First, two quick announcements. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Karen London, PhD, has just reviewed Puppy Savvy for The Bark magazine. And, as if that weren’t exciting enough, today’s blog post comes with mindblowingly life-like sketches by yours truly.
No one wants to seem like Godzilla to a dog. I mean, the smell alone of that monster breath is hardly what a dog lover would aspire to replicate. And yet, even when we want to seem most trustworthy to a dog, we sometimes do a mean impersonation of that giant, havoc-wreaking creature. The previous Ruff Love segments advised how to interact with a dog using the new understanding of what dogs need in order to feel at ease with humans. To recap: it doesn’t matter if you love dogs or think all dogs love you. Showing respect and kindness means asking permission of the dog (not only his person) before making a physical connection. We talked about why sticking a hand out to sniff is not asking. (Here’s what to do instead.)
Now here’s the rub, and the focus of the final installment in this series. What if your job as a helper of dogs requires that you touch them? What if the dog is signaling, “No thank you, I would rather you not touch me,” when the dog’s person has hired you to groom them, recheck their ear infection, hold them still for an injection, train them, or take them to be kenneled? What if the dog is at the shelter or day care and needs to be walked or trained? One thing that these contexts have in common is that they are very busy places. There is not enough time, there are too many dogs, there are multiple demands on each staff member, and there is pressure to perform the service from both bosses and clients. While you may want to take the dog’s feelings into account, someone who has power over you may simply want you to get the job done. I know what you’re thinking, and I agree: “So far, this is a super uplifting blog post.”
How to seem like someone a dog could trust
As you know from experience, there are lots of ways to get the job done with a dog who is nervous about being handled, from forceful restraint to distracting a dog with food. After all, in the past your goal may have been to just get through the appointment. But is merely getting through it a good long-term solution? And, more importantly, do these methods take into account how the dog feels? The good news is that you can choose to behave in a manner that signals you are non-threatening. This choice can help you and the dog right then, and it also serves as an investment into future positive encounters.
Some perspective and some tips
First, some perspective. As someone who has helped a lot of people change their dogs’ emotional reactions to all kinds of challenges, I do not make the following statement lightly: the dog does not have to be perfectly relaxed for it to be a successful interaction. Think about how you feel at a doctor’s appointment or even getting your hair cut. You are placing yourself in the hands of a stranger, and you may be more nervous than usual. It is utterly reasonable to feel that way, and a little stress is not the end of the world. The trick is to think of it this way: a doctor who looks at you, listens, and tells you what they are going to do next probably makes you feel calmer than one who faces their laptop screen, is in too big of a hurry to listen, and who touches you without warning. As a caretaker, the choice is yours; you can decide to be the kind who signals to the dog your trustworthiness and good intentions.
And now, some tips. The key is the first impression. Let’s go back to the doctor analogy. When the doctor knocks, walks in, smiles and says they are glad to see you, that sets the tone for the whole appointment. If a doctor came on too strong with a lot of kissing and hugging, how at ease would you feel with being touched and tested later in the appointment? If the first impression they gave off was so wackadoodle, would they later be able to convince you they were trustworthy? Here are some subtle-yet-powerful ways to make a great first impression on a dog. No matter what the layout of your facility is or what you’ll be doing next, you can’t go wrong by inviting the dog in rather than mowing the dog down, whether physically or emotionally.
- Stand sideways
- Look at the dog’s shoulder or ear (use peripheral vision or a quick glance to view the eyes)
- Say hello to welcome the owner from afar, then walk away from the dog to go to the area where you’ll need to interact, not toward the dog to “meet” him. He has long since sized you up. Moving toward him is much more intimidating than moving away, which invites him into your space.
- Ask the owner to follow you with the dog. (Think Aerosmith.)
- Keep your hands hanging naturally at your sides (Velcro your hands to your pant legs if necessary. Read this if you’re in the old habit of holding out a hand for the dog to sniff.)
- Stay standing up. This is a tough one, but it’s so important. And if it is a tiny dog, stand sideways before crouching sideways so you don’t end up looming over the little dude.
- Don’t take the dog out of their person’s arms or take the leash of any size dog. Let the owner place a new leash on (if necessary), or ask them to transfer their leash to your hand as you all walk forward together. Pick tiny dogs up from the ground or have the owner hand you the dog, butt first.
- Say encouraging things like, “You’re looking great!” “What a beautiful collar you have!” or “What a brave girl you are!” Rather than “Oh Pookie, you’re shaking, it’s okay, don’t worry, are you okay?” This is not comforting or confidence building. To the dog, it sounds like you are losing it.
- For dogs who need to be weighed, if the dog is already unsure, do it later. Think about it from the dog’s perspective; it’s pretty weird to walk straight into a wall onto a wiggly platform that is oozing with the scent of nervous dogs (their pads sweat from stress). Here’s one smooth way to take the weirdness out of it: you or the owner can step up onto the scale with the dog as if you were walking over a little bridge together. Reward the dog (praise is great), continuing to reward as you step off with the dog still on. With many dogs, just stepping up and over it with them (even without a food reward) makes a lot more sense and takes the strangeness out of it. Can you affix a little container of treats on the wall near the scale, to reach for after the dog is on the scale? Even better.
- Do not coax, lure or bribe with a treat—it will likely backfire either then or at the next appointment, as the dog can readily see he’s being set up and may become even more nervous. Reward after the dog shows bravery, and you will witness more of that kind of behavior as well as a pleasant association being made between the treats and the scale.
- After most humans have completed doggie restraint or some other interaction, I’ve noticed they pat the dog’s head or tousle his ears, or give him a good pat on the side. It’s almost as if the human is relieved it’s over and wants to reassure the dog (or convince themselves?) that they are still friends. However, the dog’s perspective is what counts. The way to seem trustworthy is to create space for the dog. Don’t earn the dog’s trust and then pull a Godzilla move on him (if I could insert the sound of Godzilla roaring, I would put it here).
- Get the owner to do two extremely easy tricks the dog knows (“sit” twice in a row counts as two tricks) and reward with special treats (either or both of you can reward). This is not show-off time for anything fancy, rather this allows the dog some control to make a choice. It can reframe the whole appointment.
- Next, do easy things like just being in the room getting treats from owner, then picking up dropped treats around the room. Being free to explore the room and get rewarded for it is a lot better first impression than being glued in the corner with a nervous owner. One veterinarian I know has the technicians advise owners to remove the leash right off the bat, even with dogs completely new to the practice, so the dog can check the room out as he wishes. The tech drops a few treats on the floor while taking history from the owner. Finally, she drops a handful of treats on the floor on the way out to get the doctor. By they time they come back in, the dog is at ease in the space and happy to see the tech reappear. There are risks involved in this approach, but talk about building a good first impression.
- When preparing to touch the dog, approach from the side and slightly behind.
- Use underhand motions, with a scooped arm, when preparing to restrain head, body or legs.
- As much as possible, work from back to front.
- With nervous dogs, rather than poisoning your first impression with invasive maneuvers like taking a rectal temperature or lifting onto a scale, save those for slightly later in the appointment.
- When touching sensitive areas, work from further away to closer (for example, don’t just pick up a paw. Pet the dog’s back, then run your hand down the dog’s leg to lift the paw.)
- Teach a nose touch and warm up with it at each appointment. Use it during the appointment to remind the dog he can make choices, you have a common language, and your hands predict good things. Cue a nose touch to objects like a brush, leash, empty syringe, ear scope…anything that may make the dog raise an eyebrow. Soon you’ll be able to use the nose touch to position the dog, move the dog, or get the dog to hold still, all without touching him. Less invasive = less stress. Correct use of a nose touch is one of the best kept secrets in dog training and dog handling. (For easy peasy instructions see Puppy Savvy.)
- Give the dog’s human a simple protocol to follow at home to get the dog comfortable with touch. (Like the one in Puppy Savvy and in this how-to video. They can even adapt it for veterinary and grooming appointments, as in this video.)
- Encourage clients to drop by your space during your least busy times to practice tricks for special treats for 5 minutes. (Heck, create a contest with a dollar donation for each 5 minute visit, and you will have client dogs who love to be touched, a fun promotional event, and a nice donation amount for the local shelter.)
- Encourage clients to teach relaxation games at home and then practice them in your setting. In the shelter, 5 minutes of The Nothing Exercise can put dogs more at ease, which improves their quality of life and makes them more attractive to adopters.
- Get a dog trainer or two in your community to offer a 90-minute workshop once a month: part one on teaching staff how to put dogs at ease, and part two on teaching owners to help their dogs to love being handled by the vet/groomer/trainer. Everyone should see the whole workshop so staff and clients can work as a team to create a great experience for all involved.
- Be open to the suggestions and homework your clients bring from a qualified trainer or behaviorist. A team approach can mean dogs who improve with each visit, clients who have confidence in you, and referrals to friends and neighbors.
How to get started
If you think you couldn’t possibly implement these changes in your workplace, I offer you one last piece of ruff love. Just pick one of the Quick Fix suggestions and try it for two weeks. It won’t take any more time than usual to do your job. You might feel good having true conversations with dogs, even mini ones, that make your job better and improve the dogs’ experience. When you see improvement in the stress level in the dogs in your care (which you likely will), or if your work becomes more efficient, well, maybe try a second tip. I bet your clients will notice how at ease their dog is with you. If you think your clients will be puzzled by what you’re doing, use the opportunity to make this exceptional approach a selling point. Let your clients know you care, and tell them ahead of time what you’ll be doing differently and why. How many other grooming shops, veterinary clinics, training centers and doggie daycares truly put the dog’s feelings first? You’d certainly get my business with that message!
Once you get the ball rolling, you can use safer and more stress-free handling and restraint techniques like those taught here and here, and master simple techniques for defensive handling here. Wouldn’t it be great if your boss added these resources to your library at work? To learn more about all of this, and to brainstorm with your fellow professionals, check out the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians.
Every single time we show kindness and respect to others, it matters. It’s important. And it rubs off on those around us. You can choose to be trustworthy instead of reminding dogs of Godzilla. Why not give it a try?