Top trainer and behaviourist Sheila Harper tells us how handling your dog correctly can build his confidence and strengthen your bond.
Handling your dog is about more than simply touching and fussing him. "Handling is about every aspect of every interaction with your dog," said trainer and behaviourist Sheila Harper. "Its effectiveness depends on your awareness of your dog, your empathy, the demands you put on your dog, and your inner state. You need to understand your dog and what his needs are. We all lead busy lives, but make sure that the time you spend with your dog is quality time and that you are always aware of him.
"When used correctly, handling skills can build your dog's self-confidence and enable him to build self-control, rather than being controlled by your commands."
In every aspect of handling your dog, you must have realistic expectations. Take into account his age, breed, and natural instincts, and make allowances for these - give him appropriate outlets for his natural needs.
"We often don't give our dogs enough acknowledgement for good behaviour, but are quick to scold negative behaviour," Sheila continued. "If your dog takes to chewing your shoe, he's not doing it to be naughty - it's an interesting object which smells of you - he's not aware it's a shoe, let alone a designer one! However, depending upon how you react he may soon learn that having a shoe gets your attention - even if it is negative.
"Your overreaction is likely to mean that he continues to target your shoes, and higher-value objects that provoke a bigger reaction. This is typical behaviour of a dog who is only given attention when he is doing something you don't like.
"Make sure that you reinforce your dog for behaviour you like, not by giving him treats, a fuss or play, but by giving him calm and quiet attention. It's important that you keep him in a relaxed state so that he doesn't become overexcited."
Everyday scenarios can become overexciting and stressful for your dog; knowing how to handle them will mean a calmer and happier dog.
"You may be able to recognise periods in the day when your dog becomes overexcited," said Sheila. "You need to try to keep things as calm and quiet as possible at these times - anticipate when he's likely to get excitable and put routines in place to prevent this."
Times of overexcitement include:
- Visitors to the house.
"Try to avoid building up his anticipation at mealtimes," Sheila continued. "You could try preparing his meals away from him and in advance, then putting them away until it's time for him to eat. This should remove a lot of the excitement caused by watching his food being prepared and will prevent him from becoming wound up.
"The type of walk you and your dog experience will all depend on how you prepare to go out. If getting ready to go out is manic, it breeds a manic walk. Allow time to prepare calmly - don't make it a rushed job."
To prepare for a calm walk:
- Don't make a fuss about going out.
- Fetch your dog's lead discreetly and put it on calmly.
- Don't bend over your dog or grab him.
- Slowly begin to open the door. If he goes to rush out, close it until he is quiet and try again. Only leave once he is calm - this will teach him self-control.
- Once out on your walk don't let your dog off the lead immediately. Wait until he is quiet and remove the lead calmly - try to take it off without him noticing.
As well as ensuring an environment or scenario is relaxed for your dog, there are things you can do when it comes to handling to ensure that he remains calm and doesn't become stressed. "Use your knowledge of the dog as a species and what you have learned about his body language," Sheila explained. "Be consistent in the way you communicate with your dog when using your voice or body language, and when handling - inconsistency is unnerving. Make sure you are calm in every aspect of your communication with him. Slow, calm movements mean a calm dog. Fast, frantic movements will make him anxious.
"Take notice of what your dog tells you. He will let you know what he's enjoying, whether he wants to be touched, and where he's comfortable for you to touch him. Be aware of your dog, recognise when he's had enough of something, and respect his choice.
"Especially important when out and about is how other people and dogs affect your dog. Always remember that if your dog doesn't want to do something he will have a good reason why - he's not just trying to be awkward. Look at your surroundings, and know your dog and what behaviour and mannerisms are normal for him. By observing your dog and paying attention to him you may fi nd that he's giving off clues in his body language as to why he's unhappy about something. If his back is rounded, he may be in pain; if his muscles look tight, he may be stressed.
"By observing your dog and using your own body language accordingly you can connect with him on a deeper level; you will have a better understanding of each other, resulting in a calm and happy relationship."
Handling your dog
There are instances where your dog needs to be handled. However, the kind of touch owners like to engage in with dogs is often quite unusual to them. Many dogs learn to tolerate it, and some even enjoy it. But you must ensure that it isn't becoming too much for them.
- Most dogs will need grooming to some degree, but many find it a very stressful experience. Don't make grooming a task and attempt to do it all at once - spread it out. Brush a part of his coat one day, and clip his nails another time.
- When brushing your dog's coat, use one hand to hold the fur near the root so that it acts as a cushion, preventing pulling on the hair which your dog would find painful.
- Start where you know your dog is comfortable being touched and occasionally move to a spot where he's less comfortable, always returning to where he's comfortable straight away.
- When it comes to handling your dog's paws, make a point of handling them now and again - not to examine them, but just to touch them briefl y initially. Let him get used to you closing your hand around them without pressure, working towards gently holding them. If he pulls away, you're putting too much pressure on, so relax and make sure he feels comfortable with your touch each time. If you do this regularly it will come as less of a shock to your dog when you need to examine them and clip his nails.
Remember to pay attention to your dog, watch what signals he is giving you; if he's not happy, stop what you're doing.
When giving your dog a health check, make it as informal as possible. It's easy to become so focused on the health check that you forget to actually pay attention to the dog.
- Get your dog used to being handled at an early age. Start by doing this a little at a time. Watch for your dog's reactions - where does he like to be touched and what makes him uneasy?
- When you take your dog to the vet, explain how your dog likes to be handled and what he doesn't like - your dog doesn't have a voice, but you do. You can also learn a lot by simply being observant. Use your senses - they will tell you a lot.
- Run your eyes over your dog daily. Look at how he's moving; his eyes should be clear and bright; and look at the quality of his coat - it should look glossy.
- Your dog shouldn't smell bad (unless he's rolled in something) - odour can be an indicator that something's wrong.
- When handling your dog's body use slow, long touches, checking for lumps, bumps, and hot spots.
Get familiar with your dog's body and what's normal for him - this makes it easier to spot if something's not right.
Talk his language
Your body language can often affect a dog's behaviour, and the way he feels towards you or a situation. Here are some tips on how to use body language successfully.
Meeting a dog
- Use slow, calm movements - no quick or erratic movements with your arms or legs.
- Turn your head so you're not looking straight at the dog - no direct eye contact.
- Move in a curve.
- Let the dog be the first to make contact.
Approaching an overexcited dog
- Move slowly.
- No direct eye contact.
- Slowly turn side-on to the dog.
- If he jumps up, turn your back on him and if necessary move calmly out of reach, and only return once he has calmed down. If he becomes wound up again on your return, repeat the process - he will learn when enough is enough.
- If he's barking in excitement, don't distract him with food or a toy - this is a reward. Remove him from the situation.
Encouraging a dog to come to you
- Reduce your height and turn side-on.
- No direct eye contact.
- Use a calm, low voice to reassure him.
- Do not lunge or make quick movements towards the dog.
Out and about
- Your dog's lead shouldn't be a negative influence. Never use it to drag your dog away from a scenario that he is uncomfortable with - use your body language to connect with him and influence his reaction.
- A natural reaction when meeting other dogs and people is to shorten your dog's lead, as you feel it gives you more control - but it creates tension and takes away your dog's ability to use his body language appropriately. Keep the lead slack as this ensures your dog can communicate his feelings to another dog (or you) appropriately, and he will feel he has an escape route if needed.
- Pay attention to your dog and to what he's telling you through his body language.
- Don't tie your dog up outside a shop. Not only is it not safe, it also makes your dog vulnerable to other dogs, children, and people. It restricts his movements, meaning that he can't demonstrate signals properly to diffuse a situation, and is damaging to his self-confidence.
- Try to avoid narrow paths. They often mean that a dog has to be on the lead and that he is forced to approach another dog or person head-on - this is very unnatural for him. The combination of a narrow path and being on the lead also means that he may feel he has no escape route. His body language may escalate rapidly, especially in reactive dogs.
- Always bear in mind your dog's state of mind. If you see that something's making him nervous, don't make him approach it. Allow him to look, if he wants, then move him away, putting distance between the dog and what he's worried about. If he's agitated, move him away. A good distance is when he is no longer reacting.
- When another dog passes, allow your dog to sniff the area where he's been, allowing him to gain information about that dog.
- When out in the car, try to park where your dog has direct access to somewhere he can sniff - sniffing is an instant calming influence and this will avoid him pulling on the lead or rushing over to the other side of the car park.