Don’t Throw the Puppy Out With the Bathwater: Body Handling in the Age of Hands-Off Dog Training

Dog training has become more sophisticated and much kinder. Now we can take into account the science behind how dogs learn, what they are capable of, their individual personalities, and how their learning experience can and should be one free of coercion, pain or fear of consequences.

This is wonderful, no doubt about it. It is the right thing to do to extend the same respect and empathy to others, including dogs, which we would want shown to us if we were learning something new.

In fact, it is possible to teach virtually any skill or trick without ever laying a hand on your dog. Dogs are great at puzzling things out and, generally speaking, stronger and more reliable training comes from letting the dog put the pieces together without us pushing, pulling, or punishing, but rather rewarding incremental progress toward a finished behavior. (Just like being pushed on a swing does not teach a little kid how to “pump,” however if left to experiment with shifting their weight and kicking, they figure out what to do with their body to make the swing go. Click here for more on this type of training.)

But…we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because we don’t use our hands for physical coercion in training any longer does not mean dogs are never faced with human hands coming at them. Puppies and dogs cope with human hands petting, holding, restraining, grooming, lifting, grabbing and touching in all kinds of ways. We should take care to prepare them for lots of different types of body handling, especially now that our training has become so hands-off.

Can you imagine how strange it would seem to have someone brush your teeth, take blood from your arm, or put ointment on your head if you were never shown how benign, even pleasant, touch can be? You might become afraid, strongly object, or develop stronger and stronger defensive reactions over time. Some of us might just judo chop the other person right off the bat.

Let’s not put our dog in this position, feeling like they have to flee or fight when faced with everyday touch, handling and restraint. It is so simple to accustom dogs to body handling, and our dogs are counting on us for help with this. I imagine not only your dog, but your dog’s veterinarian, his groomer and his class instructor will appreciate it as well.

Get started with this short video lesson that shows Parts I and II (of III). For full instructions and how to adapt the process for Bold or Bashful puppies, see Puppy Savvy.

Many thanks to Sandi and Logan the Dreamboat for their help with this video lesson.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Throw the Puppy Out With the Bathwater: Body Handling in the Age of Hands-Off Dog Training

  1. Hey Barbara. I am so jazzed by your video! I never looked at it broken down like that. I think back on dogs that I have known who were just easy by nature or handling (I don’t know) and others who suffered from their inability to be touched and handled. This is so important! Good work. Woofs!

  2. Thanks so much, Ginger! I know what you’re saying, I’ve had dogs who seem to have no trouble with it, and dogs who object at different levels of intensity. A lot of it is their personality, and it is so much easier to live with a dog from the get-go who welcomes all kinds of touch. But enough of it is experience/learning that it’s possible to teach them to feel better about it with a little planning. I’ve seen some remarkable turn-arounds. It’s very cool!

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