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Teach Your Puppy to Accept Handling

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books


This article could also be titled:

"Handling Your Pup Without Getting Into World War III."

Honestly, some dogs pitch a ridiculous fit when their owner simply tries to examine some part of their body, or comb out mats, or brush their teeth, or clip their nails.

If that kind of behavior doesn't sound like much fun... it isn't.

dog holding owner on a leashA dog who protests or grumbles or wriggles around when you open his mouth, peer into his ears, trim his nails, or try to get him to sit still so you can pull a tick off his belly... second-guessing your decisions about what is best for him. He doesn't yet trust you to handle the leadership role.

That's why this article is so important. It's not about the actual grooming process. It's about building the right leader-follower relationship, teaching your puppy to trust you, and developing your own confidence that you can handle and control your pup – whether or not he understands why.

Dogs have the mental and emotional maturity of a toddler. Every parent has had to say to their 2-year-old, "Because I said so." With toddlers and canines, long-winded explanations get you nowhere. Toddlers and canines need to do what you say because you are in charge of their health and well-being and you know more than they do about what's best.

dog care bookIn my canine health book, 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy, I show you how to actually groom your dog – brushing and bathing, cleaning his ears and teeth, and clipping his nails.

In the article you're reading now, we focus on teaching your pup to accept being handled, to remain calm and quiet as you move his body into different positions and touch and feel all over his body.

You might be wondering, "What if I take my dog to a professional groomer to be groomed?"

You should still do everything in this article.

  • First, because you want your pup to have the right (respectful) attitude toward you.
  • Second, because you want to be sure that you can handle and control your pup even when he doesn't understand (or like) something.
  • And third, because you shouldn't turn ALL of your dog's grooming over to someone else. You should be personally  inspecting his teeth, eyes, ears, and paws on a regular basis. This is how you catch health problems early when they're still readily treatable.

Choose a handling/grooming area

Remember that dogs learn best through routines – doing things the same way, in the same order.

So when you're teaching these handling exercises, it will help your puppy if you always go to the same place in your house. This will help him remember what happens there.

spaniel sitting on table

This table is too slippery for safety, and you would never stand this far away from a pup on a table. He could break his leg jumping off.

I like to use a table for handling and grooming. Pups are usually more hesitant to act up when they're on a table. It's a new experience for them, and they might be a bit concerned about falling off. So you have more control over the puppy on a table.

The downside is that if you're not very alert, a quick pup could  actually jump or fall off.

So if you're worried about a high table, or if your puppy is large, might you have a lower table such as an old coffee table or even a chair? You can kneel beside a low table, or sit on a hassock or on a footstool or even on a sturdy box.

Make sure the surface is non-slip.  You can buy a dedicated grooming table with a rubber surface, or on a regular table you might use a bathmat with rubber backing.

If you must use the floor, put down the same kind of mat. Unless your pup is very calm and stays still, don't do these exercises directly on a slick vinyl or wood floor.

Introduction to the sitting position

First, you're going to place your pup in a sitting position. Now you might be thinking, "My puppy already sits on command. Can't I just tell him to sit?"

golden retriever puppy sitting

Well, the goal of handling exercises is to teach your pup to accept being handled.

There will be times in his life when you (or the vet) will need to move his body into different positions in order to provide medical care. By getting him used to being handled and moved about, you'll be making those experiences much less stressful for him. Also for you and the vet!

So yes, even if your puppy knows how to sit, you should PLACE him in a sitting position.

There are two ways to do that:

  • The Push. With your right hand, hold his collar to keep him steady. With your left hand, push down on his hindquarters (just behind his two hipbones, near his tail). Don't push down on his BACK. His spine and vertebrae are too sensitive for heavy pressure.
  • The Fold. Place your right palm on his chest. Place your left hand (if he's small) or your left forearm (if he's larger) against the back of his rear legs (just above his "knees"). In one smooth motion, push his chest toward his rump while tucking his back legs forward to fold him into a sit over your hand or forearm. Don't worry, it sounds harder than it is!

Say "Sit" as you're placing him into the position. Yes, even if he already knows the word. The moment he's sitting, tell him "Good. Gooood dog." Calm voice. If you praise enthusiastically, he may get excited and try to jump around.

Keep your hands on him for a few seconds, then give him a treat and move right along to the next position.

Introduction to the standing position

  1.  Hook the fingers of your right hand (palm UP) in his collar under his chin.
  2.  Place your left hand (palm DOWN) under his stomach, way back in his groin area where his hindquarters are all bunched up as he sits there.
  3.  Pull his collar gently forward and lift the BACK of your left hand gently into his stomach/groin area. This should raise him to a standing position. Say "Sta-a-a-nd" (drawing the word out) as you do so.
  4.  Once he's standing, keep your left hand under his stomach to prevent him from sitting. Stroke his chest with the fingers of your right hand. Praise him: "Good boy. Goood." Keep him standing for just a few seconds, then give him a treat.
  5.  Now guide him back into a sit again.

flat-coated retriever pup standing on table

Alternate the standing and sitting positions several times. Keep him in each position for only a few seconds. And you're done for that session!

As the days go by....

Gradually take your hands away (but be ready to grab him should he try to jump). If he breaks the sit or stand position when you remove your hands, just reposition him. Be patient but persistent.

If he gets really fussy and squirmy and resistant and won't settle, add a sharp "AH-ah" with a corrective technique if necessary. But return to praise once he settles.

Touching your pup all over his body

When your pup is reasonably proficient at holding the Sit and Stand positions, even if you still need to steady him a bit with one hand, you can add more handling.

With your pup in a sitting position...

  • Run your hand all over his body, and your fingers through his coat. Praise calmly ("Good") and give him a treat.
  • Put one hand under his chin to lift his head up so you can peer into his eyes. Rub your index finger around the inner corner of his eyes, as though scraping off sleepy seeds. Praise calmly and give him a treat.
  • Rub around the base of his ears. Peer inside his ears. Stroke the inside of his ears gently with your thumb. Praise calmly and give him a treat.

Still in a sitting position

Put one hand under his chin to steady his head. Say, "OPEN your mouth. OPEN." This doesn't mean he actually needs to open his mouth on command. It's just going to become a signal to him that you're going to be "poking around" in his mouth.

opening the mouth of a calm mudi dog
  • Use the thumb of your other hand to lift up one side of his lip so you can peer at his teeth.
  • Slide your fingers around his lips, getting him used to the odd sensation of his lips being pulled away from his teeth.
  • Touch his teeth, gently rubbing them with the tip of your finger. Then praise calmly and give him a treat.
  • Say "Paw... Paw" and raise one of his front paws. Spread his toes and touch the webbing between them. Gently grasp each toenail between your thumb and index finger, just for a moment. Fold the paw gently backward so you can touch the pad of his foot. Repeat with his other front foot. Praise calmly and treat.

With your pup in a standing position

  • To handle his back feet, put your pup in his stand position. Say, "Paw... Paw" as you lift a rear foot and handle the toes, nails, and pads. Praise calmly and give him a treat.

These handling exercises should be repeated on a regular basis until your puppy will sit still, or stand still, while you handle and touch any part of his body (including the testicles of a male pup). Your vet will love you for this!

If your pup tries to bite while being handled

Some puppies will mouth and nibble your hands in a playful manner as you're placing or holding them in position. This should be stopped right away – calmly, but persistently.

Growling or biting, though.... that should NOT be happening and means your leadership position has not been established.

I recommend getting my training book and diligently working through all of the chapters. Either that, or call a local trainer (balanced, not "positive-only") who can evaluate your pup personally and try to figure out what's going on.

My book covertraining program is for puppies 2 to 18 months old. It explains, step by step:

  • How to establish good patterns and routines that govern everything your pup does.
  • How to teach your pup to be calm and to look to you for guidance, direction, and permission.
  • How to make yourself important – the most important thing – in your puppy’s life. How to show your pup the clear, black-and-white rules and routines he is to follow. And how to make sure he does.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

To help you train and care for your dog

dog training videos Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.

The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.

book coverRespect Training For Puppies: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved puppy. For puppies 2 to 18 months old. Your puppy will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
If your dog is over 18 months, you'll want book coverRespect Training For Adult Dogs: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved dog. Again your dog will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
book coverTeach Your Dog 100 English Words is a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your adult dog to listen to you and do what you say.
book cover11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy helps your dog live a longer, healthier life.
book coverDog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams will help you find a good-tempered, healthy family companion.