Husbandry refers to the routine, sometimes daily tasks, that our dogs need to have done to ensure they are living healthy and happy lives. This not only includes activities that you may do at home, such as brushing, bathing, giving medications, trimming nails, cleaning teeth and eyes, but also veterinary and grooming visits. All puppies, and dogs, ultimately will need to be touched by humans throughout their lives… so it’s best to start early with these puppy handling exercises so that they are accustomed to… and accepting of… human touch.
Teaching your puppy to accept handling and touch can be the difference between a puppy who bites your hand each time you try to brush their teeth, and a puppy that is open to, and happy, to have their teeth brushed because there have been positive associations created.
We generally expect puppies to enjoy being touched simply because they are dogs. Sure, dogs are social beings but that doesn’t mean that they just have to accept our touch no matter from whom, for how long, or any time it happens. Assuming that dogs should just accept our touch or handling doesn’t always end well.
Sadly, there are a lot of puppies who miss out on the normal part of socialization where they learn to accept handling… or, they have been handled the wrong way and at the wrong times. This easily creates a puppy/dog that is intolerant, and potentially even aggressive, when it comes to being handled. That’s not good for us… nor is it good for them.
The best option is to always begin early, with puppies, and make human touch a pleasant experience right from the start… which also means we don’t need to fix problems that could have been prevented.
ROLE OF THE BREEDER
Ideally, handling is part of the puppy socialization process that begins with the breeder, well before a new puppy is welcomed into their new homes at 8 to 10 weeks old.
A reputable breeder will start getting your puppy accustomed to being handled, appropriately, from an early age… helping them get used to being handled and touched by humans. This is only one small reason why it’s so important to get your puppy from a responsible breeder. The work that the breeder puts into handling the puppy will help prepare them for when they go to their new homes.
Unfortunately, not all puppies come from responsible breeders… and worse than that, some actually come from puppy mills. This can pose some real challenges, not only with handling, but with potty training and socialization in general.
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Though your road might be a little longer if your puppy hasn’t come from a reputable breeder these body handling exercises will go a long way toward building positive associations with human touch. If at any time, during these exercises, your puppy shows aggression toward you it is recommended that you contact a professional dog trainer to work with.
Puppy handling exercises
It’s important to understand the basics behind these exercises and know what to do if your puppy seems to be getting frustrated.
These types of exercises are based on two behavior modification techniques: Desensitization and Counterconditioning (DS/CC). Desensitization is a technique that which will introduce your puppy to human touch in a gradual method and at your puppy’s pace. Counterconditioning works to create positive associations for your puppy with regards to being touched. The end goal of this process will be that hopefully your puppy will look forward to touch and handling because it has lead to good outcomes for them.
Remember… and this important… you need to work at your puppy’s pace. You have to be paying attention to their body language and watching for signs of stress so that they are not sent over threshold. Being over threshold is more or less the point at which things start to deteriorate or go “downhill”…. and you don’t want that! If you reach a point where your puppy is showing signs of being frustrated, or uncomfortable with what is happening, stop! Make a note of where you were in the process however as this is still considered a step toward reaching your ultimate goal. When you do start this process next time, take a couple of steps back from where you were and gradually work back to that same point with your puppy. When you reach this same point again, see if your puppy is better to handle it… if so, you can begin to move forward again toward your end goal while always watching for signs that your puppy is becoming uncomfortable or frustrated. Continue until you can touch your puppy with little or no negative reaction from them. This is your puppy now exhibiting, what is called, a conditioned emotional response (CER). Yes, I know… this is all the “sciency” stuff!
Generally, practice these exercises for a couple of minutes at a time. Don’t over do it. But feel free to do this a couple of time a day… along with other training… every day. Make it fun for you… and your puppy!
Let’s get to the exercises:
1. paws / nails
Begin by touching one of your puppy’s paws and feeding your puppy a treat while also giving them verbal praise… then do the same with their other paws. Repeat this process several times. Once you are able to do this without a negative reaction from your puppy, do the same process while gently holding your puppy’s paw in your hand, give them praise and a treat and let go of their paw. Continue the same process with the other paws. Repeat these steps several times. Once your puppy is very comfortable having their paws gently held, start to briefly touch their toenails, one by one… as before, giving praise and treats as you are doing so. Again, repeat this process several times.
Giving praise and feeding treats while you are doing these activities is what creates positive associations… they are learning that when you touch their paws, toes, etc… good things happen… i.e. they get yummy treats!
Once they are comfortable with these steps, next you will add something touching their toenails… this is in an effort to have them learn that an object touching their nails can be a positive event. Ultimately, this will help when it comes time to trim their nails. If you have nail clippers… great!… if not, you can use something like a metal spoon from your utensil drawer.
Place the clippers, or object that you are using to touch their nails behind your back. Bring it out from behind your back, letting your puppy see it and have the ability to examine it. Each time they look at, sniff, approach or touch the object, praise them and give them a treat…. and when your puppy is done eating the treat, place the clippers or object behind your back again. Do this process several times until your puppy actually seems pleased to see the clippers/object. In your puppy’s mind they are thinking nail clippers = good things (treats, praise, etc).
Going forward, I will explain this with the use of nail clippers, but you would do the same process the other object as well. Begin by gently holding your puppy’s paw (which they should be comfortable with if you have gone through the steps above) and gently touch each nail with the nail clipper… but only touching… we aren’t clipping nails at this point. As you touch their nail with the clipper give your puppy praise and a treat. Then, if you haven’t already guessed it… repeat this process several times… with their other nails – front and back feet. Remember, we are building positive associations by doing the activity (touching their paws/nails) and providing praise and treats. For the record… this same process works for anything new – object, person, situation – that you decide to introduce to your puppy.
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If you happen to want to use a nail grinder with your puppy when doing their nails, you would use the same procedure. To break it down it would look something like this: place the nail grinder behind your back – just like it was explained with the nail clippers – and let your puppy explore the grinder with it turned off. Each time they look at, sniff, approach or touch the nail grinder you would give them praise and a treat. Once they are done eating the treat, place the grinder behind your back again. Do this process several times.
Once they seem comfortable with the nail grinder you can, with it turned off, touch each nail with the grinder… again, with each touch you would provide praise and a treat. Repeat this process several times. Once your puppy seems comfortable you can hold the nail grinder and turn it on low speed so that your puppy can get used to the sound and while it is turned on provide praise and a treat. When your puppy is done eating the treat, turn the nail grinder off. Do this process several times.
When it comes time to use the nail grinder on your puppy’s nails always remember to use a very light touch… and alway follow up with praise and a treat.
It’s important that your puppy is comfortable with having their mouth handled so that you are able to do such tasks as examining and brushing their teeth… which is a vital part of keeping your puppy healthy now and as they grow into an adult.
To begin, start by simply touching your puppy’s lip, then give praise and a treat. Do this step several times until your puppy is very comfortable with your touch. Like we have done previously, with having their paws touched, once your puppy is comfortable with this step we need to raise the criteria… which simply means we are going to “take this to a new level”. This time, let’s progress to gently lifting the corner of your puppy’s lip to expose a tooth… provide praise and a treat. Do the same on the other side of their mouth. Once again, complete this step several times until your puppy seems comfortable with your touch. When you are ready to progress do the same process, on both sides, but this time expose more teeth while remember to provide praise and treats.
Continue this exercise until your puppy is eager to have their mouth examined. Once you get to this point you can work your way up to being able to use a tooth brush on their teeth… and then opening their mouth for either veterinary exams or having to give medications.
Depending on the breed of dog you have, some will need to tolerate having their ears touched or handled much more than others, so it’s a good idea to start getting them used to ear handling at a young age. No matter what, there’s a pretty good chance that, at some point, you’re going to need to at least clean, if not put drops in, your puppy’s ears as they grow into adults.
If your puppy is already comfortable with you approaching and gently touching their ears go to the next step (see next paragraph). Otherwise, begin this handling exercise by slowly moving your hand toward one of your puppy’s ears – without touching – while feeding them a treat with the other hand. Do this several times with each ear. Look for your puppy to be reacting with happy anticipation.
Once your puppy is fine with you approaching to touch their ear it’s time to actually, very lightly, touch their ear while feeding them a treat and giving them praise. Repeat this step several times with both ears…. touch ear/praise and treat.
Once they are comfortable with this, practice gently holding their ear for about 1 second while providing praise and treats. Practice this with both ears, gradually increasing the amount of time that you can gently hold their ear up to about 10 seconds. Remember each time you do this to offer praise and a treat. When they are very comfortable with you holding their ear, gently, you can move to manipulating the ear a little bit… for example: fold it back so that you can see the inside as if you were to examine or clean it. Make sure that you are practicing this with both ears. Go slowly… this could take a few days for your puppy to get used to having their ears handled… and if their ears are sensitive, it could be longer.
Always remember… patience… and workin at your puppy’s pace.
Some dogs love to be brushed without any effort at all… and others… it takes a little more work. Some may not want to have a brush… which may be seen as an unfamiliar object… near them, let alone touch them. But, in the end, all dogs will need to be brushed – at least on some level – to maintain a healthy coat and skin. It is always best to start early with your puppy and make brushing both relaxing and enjoyable… for you and your puppy.
For this, let’s go with this step-by-step approach: so that your puppy is comfortable with the brush it is best to start with creating a positive association with it from the beginning. Place the brush behind your back so that your puppy can’t see it. Then bring the brush out from behind your back so that your puppy can check it out. Each time your puppy approaches, sniffs or touches the brush, praise them and give them a treat… placing the brush behind your back again. Once your puppy is done eating the treat bring the brush back out from behind your back again, doing the same process. The concept here is that treats only happen when the brush comes out!
Once your puppy seems comfortable with the brush you can then gently place – not brushing – the brush on his back or side… praise then treat. Repeat several times, touch/praise & treat, until your puppy looks forward to being touched with the brush.
Next you can begin to do a small, light stroke with the brush and feed them a treat. Once your puppy is done eating, stop brushing. Then do the same process again… light brush stroke, feed a treat, and when your puppy is done eating, stop brushing. Do this several times more. Change the area that you are brushing and with each brush provide treats. When changing areas that you are brushing be careful around the tail as this is an area that many puppies and dogs struggle with. This process is creating a positive association for your puppy when it comes to being brushed.
Again, always move through these exercises at your puppy’s pace. It is much easier to go slowly now and create a positive experience than have to fix a negative association later down the road.
Have fun with your puppy as this time goes by so quickly. While you’re here, be sure to download our FREE Puppy Socialization Checklist and include socialization outings with your puppy a few times each week. Proper socialization plays a big role in ensuring your puppy grows into a well-adjusted, happy companion for you and your family.