Can You Handle It?

Dogs aren’t naturally inclined to enjoy handling from humans especially in certain contexts and against their will. Lots of dogs can be cuddly on the couch but it’s generally when they come to you and are free to leave when they wish. 

Even if they enjoy cuddling, most dogs aren’t particularly happy about grooming, nail trims, ear cleaning, vet exams, needles, ear or eye medication, or being handled by strangers especially on leash. 

Handling (in)tolerance happens in more contexts than you might think: 

  • Disturbed while sleeping.
  • Touched/restrained when scared, anxious or stressed.
  • Pet by strangers with or without their owners present (tied outside a store).
  • Positioned for a medical procedure (xrays/ultrasound).
  • Grabbed suddenly by the collar (bolting out the door).
  • “Pet” by young children (tails and ears pulled, fingers in eyes, mouths, and noses).
  • Dressed in harnesses or clothing.
Why it’s important.
Lack of handling tolerance is generally fear-based, and fearful behaviour escalates if left unaddressed. Dogs often start by showing mild objection to some handling (avoidance, turning, leaning or running away, panting, lip licking, showing the whites of their eyes - see photo with this article).

As dogs mature from adolescents into mature adults, initial fearful behaviour will escalate (stiffening, growling, nipping, and eventually biting). This is especially true when dogs are being restrained or cornered and feel they have no other choice.

What can you do?

  • Offer your dog the choice to participate or opt out as much as possible.
  • Learn your dog’s body language so you can recognize the first sign of discomfort.
  • Train for handling tolerance proactively (ideally when dogs are puppies).

A simple exercise to start at home, your dog unrestrained and you seated: 

  • Drop some treats in front of you and wait for your dog to begin eating the treats.
  • start petting your dog as you normally do.
  • If they lift their head from the treats, stop and wait. If they put their head back down to eat, you can resume petting.
  • If your dog finishes the treats, stop petting and toss a few treats away from you to re-set.
  • Repeat from the beginning, keep the session less than a minute.
  • Give a finish cue like “All done!” and end the session.
  • Then have an “after party” – play, toss treats around, toss toys around – have fun! This will cause your dog to look forward to the next session.
This exercise allows your dog to say “yes” (eating treats or returning to eat treats) and “no” (stop eating/leave). Use treats that will motivate your dog to want to do the exercise.  The fun of the “after party” will help negate any earlier discomfort.

Use this type of exercise to work on different kinds of handling – ensure your dog is free to leave or pause things at every step. Having choice and control over what’s happening to you are strong motivators for any living being. You will have far more success than with restraint or force. Give it a try!