Last week I saw a client that I have not seen since her puppy was 5 months old. I met with her for just one session to help her get on the right track and talk about basic puppy strategies including socialization, jumping, puppy biting and preventative strategies including separation anxiety and aggresssion. Her dog is now a 2-year-old, 55 lb. German Shepherd mix and my client hired me because he has been biting.
He bites when his collar is touched, he bites when he is startled when he is sleeping, and he bites when he is possession of bones or his food bowl. My first question to my client was if she practiced the handling and preventative resource guarding exercises I recommended when her dog was a puppy. She admitted that she never did the exercises and as the problems grew, she ignored them until they became unbearable.
I started some basic temperament testing including collar touches, muzzle grab, and body blocking. I barely touched his muzzle and 'snap', he air snapped quickly and aggressively. He could have taken a chunk out of my hand which was good news that he chose not to. The bad news was that I had barely started the test and had to stop because his heightened reactivity. I knew the following conversation would not be easy for my client to take.
The harsh reality in her case is she has a long road ahead of her and the final prognosis is unknown. I told her that if she does not manage her dog correctly and put a lot of time into correcting this problem, her dog might bite someone and she could get sued and he could be put down. That may sound harsh, but it is true. Her dog has a very rough mouth and has already had multiple damaging bites resulting in emergency room visits for my client's friends and family.
There are many important strategies for raising a confident, well-adjusted dog. Socialization, exercise, and training are often mentioned in my posts as well as other puppy resources. But, I think many people fail to stress the importance of handling and grooming in puppy raising. As with many preventative measures, handling and grooming exercises can seem kind of boring or uneventful.
But, if done correctly, they should be uneventful because you are teaching your puppy to be comfortable with being touched without fear or aggression. In my private practice, I see a lot of aggression that could have been prevented if the dog was socialized properly including handling exercises.
The reason that handling exercises are so important is to prevent putting your dog in a situation as he gets older that might result in fear or discomfort. If a dog isn't comfortable with being handled, there is a higher chance that he will be fearful when visiting the groomer, vet, or being petted by strangers. When a dog is handled frequently in the correct manner, he will enjoy being handled and enjoy the presence of people. That is the opposite of being fearful. Fear can lead to aggression.
Here are some suggestions for handling that you should practice daily with your puppy for the first year of his life and then do weekly sessions after that. It is important that a variety of people of all ages practice these exercises. If children do the exercises, coach them with very specific instructions and give lots of treats to your puppy.
Brushing, introduction to baths and hair dryers, tooth brushing, clipping nails, and cutting the hair on the bottom of feet are examples of simple exercises that can help a puppy enjoy normal grooming activities. To get your puppy to love nail clipping, for intance, clip one nail a day for 20 days in a row and follow with yummy treats. If you only clip one nail at a time it will not be a big deal. The whole goal of these exercises are to do low-stress activities and follow them with treats so your dog is not stressed out and starts looking forward to the activities because they predict yummy things for him!
Collar Touches and Basic Handling
During one meal per day, do the following handling exercises and follow with bits of food.
- Grab collar
- Pull tail (gently)
- Rub ears
- Touch paw
- Hold foot
- Hold nail
- Massage all over and give treats
- Rub gums with fingers
- Open eyes (to practice putting eye drops in)
- Rub ear with Q-tip and then Q-tip with rubbing alcohol or ear cleaner
- Grab muzzle
- Gently pick up puppy (if he squirms, wait until he calms down before you release him)
These are just some guidelines for handling suggestions. The main point to keep in mind is that your puppy needs to be introduced to everything that he might be exposed to when he gets older. Start early and be consistent. This is an investment in having a wonderful dog. It is well worth it!