Handling Tolerance: How to Install and Maintain It

Some dogs are snuggle-bugs. Some really are not; they prefer limited touching and a wider “zone”.  Regardless of your dog’s preference, it’s important to install and maintain his appreciation of petting and demonstrations of physical affection.  Too much of a good thing is often de-valued and too much unwelcome attention sets up for avoidance.  Either way, handling tolerance can decrease and result in undesirable behaviors.

Handling as a Trigger for Over-Excitement

When puppies become overly excited by play, movements, noises, and other triggers, our first inclination is to pick them up in an attempt to calm them. While a few dogs are calmed with handling, in most cases, handling the dog results in escalated over arousal behaviors.  These include mouthing and squirming.  For many dogs, physical handling is a trigger.  Grooming can be difficult with the mere presence of a brush:  the dog heads for the hills, tries to bite and play with the grooming tool, or becomes so agitated that brushing is impossible

Collars and harnesses can provoke a handling intolerance, which results in lots of mouthing and restlessness. Unruliness can erupt when we attempt to place equipment on the dog.  Because they are master anticipators, dogs’ arousal levels move above a threshold.  Dogs may jump and engage in mindless behaviors that are not necessarily due to happy feelings for a fun outing.  These behaviors may be a result of the expected discomfort of our placing equipment on and off.

Typical fallout from over handling with puppies, especially, is avoidance.   The puppy will “tell” you that you are over handling her, when she actively avoids proximity to you.  If she darts to you (to snag a treat, for example) and darts away, it is a symptom of over handling.  This tendency is really not helpful in recall training or leash walking.  The dog must have an “it’s all good” mindset when directly beside his owner.  There will be no unwelcome handling or pick up.

You can stop setting your dog up for over arousal when he’s petted and handled. There should be NO teeth on skin or clothing. Petting doesn’t need to be a long event.  Keep it brief.  Pet the dog on his chest, under his chin, or along the side of his body.  Handling around the dog’s head seems to be the most likely trigger area.  Ask something of him to obtain physical attention.  If you want to deliver a belly rub, call your dog to you and ask her to lie “down”.   At the first sign of mouthing, withdraw your hands, stand up, and ask a learned cue of your dog to change up the relationship.  Mouthing is his way of communicating, “that is enough”. Respect it.

De-Sensitize for Acceptance

De-sensitization can change your dog’s association and perception of handling that he finds unpleasant. Whether toenail-clipping or, simply, drying your dog’s feet after a rainy walk, dogs inherently don’t like their feet handled.  Blame evolution.  It’s hard to survive without working feet.  All dogs need an occasional ear cleaning.  Ticks lodge there, too.  There are situations when you must have a look in your dog’s mouth.  Cleaning his teeth with a toothbrush or swatch of gauze is recommended by most vets.  Checking gum color in a senior dog is part of a health routine, too.

Meet and greeters often pat dogs on the tops of their heads. It seems natural to us somehow, but actually, doesn’t feel great for dogs.  (Try it on yourself…..)  Dogs tell us this when they seem to bat their eyes and/or lower their heads with each pat.  It’s a combination of an unfamiliar person, an uncomfortable touch, and a strange hand where it isn’t clearly visible.  No wonder it turns into a jumping meet and greet.  De-sensitize your dog to the head pat.  Better still, advocate for your dog and ask greeters to calmly and briefly pat him on his chest or along the side of his body.

A de-sensitizing plan pairs a fabulous reward with unpleasant handling. Pick up your dog’s foot and give him a treat.  Do the same with all four feet and try it using a hand towel. Flip over your dog’s ear.  Rub her ear briefly while feeding her a treat.  Lift up her lip and give her a treat.  Place a toothbrush or gauze on one or two teeth and give her a treat.  Yes, there’s a pattern here.  Get the brush out and give your dog a treat without grooming her at that moment.   Start to erode the relevance of that object before teaching him that brushing can be enjoyable.  Give your dog a small, crunchy cookie while you place his collar or harness on.  You buy a few moments to snap equipment together, while your dog stops obsessing about the handling and learns to tolerate it.   The greater your dog’s distaste for the handling, the higher the reward value must be.  If necessary, use chicken, baked liverwurst, hot dogs, or cheese to de-sensitize.

As your dog learns to tolerate all manner of handling, give the treat after the feet are dry or the ears cleaned. At this point, you are rewarding good behavior.  Life is easier for you and your dog.  The vet and groomer will appreciate your efforts, too.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2016 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC