My 2 year old Border Collie Banzai was rescued at 13 weeks old. This definitely wasn’t my first rodeo with puppies, so nothing in particular was different about the way that I trained her. Well, there was one thing; Banzai had a lot of issues, resource guarding being one of them. Many people hear the word “resource guarding” and think “food”. What they don’t think of is “nail trims.”
In Banzai’s case, she was part of the common group of dogs that resource guards food as well as body parts. The reality of resource guarding is that dogs can perceive just about anything as a resource. One of the more common things that dogs will guard is body parts, which makes sense. I mean, dogs have a strong fight or flight instinct, and by that knowledge, why wouldn’t their paws be seen as something valuable and worthy of guarding?
The importance of teaching your dogs to accept body handling is monumental because of many reasons. Here are a few.
It is safer. Dogs that accept body handling of any sort are less of a bite risk. There are some situations in your dog's life where you will need to restrain them and put them in uncomfortable positions. Teaching your dog to accept body handling will make these situations much more safe, and you won’t regret it once the time comes.
It makes grooming easier. Properly acclimated dogs will be a pleasure to handle for grooming. This doesn’t just apply to you, it applies to your groomer as well. Ask any groomer and they will tell you how appreciative they are of pet parents who take the time to acclimate their dogs to body handling. It makes their job easier, and you will see this if it is you who grooms your own dog!
It makes vet visits go smoother. Just like groomers appreciate dogs who can be handled, vets share this appreciation. When your dog is at the vet, chances are he’s already stressed out and upset. Being able to safely handle him is paramount to a successful vet visit. The last thing you want when your dog is injured is to have the potential to injure himself more while struggling against the vets and techs who are just trying to help him.
It teaches your dog impulse control. You can never get enough of impulse control opportunities in training! Dogs are naturally very impulsive, teaching them to be patient and calm is an important skill. Body handling can help with this as your dog has to be calm and quiet in order to be handled.
It instills trust in you and builds a stronger bond. When your hold your dog’s paw, you are asking them to put a lot of faith in you. If something were to happen in that moment, you have removed the ability of your dog to run away. This is why body handling is a bit of a trust exercise. Your dog learns to trust that you will keep them safe, and in turn this builds a stronger bond. Furthermore, touching your dog causes the release of the “love” hormone, oxytocin, in your dog’s body that helps calm your dog. Oxytocin is also released in humans when they touch dogs.
Now that we know the benefits of teaching your dog to accept body handling, how do we teach it? I mean, let’s face it, some dogs just really don’t like to be handled in certain situations. Let’s explore some tips that will make the process go much smoother.
Consider a muzzle. If you have a particularly difficult dog, it is better to err on the side of caution. Muzzle training is another important skill for dogs to learn, and can be absolutely essential when you are practicing body handling on a dog that is likely to bite you when you practice this. If you aren’t sure what your dog will do, a muzzle is also a good idea. You can learn more about muzzle training and how to properly muzzle train your dog here.
Set up sessions everyday at mealtime. Consistency is the most important piece of any training puzzle. Body handling should be practiced daily in order to see success. Keep the sessions short (3-5 minutes max) and consider doing them at mealtimes. This will build a strong positive association with body handling.
Use treats to reward your dog for allowing their bodies to be handled. The trick with this is to make the experience a positive one! I recommend treats from Real Dog Box!
Go slow. Don’t just grab your dog’s foot and hold on. Every dog is different with how you have to handle them in the beginning. Young puppies will be far more tolerant than an older dog who’s never been handled. If your dog really doesn’t want his tail to be touched, you may have to start by simply casually adding the tail to the mix when you are petting your dog, run your hand gently over his tail and reward with a “yes” and a tasty treat. Over time, you can progress to holding the tail and building duration over time.
Use calming signals to help soothe your dog. When you are practicing body handling, you can relate that your dog should be calm by using the same body signals that they use themselves. Taking deep breaths and sighing as well as a yawn can tell your dog “it’s okay” while you handle them. Another option is to offer a “look away” when you begin to handle whatever body part you are handling. A look away is achieved exactly as it sounds. Turn your eyes and head away from your dog, perhaps even offering a tongue flick as you turn away.
Never force handling. If your dog backs away from you when you touch a certain body part, allow them to move away. Simply do not reward and maintain a neutral demeanor instead of punishing or trying to continue anyways. See if you can get your dog to come back to you instead and offer a reward when he does, and maybe take it back a step to just a casual touch vs. actually restraining that body part
It took a lot of patience to get Banzai over her body resource guarding. To this day, she doesn’t really prefer her body handling, but thankfully, she tolerates it well enough. That is all I could ask for! With this being said, do not hesitate to enlist the help of an experienced dog trainer to help guide you along the way. This is especially true if you are anxious about handling your dog, as your anxiety will only fuel your dog to be more apprehensive about the experience!