, no less. Thank you. I'm forwarding this link to someone who recently bought Chet's half-sister. I think it'll be very useful as she is (no surprise) a pistol!
Go drink some wine. You're working too hard. This ought to be a book.
Lovely Cavalier! Those domed heads get me every time.

Anonymous said...

Julie has a great idea...why don't you write a book? (The wine is also a good idea.) We will all send pictures of our darling dogs to illustrated the various topics. Julie and Chet Baker can do the "pulling on the leash" ones.

LauraHinNJ said...

Hi Kathi:

Thanks for your ideas! The new pup is a Lab - pics are on my blog if you'd like a look-see!

I'm working on trying to switch classes. The other dogs in the class are a 5 month old Lab (nice) and the 16 month old is a Bijon, I think. My pup is bigger than her and already too rambunctious for there to be comfortable interactions, IMO.

This puppy class is more low-impact than what I did with my former dog. I like that! I had started him at about six months, but he was a Lab also, and six months is young for a Lab, IMO. I wasn't really comfortable with the methods either, but didn't know any better at the time. When at the end of the class they recommended a prong collar for him I left without looking back. A shame really, because he came to be quite good at obedience (in controlled situations!) That Halti collar was the key, but they never recommended it.

We're in a class at Petsmart now for puppy training. I like that they focus on positive training, but mostly I want to get socialized with other dogs and people.

RuthieJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KatDoc said...

Prong collars aren't evil (even though they look it to me) and do have their place, I suppose, but too many trainers jump to them too quickly, I think. In one series of obedience classes I took with Holly, the trainer told me I could get a "faster" response if I used a prong collar. My dog already sat quickly, I thought, I didn't really need warp speed. I refused to use the prong collar. (Their logo, oddly enough, was a shain-type training collar encircling their name.) Prong collars are illegal in competitive obedience, and I have seen many people take off the prong collar outside the ring, switching it for a chain-type collar for the class, then switching back. Too funny!

Not enough trainers use Gentle Leaders or Halti brand head halters, I think. They can be invaluable for pulling dogs, at least, those with noses.

Zick and Anon: Yeah, the book idea has been simmering on the back burner for years. None of my stuff is original, though, it is an amalgamation of many other people's ideas. Maybe some day... Thanks for the positive reinforcement, though. You don't happen to have a liver treat in your pocket, do you? Or M&M'S?