Teaching Your Dog to Accept Contact

James Herriot once wrote that dogs always get sick at inconvenient times. And so a cold windy Saturday morning was just the right time for one of mine to get hurt and like any concerned dog parents we weren’t taking any chances. So we carried our 30 kg baby (who refused to walk and was whining as if her world was ending) into the car and drove off.

Upon our arrival, she didn’t need to get carried anymore, she had miraculously healed. Funny how just seeing the vet makes even the sickest dog healthy.

While we waited she continued improving to the point where she tried to chase one of the clinic’s cats and by the time it was our turn we had a perfectly healthy dog.

During the initial check over and despite the veterinarian’s pulling/prodding and pushing our dog ignored the vet completely. Fortunately most veterinarians recognize that some dogs hide their pain as part of a survival instinct. So she went over the entire checkup again while we scrutinized her closely for any signs of discomfort. She suddenly found the spot. The sudden slight intake of breath and ear twitch was all that indicated to us that she was feeling some discomfort. But the vet herself had missed this and was still unsure about the prognosis, so she brought in an additional vet to check our dog over again (this happened 3 times) until the third vet saw the signs too and confirmed that she had a slipped disc.

It reminded me that owners need to trust their instinct with regards to their dogs. Dogs don’t always show us that they are sick and we need to know how to identify the small things. While at home her pain was obvious, outside she acted as alertly and energetically as always. You have to trust your vet. Any vet could have easily overlooked that ear twitch, decided nothing was wrong and discharged the dog. Of course this works both ways, your vet has to be attentive enough to listen to you and not let their professional opinions or ego get in the way of assessing the dog properly or asking for a second opinion.

So what does this have to do with training?

Well everything actually.

Teaching Your Dog to Accept Contact

Teach Your Dog How to Behave at The Vet

The more stressed a dog is -> the less likely they are to show their pain -> the higher the risk that they will bite. Teaching dogs to accept contact and behave at the vet is a process that begins as soon as you get your dog. Exposure to the vet and veterinary waiting room is crucial.

It is a high stress environment and the sooner the dog learns to associate it with good things the better. Start of by taking your dog for walks past the vet’s office. Play with him there, let him meet dogs and people coming in and out of the vet (be sure to ask – you don’t want your dog picking up any nasty infections from other dogs. Also, as mentioned, most dogs are stressed at the vet and could be less patient and more aggressive with other dogs).

The next step is sitting in the waiting room and feeding treats while keeping your dog occupied, relaxed and happy – perhaps bring your dog’s favorite bone, give it to them there and leave once they have finished it. And when you think your dog is ready, schedule a checkup. At this checkup ask your vet to feel your pet over and feed him some treats. Nothing should happen to stress, scare or hurt your dog. Try to get your dog to meet the vet as much as possible without actually having to undergo any procedure.

Realistically, most people won’t have the time to do this procedure as much as is necessary to genuinely get the dog to associate the vet with fun. But it’s worthwhile to try it at least once. In parallel, to ease our dog into this process, we can start working with them at home and getting them used to being handled.

All training starts at home. When your new pet arrives get him used to being touched. Slowly. With puppies this usually happens naturally while you play and interact. With older dogs (especially those who have been previously mistreated) the process is longer and requires paying close attention to the dog’s body language. That isn’t to say that puppies are exempt. Puppies need to learn to accept handling even if they don’t much like it. It is important to build trust so that you will be able to handle your dog in emergencies. Trust is something that is built and the sooner you start working on it the better.

Things You Should be Able to Do and Why

  • Run your hand over your dog’s back – petting / vet check over, grooming
  • Run your hand over his tummy – petting / vet check over
  • Run your hand over his head – petting / vet check over
  • Feel down his legs / paws – checking for injury, grooming
  • Open his mouth, look at his teeth, press on the gums – administer meds, brush teeth, pull something out of the dogs mouth if he is choking
  • Look in his eyes – eye drops / cleaning tear stain
  • Look inside his ears – clean ears
  • Touch between his paws – remove thorns, mud, hair knots
  • Touch his nails – trim nails
  • Lift and pull on tail – emptying anal sacs / grooming
  • Lift his back legs – general, checking for injury
  • Scratch inside his fur – remove ticks, checking for injury, grooming

When starting off, do only one or two of these at a time. Make sure to talk in a soothing voice with lots of praise, and feed lots of treats after every part of this interaction. Work your way through the list slowly. Starting with what your pet likes the most and working your way through to what he likes the least. When working on the parts he doesn’t like, spend only a few seconds touching that spot. Stop and feed. Slowly increase the time spent on each part of the body and the pressure applied.

If at any stage your dog shows discomfort, pulls away, turns around to look at you suspiciously or cowers – stop the exercise. Next time start with just putting your hand close to the problematic area.

For The Most Nervous Dogs:

  • Do not force any interaction on a dog who you are not familiar with and does not want that contact
  • Wait for the dog to initiate contact (if he doesn’t then clicker train the dog his name as was in my first article “the benefits of clicker training“. This will start the process of wanting attention)
  • Once the dog has initiated contact move slowly. Before you try to touch any part of a strange dog’s body put your hand above the area you want to touch and move your hand away, if the dog doesn’t react, you can proceed and try to touch him.
  • Find what he likes and start every training session with that specific contact
  • Don’t push the dog into accepting contact or he will associate the actions that he likes with an outcome that he doesn’t and will start to dislike all contact.
  • Feed lots of treats after every attempted contact – even if it wasn’t successful

Childproof DogHandling is important for many reasons (only a few are listed above) to administer first aid or medication, enable a vet to check your dog over safely, to build your dog’s trust, or to childproof a dog (note that there is no such thing as a childproof dog – only one who has been exposed to children and their possible actions). This should also be done by other members of the family and people in general.

Each dog is an individual so some will like some things and hates others. There is no hierarchy of importance. The idea is to get your dogs used to being handled.

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