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Cuddling and petting your dog is fun for both of you, but when it comes time for grooming and other forms of handling, such as teeth brushing or checking for ticks, many dogs run for cover. One terrible coat mat or clipped nail quick, and your dog will decide the brush or nail trimmer is an enemy. Some dogs even develop body sensitivity to the point where they don’t want to be touched at all.

However, it’s essential for your dog’s health that you can handle and inspect them. Rather than chasing your dog and struggling to hold them, you can teach them to enjoy being touched with handling exercises, so grooming becomes easier. If your dog associates handling with wonderful rewards like treats and praise, they will look forward to it. Or at least they will tolerate it for the sake of the goodies that may come their way.

Training Your Puppy

It’s best to start handling exercises with your puppy when they’re quite young. A daily puppy massage is a great way to give your canine companion a health check and to introduce them to handling. Gently stroke and squeeze your puppy’s paws, inspect their paw pads, and touch their nails, all while praising them for being a good dog.

Every so often, offer them a delicious treat. Then, lift and massage the ears and look in their mouth. Again, praise and treat. Don’t forget to stroke their belly and lift the tail. You should be able to inspect your puppy all over and gently restrain them as you pair your touch with rewards.

The best time for these handling exercises is when your puppy is calm and tired, like after a play session or a walk. You can even turn your puppy’s mealtime into handling time, using dinner as a reward for calmly accepting your touch. The purpose is to teach your puppy to associate handling with good things. If they fuss when you handle them, start by feeding them a treat. They should be too busy eating to bother with nipping or wiggling.

Chocolate Labrador Retriever puppy being held up by a woman sitting in the grass outdoors in the sunlight.
artpipi/Getty Images Plus

It won’t take long for your pup to learn that your touch leads to good things. Then you can work up to brushing their coat and teeth and trimming their nails. Start with a few brush strokes, brushing one tooth, or clipping only one nail. Pile on the praise and treats as you calmly introduce your pet to the tools and what they do. Work slowly and stay positive.

Once your puppy is comfortable being handled by you, ask other people to participate in the exercises. Over their lifetime, your dog will need to be handled by strangers, like the vet or groomer, so the more people who handle them early on, the better they will cope in the future. Remember to praise and treat your puppy to reward them for their cooperation in these body sensitivity exercises.

Training an Older Dog

If you have an older dog that has already learned to avoid handling, it’s not too late to turn things around with regards to body sensitivity. You just need to move slowly and take your time. Your goal is to counter-condition your dog — to change their emotional response from negative to positive. This is done by associating the handling with something your dog loves, such as a piece of cheese. Your touch should predict that something good is about to happen. Start with areas your dog is most likely to tolerate and save the most sensitive areas for last.

Golden Retriever getting a treat from a woman while posing for a photo outdoors.
AzmanJaka via Getty Images

Here is an example of counter-conditioning your dog:

  1. Reach toward your dog’s paw, then remove your hand and feed a treat.
  2. Gently and briefly touch your dog’s paw, then remove your hand and feed a treat.
  3. Touch your dog’s paw for one second, then remove your hand and feed a treat.
  4. Touch your dog’s paw for several seconds, then remove your hand and feed a treat.
  5. Gently squeeze your dog’s paw, then remove your hand and feed a treat.
  6. Hold your dog’s paw, then gently let it go and feed a treat.

If you use a marker, such as a clicker or the word “yes,” use it at the end of the touch, before you give the treat. If your dog is too nervous or touch-sensitive, start by feeding them at the same time you touch them. Once they relax, you can switch to having your touch come first.

The entire process could take days or even weeks. Go slowly, and watch your dog for signs that they may be anxious. Whenever they seem uncomfortable, you’ve moved too far, too fast. Simply take a step backward until your dog is calm again, and work through the steps more slowly. In time, you will have a dog that can relax when handled. And that will be easier for you and a lot less stressful for your dog.

Related article: Why Do Dogs Like Belly Rubs?
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