Helping Your Puppy Tolerate Handling and Grooming

Being held, petted, mildly restrained and groomed should be enjoyable, or at least tolerable, experiences for any pet. It is much, much easier to accustom puppies to these activities than to work with adult animals that might have already had bad experiences.

The biggest mistake you can make is turning these interactions into a match of wills and believing that you have to “be dominant” over your dog, or that your cat must submit to you or else! If a pet has a bad experience the first time you bring out the brush, comb or nail clippers, he’ll remember it. This will only make grooming and handling more difficult as time goes on.

Instead, you want to create an expectation that being held and having body parts touched are enjoyable experiences. Start with whatever type of petting, handling, or grooming your pet will currently tolerate without being fearful or aggressive.

For example, let’s say your puppy will allow you to lightly brush or comb him around his neck and shoulders, but won’t let you comb his hind-quarters or back legs. Start by brushing those areas your pet will allow and offer him several irresistible tidbits at the same time. It may be easier for one person to do the grooming and another to be in charge of the tidbits.

Move the brush a tiny bit farther toward your pet’s back legs than he would normally allow while putting several tidbits right under his nose. Rather than trying to feed your pet from your fingers, put the treats in your at palm and let your pet eat them from there. Some pets may do better if you put the treats on the floor. Continue practicing with many brief sessions, each time working your way closer to those areas your pet doesn’t like touched.

Giving pills and Brushing teeth
Add more experiences. Open your pet’s mouth and put a treat in it. Use something you know your pet likes. This will help him become less upset when you need to look in his mouth or give him a pill or other medication. Run your finger over your pet’s teeth. This might be the first step in teaching him to tolerate tooth brushing.

Nail trims
If you’ve ever had pets that panicked when you tried to trim their nails you know how unpleasant, and even dangerous their behavior can be. It’s much better if your puppy or kitten learns at a very young age that having their feet touched and held is not a bad thing. If a pet’s first experience with a nail trim is a bad one, it can result in him hating nail trims for the rest of his life.

To help your pet tolerate nail trims, start with what your pet will allow. You may need to begin by merely picking up your pet’s foot offering a tidbit with the other hand, and releasing his foot. Repeat this simple exercise until your pet is not anxious or struggling and gives signs that he is expecting a tidbit.

Next, hold or gently squeeze the paw while offering the tidbit. The next step might be to get your pet used to the feel of the metal clippers against his nails. Gently tap each nail on a foot with the clippers. Each tap should be followed by a tidbit. You may only be able to work with one foot, or perhaps even one nail per practice session. Keep these work sessions short so your pet doesn’t get tired or frustrated. Tap each nail on all four feet before attempting to clip any nails. After tapping a nail, quickly trim the sharp tip, release the foot, and give your pet a tidbit. Repeat with each nail. This entire process may take 10 or 12 sessions, before you complete a full nail trim.

If your pet has had a bad experience, just the sight of the nail clippers may cause him to become upset. Practice as described above by just leaving the clippers lying around, and also with the clippers = treats approach. If you haven’t cut nails before, ask your veterinarian to show you how so you don’t hurt your pet.

What not to do
Nail trims and other grooming procedures are never emergencies. Avoid having anyone hold your pet down or punish him to allow these procedures to be done. It’s much better to sedate your pet if he requires grooming or nail trims until you have worked through this training process.

Another option is a Calming CapTM, which is a hood for dogs that filters their vision. This seems to calm most dogs and may be quite helpful. Always make treats part of the nail trimming process, and not just rewards for good behavior at the end.

Practice makes perfect
Practice grooming and handling with your pet regularly – at least several times a week. If your pet only sees the brush, comb, or toothbrush every now and then, he won’t become familiar and at ease with these tools and procedures. Many pet owners make the mistake of brushing their pet infrequently, after the fur is matted and tangled, which guarantees the experience will be more difficult and unpleasant than regular, frequent grooming sessions.

If you expect your adult dog will be groomed regularly, take him to the grooming saloon as a puppy or kitten to accustom him to the facility, staff, and procedures. These visits should be brief and pleasant, rather than for a full grooming.

The time you spend practicing body handling and body care procedures will pay off big throughout your pet’s life. Think how easy it will be if you have to pull a thorn out of your dog’s foot, or clean your cat’s ears if your pet has learned to relax and be still. It isn’t fun for you or your pet if handling always becomes a wrestling match. If you work consistently with these exercises, you can avoid this unpleasantness.

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Helping Your Puppy Learn

New owners tend to have unrealistic expectations about their new puppies and what they are capable of. It’s important to really understand how your puppy learns.  Its also your job to help to help your puppy ‘get it right’ and successfully respond to the things you want him to do.

Puppies operate on a very simple principal.  They repeat behaviors that are rewarding.  These rewards can come from us in the form of petting, praise, attention and food rewards.  Or these rewards can come from the puppy just ‘feeling better’ after a particular action such as peeing or chewing – it feels good so your puppy will do it.   We need to teach him where he should or shouldn’t pee and what he can or cannot chew.

For your puppy to learn desirable vs. undesirable behaviors, you need to provide him with feedback or consequences to his actions.  This feed back needs to be clear, consistent, immediate and repetitive.

Clarity – when you talk to your puppy or want to teach him ‘commands’, these words need to be clear and concise.  Sit means put your butt on the ground.  Down means lie down.  ‘Sit down’ is confusing.  ‘Can you sit?’ is too many words.  Keep it simple and clear.   Also as you are teaching your puppy what these words or commands mean, you must make sure you are associating the the word with the correct behavior.   So don’t introduce these commands until or unless you know you’ll get the behavior associated with them.

Consistency – Its important for you and all family members to provide the same feedback and interactions with your puppy.   If you don’t want your puppy to learn to jump on people, do not give him attention when he does so – this is hard when they are so cute!  If one person allows the jumping by giving attention and one person doesn’t, your puppy will continue to jump.

Immediate Feedback – Its important to deliver this feedback immediately after a behavior occurs.  This is the only way your puppy will make a positive or negative association with what he just did.   Verbal praise should happen immediately after your puppy responds to something you want him to do.  For example when you say his name and you get the ‘head turn’, deliver your praise at that moment, before your puppy turns away again.  This starts to teach him what he did right.  If your puppy jumps, don’t pet him for 10 seconds and then turn away.  Turn away immediately.

Repetitive – You will need to repeat your ‘immediate’ feedback multiple times so your puppy ‘gets the message’.  An effective negative consequence for behavior you don’t want – jumping, biting for example, is to immediately withdraw all attention and turn away.  But then go back and interact with your puppy again and repeat this feedback consistently multiple times in a row to help your puppy learn faster.

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Teaching Your Puppy to Ring a Bell for Housetraining

This is an easy, useful thing to teach your puppy so he can let you know he has to ‘go’.   Do this after you’ve built up a ‘reward history’ for your puppy to eliminate outdoors in his ‘spot’.

Begin by hanging a bell or bells over the door handle of the door where your dog goes outside.  It’s even better if he goes out one door to eliminate but another door for walks or play.

Every time you take your dog or puppy outside to go to the toilet physically get him to nudge the bell with his nose or paw. To begin training make sure he is in a calm state and preferably in the sit position. You can gently take his paw and make him touch the bell or gently position him to nudge the bell with his nose. I say ‘gently’ because we don’t want any fear associated with this procedure. As soon as the bell rings say the words ‘Go Potty’ or whatever words you choose. Praise him lavishly or give him a small food reward and then go outside immediately.

For a young puppy take him outside once an hour or a couple of minutes after eating or waking. Stand with him but don’t distract him at all. Let him sniff around. If he goes to the bathroom while outside tell him what a good dog he is while he is actually peeing or pooping.

It is important to choose a word or phrase for your dog’s elimination. You can call it what ever you want as long as you are consistent with it. For example: While he is peeing say, “Do a pee, good boy, well done” or “Go potty, great work, good dog’ By saying these words your puppy will then be able to learn these words and associate them with the the action. Say the same words when he rings the bell to go outside.

DO NOT let him ring the bell if you are going out for a walk or a game in the yard. This would be a recipe for disaster. You don’t want him ringing the bell every time he wants to go out to have fun.
Good luck with your door bell training. One thing to remember is be consistent and do it every single time your dog or puppy goes out to potty.

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Three Stages of Mark/Reward Training

Here are some good guidelines to keep in mind when working with your puppy!  When teaching your puppy new behaviors, follow these steps:

  1. To phase out food lures
  2. To phase out food rewards and replace with life rewards
  3. To increase reliability by calmly persisting and insisting

Stage One:

Teaching dogs what we want them to do. Teaching dogs ESL — English as Second Language — English words for doggy behaviors and actions.

Food Lures -> Hand-signals -> Verbal Commands
Food lures are phased out once the dog learns the meaning of hand-signals (in the very first session) and hand-signals (hand lures) are then used to teach the dog the meaning of verbal commands. .

Stage Two:

Motivating dogs to want to do what we want them to do.
Food rewards are phased out and replaced with Life Rewards.

Get More-for-less, i.e., more behaviors for fewer food rewards

Differential Reinforcement only rewarding your dog for above-average responses with better responses receiving better rewards and the best responses receiving best rewards.

Life Rewards — Food rewards are phased out entirely and replaced with Life Rewards especially the Big Two — Walking on-leash or off-leash and Playing with other dogs. Big Two Interactive Games — Fetch and Tug
Stage Three:

Even though a dog may understand the meaning of the verbal command and has been motivated to want to comply, there will be occasions when he doesn’t. However, there are infrequent occasions when absolute reliability is essential for the dog’s well being and safety. Use persistence and insistence to get behavior.

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Mark – Reward Training

One of the greatest gifts we can give our dogs is clear, concise and consistent communication.

Mark/Reward training is a simple way to communicate with your dog, letting him know, YES, that’s exactly what I want!” It helps your dog sort out what you’re really asking, and gives him a way to understand the rules. It’s the quickest way for a dog to learn and fun for both the dog and human as they learn together how to best communicate.

The first thing we want to do to get started is to ‘charge up’ the reward marker. Just say the word ‘YES’ (or click your clicker) and give your dog a treat within a second. Practice until you can deliver 10 treats in 15 seconds. The order is very important. The treat must come after the YES or click. Yes! Then treat. This is how your dog learns that YES predicts a reward.  Your ‘mark’ is the same as praise.  So you can say ‘Good Boy’ instead of YES if that is what you are used to.  Either way the goal is to time the ‘mark’ or praise with the exact moment your dog does the behavior.

Again, timing is everything. Be sure to say YES at the exact moment your dog does what you want. Then you can deliver the treat. Decide what behavior you are going to reward ahead of time. As your dog is first learning a behavior, ie, to look at you when you say his name, you may first decide to ‘mark’ just a head turn but then build up to ‘marking’ full eye contact.

Once your dog knows the behavior in that setting, move to random rewards. Rewards can be petting, neck scratches, tossing a toy, going outside in addition to just treats.

The best way to teach a new behavior is to reward every success, every time. The best way to keep a learned behavior strong is to reward it less frequently and randomly. Your dog will try harder knowing that he might get a reward at any given time. You can start to reward for every 2 sits or after 2 or 3 different behaviors. Sometimes make it harder and sometimes make it easier.

It’s important to transition away from food rewards when the dog has learned the desired behavior. Begin to introduce ‘life’ rewards. Still say YES when your dog does something you want, but instead of giving a treat, give a neck scratch, belly rub, play with a toy, go for a walk or anything else your dog enjoys. Keep observing your dog’s response to things and use rewards to keep the behavior strong. Use food rewards occasionally as well.

Dogs don’t generalize behaviors right away. Just because they know sit in the kitchen does not mean they know sit at the store or in your backyard. We have to re-teach them each behavior in gradually more difficult situations so they will eventually generalize. It’s very important to make things easier (what and how much you are asking for) when you train in a new place or with more distractions. If your dog can do a 30 second down/stay in your living room, start by asking for a 3 second down/stay outside and work up from there.

Keep teaching your dog and help him be successful. Keep him well rewarded through praise, food, games and other things that he enjoys.

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