Teaching a puppy to calmly accept handling is a big part of puppy training. Puppies go through a critical period of development which ends around the age of 16 weeks. It is believed that they will be more accepting of things they encounter later in life if they are exposed to them during this critical period.
For instance, a dog who has never had its feet handled as a puppy is more likely to growl, snap, or bite when a groomer tries to trim its nails later on. But a dog that is used to being handled is more likely to accept it, even from a stranger.
This doesn't mean that every dog who isn't used to having its feet handled is going to become aggressive when it goes to the groomer. It just increases a dog's chances of being comfortable with handling.
Keep Handling Positive
When you first start doing handling exercises with your puppy, start off gently. Try to pair handling with things the puppy likes, such as praise, treats, and games. With this type of positive reinforcement, your puppy will soon associate things such as being hugged and having its ears examined with things it enjoys.
Start With One Person to Train
To get your puppy comfortable with being handled, you should start by doing the handling exercises yourself. Your puppy is familiar with you and most likely to accept being pet, poked, and prodded by you.
Once your puppy is comfortable with you handling all parts of its body, you can ask other people to help with handling exercises. If the puppy is kept happy and comfortable during handling exercises, it will quickly learn to accept or even enjoy being pet, hugged, and examined by anyone who comes along.
Handling exercises should be done a few times a day for several minutes each time. You may also want to join a puppy training class. These types of training classes, often referred to as puppy kindergarten, usually focus on puppy socialization. Doing a puppy class once a week gives you the opportunity to introduce your puppy to being handled by other people under the supervision of an experienced dog trainer.
Not sure where to start with handling exercises? The following ideas can help make sure you cover all the bases.
Plan to spend 2 or 3 minutes on each touch, and stop if your puppy seems anxious or upset. If you're using clicker training, you may want to click the clicker when the puppy allows you to handle it. Offering a treat when the puppy responds positively to touching also may be effective.
- Stroke and pet the puppy from its head all the way down its back.
- Gently hold each of the puppy's paws. Go slowly, as dogs' paws are sensitive and the puppy may be wary.
- Unfold the puppy's ears, and look inside. It will take more than one session for the puppy to be comfortable with this, so be patient.
- Rub the puppy's belly. This is generally acceptable to most puppies
- Gently tug the puppy's tail. The tail is a sensitive area and the puppy may be protective of its genitals, so don't get too close until it's ready.
- Lift the puppy's muzzle to check its teeth.
- Gently hug the puppy.
- Gently restrain the pup, hugging and holding it still.
Problems and Proofing the Training
The point of puppy handling exercises is to make the puppy comfortable with accepting petting and other types of handling.
If at any point your puppy seems fearful or uncomfortable, you should take a step back. Give your puppy some space and continue handling exercises later, preferably when it approaches you on its own.
Don't force the puppy beyond its comfort zone with strangers. Allow the dog to approach new people on its own schedule.
Always handle puppies gently. If the puppy is hurt during handling exercises, it may always associate being pet or touched in certain places with the pain.
If you do accidentally hurt the puppy, don't make a big deal of it. Instead, continue to gently pet it and give it lots of praise in a happy tone of voice. Coddling the puppy will simply reinforce its fear.