Happy Handling! Part Four

Beth Friedman CDBC and Wayne Bolen MAEd

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November 2, 2021

Consent and Cooperation – Handling an Aggressive Dog

Is Your Dog is Ready to be Handled?

This series of articles has discussed various conditions in which a dog is aggressive with handling. This Part focuses on obtaining consent and cooperation for handling an aggressive dog.

A question we receive often is “How do I know when my dog is ready to go to the next step of training?” As mentioned in a previous post, it is first important to look at health and safety first. If you have thoroughly covered that aspect, then the next step is to learn to read the dog’s body language, or the dog can learn to do something to demonstrate he or she is ready for Happy Handling.

For most humans, it is often relatively easy to identify the dog who is “overtly not ready to be touched” or the dog that is “overtly enthusiastic to being pet.” Dogs are rarely subtle in these two states. However, it is the in-between “grey area” where most of the problems occur. Humans have a tendency to either completely miss the subtle signals our dogs give us, or we misread their signals, such as approaching for a sniff being misinterpreted as consent to be pet. A professional trainer can teach you to read your dog’s body language so you can interpret what your dog may be trying to communicate. It is for this reason we also like to implement some consent signals that make that inter-species communication easier. 

The first of these helps to prepare your dog through a series of approximations towards being touched. Assuming you have already worked at overcoming the dog’s fear of even being near a strange human, how do you get the dog across the threshold of actually being touched? That might start with just taking extra yummy treats from your hand. Without moving, walking towards, or even looking at the dog, you might just hold out a handful of chicken, or something equally yummy, and let the dog take it. After a while of that, when the dog is very comfortable, the hand with the yummy stuff might also scratch under the dog’s chin while eating the food. These baby steps show your dog that proximity and touching is not so scary. These steps should be done with an experienced canine behavior consultant’s coaching.

The Five Second Rule

These exercises would eventually progress to the “5 Second Rule.” This is a rule that, once a dog is accepting of pets, tells us when “enough is enough.” Whatever the other conditions, if we are petting a dog, we only pet her for up to 5 seconds. After 5 seconds, we stop petting completely. Does the dog advance towards your hand or pull away? Does she look to you for more or is she distracted? If the dog is clear in the communication that more pets are wanted, only then, do we resume petting. If there is any question at all if the dog wants more pets, we assume she does not and we stop.

The Chin Rest

Another exercise for more specific handling is to teach the dog a chin rest or some other invitation to interact, usually referred to as a “Start Button” behavior. This is a way for the dog to let us know that the dog is consenting to being touched; but only when her chin is touching a target in a relaxed chin rest position. By teaching your dog that a chin rest is a precursor to being touched, you can ask for the chin rest as a way of asking “can I touch you now?” This gives your dog that choice of participating or not. She will learn that giving the chin rest is giving consent but not giving it is a clear signal that she is not ready. We must always respect that choice and let her walk away.

I have been working with my dog Chobani on brushing his teeth. When we started this training, he did not like me to put my hands near his mouth. It is always important to rule out any medical issue that can be associated with being uncomfortable with any kind of handling. For Chobani, I knew his mouth is fine because he recently had an examination, dental and x-rays. However, I know that won’t be the case if I don’t take a more active role in routine dental care going forward.

He has learned to give me a signal that “I am ready” for you to brush my teeth. His signal is that he lays down on the chair where we always practice teeth brushing. If he stands up or pulls away, he is telling me he is not ready. I also will give him a cue, “Brush Teeth.” This gives some of the control back to our canines as well as helps us know when to progress to the next step.

Chobani is a dog that we groom. We routinely trim his hair and nails. He did not always like grooming but he certainly does now. He has the option to get on the grooming table or not. His signal that he is ready for grooming is that he gets on the grooming table on his own accord. He will typically get on the grooming table if he hears the sound of the Dremmel or clippers. He has the option to get off the table at any time but chooses to stay on as we have made this experience a positive one.

Happy Handling can take a little time but can have a profound impact on the way your dog perceives handling. This helps make routine care and treatment more pleasant and less stressful for our canine companions, pet parents, and pet professionals, especially for aggression issues. There are more steps to having your aggressive dog be comfortable so seek the assistance of a qualified professional. Having an experienced professional guide you through this process will help you be successful and have a calm dog when handling is needed.  

Stay tuned for Part 5 of the series where we will cover stranger danger or handling by strangers in the home!

Learn more about Beth and Wayne at CanineCompanionConsulting.com