Updated: Sep 30, 2021
In my first blogpost, I talked about the importance of beginning proper and safe socialization training as soon as your puppy comes home. In this post, I want to dive a bit more deeply into one particular aspect of socialization training that is often overlooked, but exceedingly critical: body handling. It is very common for dogs to be uncomfortable with being touched, grabbed, poked, pulled, and/or restrained. Some dogs will tolerate it and give signals that go unnoticed. But these signs, subtle as they may be, indicate that the dog is uncomfortable with what you are doing. Other dogs may be much more overt and direct with their communication to us about their discomfort.
When Fido avoids being touched by us, our first instinct may be to think that he is being stubborn. But I’m here to reassure you that this behaviour almost always is motivated by fear. Okay, there might be one exception. If your dog has come to learn that the only time you reach for his collar is when you’re going to leave the dog park, he has likely learned that your collar grab predicts leaving the fun park and that’s no fun. So his best bet is to dodge, duck, dip, dive, and… dodge! 😉
But back to the likely cause – fear. Animals are programmed genetically to fear all that has not been consistently proven to be safe based on experience. It all comes down to survival instincts, thanks to evolution.
To set your puppy up to feel comfortable with being handled, you'll want him to have lots of pleasant experiences with it as soon as possible in his development.
Compared to what you would observe in non-domesticated animals, our dogs have quite a high threshold for “invasiveness” of their personal safety bubble. Think how wide the safety bubble is for an animal like a moose, for example. Chances are, if you see a moose in the forest, there is no way you are getting close without being 100% covert about it, let alone getting within touching distance. Domestication of dogs has paved the way for that threshold of closeness to really increase and today it is not completely uncommon for pups to be born predisposed genetically to love people and even seek out their touch and closeness. But it’s important to understand that this is not the norm. Rather, this is a trait that breeders have selected for over and over again. The norm is fear toward closeness, reaching, grabbing, holding, etc. unless proven otherwise.
So what do we do about it? We don’t settle for our dog being "fine” when you touch his ear, or his paw. We don’t settle for “not minding it”, or that the dog “seems ok”. "Fine," "OK," "doesn’t mind," and "doesn’t react" does not equal LIKE, COMFORT, and certainly not LOVE.
I want you to want your dog to LOVE being touched, held, restrained, poked, and prodded. Puppy parents have the easiest opportunity to build a positive conditioned emotional response because there is the gift of novelty with puppies. We have a lot of control over conditioning a puppy to LOVE almost anything we want as long as we do it right. If we do it incorrectly, we could end up creating a negative conditioned emotional response, exacerbating the default fear. Once a dog has been exposed to something and made up his mind that the thing is scary or dangerous, it is much trickier to convince him otherwise. We can use counter-conditioning to help dogs whose fear has been reinforced, but it will be a longer process.
By taking a proactive approach with your puppy to properly work on socializing him to all different types of handling by several different people, you increase those chances of your dog feeling comfortable and even LOVING it. The vet’s office is a well-known place where lots of “invasive” things happen and it only takes one visit for your dog to learn this. By taking a preventative approach and working from day one to condition your pup to LOVE examination-type touching and procedures, you are setting everyone who will be involved in vet visits during your dog’s life up for a much more enjoyable time. I encourage you to find a Fear Free Certified veterinarian near you who is trained in low stress handling techniques and won’t set your progress back.
With my clients, I teach them how and when to use food to work on an emotional level which will begin the conditioning process. I provide all my puppy training clients with a “Socialization Checklist” to help make it easy and fun to work socialization training into your puppy’s day. Included in the checklist is a section specifically geared toward the prevention of body handling sensitivity. If you have a puppy or are considering getting one, I strongly urge you to set up a consult with me to get him on the right path to love being handled.