Handling and gentling your puppy

One of the great benefits of volunteering at a shelter like Animal Haven in NYC is having the opportunity to foster young puppies and play a part in their development. I am currently fostering an eight-week-old Chihuahua mix puppy named Edna. To look at her is to love her. She weighs all of two pounds, is a beautiful shade of light cream, and has adorable ears that fold over at the tip.

It is no surprise that it is tempting to scoop Efdna up, snuggle her into your arms, and give her a heaping dose of kisses. Unfortunately, doing so is likely to result in a chirping growl and bared teeth that is at once funny (who would have thought such a tiny creature could look and sound so menacing?) and on the other hand extremely disconcerting. To say that Edna has handling issues is putting it mildly.

While Edna’s diminutive stature and adorableness make her highly adoptable (especially in NYC where smaller dogs are often preferred), as it stands, she is also highly likely to be returned to the shelter in a few months time. Even people with the best of intentions, are unprepared for the shock of a baby animal they adore and want to shower with human expressions of love responding with growls, snarls, and snaps.

Even if this is somewhat tolerated during puppyhood, once the dog reaches adolescence or adulthood, the canine/human relationship will surely head into rapid decline as the dog becomes increasingly menacing. Edna is on the fast track to becoming just such a dog. So, she has become a temporary member of my family in an effort to help her develop a better emotional response to the ways of people.

The first four months of a pup’s life play an especially critical role in how they perceive and respond to future experiences. This is often referred to as the Critical Socialization Period. But, I also like to call it the Critical Canine Life Skills Period. Intolerance of human touch not only makes veterinary exams and grooming visits traumatic for all but, makes daily life a sort of mine field. People must pause to consider the ramifications of putting on the dog’s leash, picking her up to move from one spot to another, and even touching just for the fun of it.

Much can be said about how it is better to give than to receive, but when the giving of affection is met with an aggressive response, it is about as gratifying as a trip to the dentist. No offense to any dentists.

While most pet parents would probably rank housetraining as their highest priority, in fact, this top spot should be given to socialization and habituation. Particularly to the area of handling and gentling exercises that set the foundation for what a pup feels about human touch.

So, for the next couple of weeks, Edna and I will be working as a team to make this part of her future something she enjoys. Doing so will set the foundation for her adoption success, as the goal of every shelter is to find each dog a forever home. An initial surrender to a shelter is bad enough, but a second go around dramatically decreases the odds of a dog ever finding a permanent, loving home. A fate that should be avoided at all costs for every dog.

Whether you have a puppy who is sounding the handling issue alarm loud and clear, like Edna, or who is seemingly mild mannered and accepting of all things human, the handling games should begin as soon as the pup enters your home. Behavior is a constantly changing thing, especially during critical developmental periods such as from puppyhood to adolescence. So, even the most mild-mannered pup may begin to be less tolerant of handling without an adequate education in this area of their necessary life skills.

To begin, I have planned for Edna to be on a puppy sized version of the Learn to Earn program. Each and every thing she wants will be used as leverage to improve her acceptance of handling. While some might be concerned that a dog, especially a young pup, shouldn’t be expected to do much (if anything) to get the things they want and need, this is a mindset that is to the detriment of their long-term survival.

The Learn to Earn program is not about withholding things from your dog. Rather, about controlling their access to valued resources (such as food, water, toys and access to the environment) to use as leverage to help them learn. Gently touching a pup’s ear just prior to giving them a bit of their meal, or gently manipulating their paws as they play with a favored chew toy is what this program is about. As the pup makes advances in their manners skills (i.e. sitting, lying down, and hand targeting on cue) these can be incorporated into the list of ways a pup can say ‘please’ in order to have access to what they want.

All pups deserve an approach that is gradual in nature, but especially for a pup such as Edna who is ringing a loud and clear alarm bell that she considers human touch is a far from pleasant experience.

To begin, focus on areas of handling that are least likely to evoke a negative response. For most pups the least sensitive areas are flank and chest. The most sensitive are ears, neck, and paws. To follow are some tips for the beginning stages of a handling and gentling plan:

·Start at meal times (so food has greater leverage).

·Use your dog’s normal meal and some high value food rewards that are chopped into tiny pieces (these will be used as ‘jackpot’ rewards for especially calm responses to being touched). You can also use a white sterilized bone stuffed with moist food to allow your dog to lick from.

·Set your pup up in a comfortable spot. Sitting on the floor with a dog bed or folded towel is a good option.

·Start by gently touching one part of your puppy’s body while you offer a tiny treat or let him lick from a food stuffed toy.

·Provide plenty of repetitions in three to five minute sessions throughout the day.

·Begin practicing with potentially more sensitive areas such as head, paws and tail once your pup is calmly accepting being touched elsewhere.

·Gradually introduce a very brief pause in between the touch and the offering of the food or food stuffed toy so your pup begins to anticipate a touch means something they value is forthcoming.

By feeding your dog while they are being handled in this gentle manner, you are building a strong association between physical contact and food. Focus on these beginning steps until your pup is looking to you with calm anticipation for the next touch. At this point you can progress to more advanced handling exercises.

Andrea Arden is an animal behavior counselor, rescuer, author, speaker, and a resident pet expert on the Today Show. For more information, check out her website, AndreaArden.comor read all Project Puppy installments.