Our dogs get handled a lot throughout their lifetimes. Luckily for us, most of the handling they get is positive – lots of snuggles, pats, back and belly scratching. Unfortunately, for our dogs, there can also be some not-so-pleasant handling – like by the vet, at the groomer and sometimes even by us. The good news is that we can help prepare our dogs to be more comfortable with not only uncomfortable procedures, but ones that are pretty invasive, as well.

Through the use of operant conditioning, we can start with some basic stationing exercises, such as a sit-stay and build from there. You can do this on the floor, on a mat, like Kelly has done or on a higher surface (because some dogs will need to be stationed on a vet exam or groomer’s table), like I have done. If you think about it, when you are at the vet, being able to keep your dog happily in one spot makes things easier on everyone. Following a freaked-out dog around an exam room is likely to involve causing an even more freaked out dog. Teaching a sit-stay in a specific location and then building in the handling exercises is a really great way to get started.

Kelly and Ace – Sit-Stay for a Vet Exam

Some of the initial areas of focus can be ears, mouth and paws. Kelly is working with Ace on a plan in which she is building duration to the ear touch, muzzle touch and muzzle lift exercises. At the time, he was a new foster with no known experience with this type of handling. In my video with Hazel, I am showing examples of each and have already worked through the initial conditioning. What I have built with Hazel is a nice classical conditioning side effect. Neither dog is showing any fear or desire to leave. This is important.

Lori and Hazel – Body Handling 101

Why is this important? When working with dogs on procedures that may be scary, invasive or just plain unpleasant, we want the “Yippee!” effect that comes with a +CER (positive conditioned emotional response), meaning the dog wants to stick around to do more of the exercises. In Ace’s case, this is all very new to him, but he is voting to stick around. In Hazel’s case, experience has shown her that sticking around means really good things. In all cases, giving the dog the option to vote with their feet is crucial. By voting with their feet, we mean any behavior in which the dog vacates, attempts to escape or pulls away. If this happens, it’s time to drop down to an easier step. The last thing we want is to prove to the dog that he is right to be scared as we are working on this by forcing him through any portion of the exercise.

I think we all know why these exercises are important, but the truth is that many of us overlook them throughout our dogs lives, and just accept that certain things are going to be scary and difficult and we just push our way through them. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Ear exams can become more pleasant, mouth and dental procedures can be not only tolerable, but enjoyable and the dreaded nail trims can become a trauma-free experience for all involved.

When working with Hazel on body handling exercises, I use high value food, such as tripe. I did this because early on, she showed me that she was not comfortable having certain parts of her body touched. The tripe makes it more worth her while, and as you can see, things like the muzzle lift, which many dogs have issues with, are no big deal. She does not attempt to pull her face away nor does she try to leave. Same with ear touches and paw manipulation.  Being able to touch and manipulate your dog’s ears, especially if they are floppy or very furry is important, because these dogs can often have ear infections without us even knowing it, so it’s worth our while to spend some time playing with those ears and rewarding our dogs for allowing us to do so. And, being able to effectively trim our dog’s nails, or having it done by a vet or groomer is extremely important, so starting with some simple touches and manipulating of the toes and nails is a great way to get started.

I have also included conditioning a collar grab in my video. This is an exercise that definitely pays off. We probably all grab our dog’s collar a few times a day without even thinking about it. Sometimes, we may get no reaction, but it’s not uncommon for a dog who is a little anxious, amped-up or reactive to re-direct when their collar is grabbed. Most dogs don’t make contact when this happens, and we can surmise that the intent is merely to convey that “hey, I’m worked up here, and you grabbing me like that startled me.” By actively working on conditioning your dog to having his collar grabbed, we can help to avoid this quick startle response. We may need to grab our dogs if they make a dash for the door, to pull them out of play, if you need to go get your dog and haven’t fully proofed a recall, or even in places like the vet’s office or groomer’s salon.

It’s important to remember that we are using operant conditioning in these videos because the dogs we’re working with are not upset (worried, anxious, fearful, etc.) about being handled. If either of the dogs had issues with body handling, we’d use straight classical conditioning. There would be no behavioral requirement (like holding a sit-stay) for the dog; it would just be a series of parings of “handling predicts high-value food.” We’ll get that as a side effect of the operant conditioning, but we always want to be careful not to pile criteria on an upset dog. It’s best to address the underlying negative emotion before requiring behaviors, no matter how small, in that context.

In upcoming articles, we’ll build on what we have started here and talk about stationing and maintaining a standing position for temperature taking, rectal, prostate and belly prodding at the vet and for grooming procedures. We’ll also talk some more about the importance of helping a dog become comfortable with being restrained.

Us trainers often talk about having “Pavlov on our shoulders”- these exercises are a great example of this statement. When working on building behaviors in situations that we really want, or rather, we need our dogs to like – Dr. Pavlov is a powerful ally to have on our sides!

We need to give credit for the title of this post to our good friend, Jane Sigsworth, who due to a negative experience with her own dog at a veterinarian’s office, recognized the importance of working on these kinds of exercises with her dogs and the value of being prepared!
Thanks, Jane!