Thursday, January 14, 2010

Teaching a puppy to tolerate restraint

One of the most important lessons you can teach a puppy, if not THE most important lesson, is how to tolerate restraint. It is relatively simple and quick to do if you start it young as a puppy and it will make your life SO MUCH EASIER not to mention save a lot of stress on the dog and potentially save his life. Despite this, I would estimate 95% of my clients never teach this important tool. My puppies learn this as our number one priority, WAY above teaching sit, down, contact behaviors, or focused attention.

I discuss with EVERY new puppy client (usually at every visit) how to work on this. Five minutes a night is all it takes; if you start by 8 weeks it is a whole lot easier but it can certainly be started later. First, if this is not your own puppy we spend some time making friends with the puppy,
cuddling them and feeding them cookies, so they are feeling comfortable and good about us. I like the puppies to wear a buckle collar and I put them on a table, washer, top of a crate, whatever- but off the ground and out of their comfort zone. I frame the puppy's chin with my thumb and pointer finger and slide my other three fingers through his collar under his chin. ((I am right handed and usually do this with my left hand so my right hand is free). If the puppy elects to struggle, all pressure is on the back of his neck from the collar- roughly where his mother would put it. He cannot bite or mouthe me because of the way I am holding him. I flip back each ear and examine them, look at eyes, lift lips and look at teeth, open mouth, run my free hand down his back, and pick up and handle all four feet- all things you as an owner might need to do in the context of basic everyday grooming or handling as well as part of the veterinary exam. I EXPECT the puppy to struggle and probably whine and squeal a little bit. Puppies are dramatic- they put on dramatic displays and exaggerate their responses. Most pet owners see this, freak out and think they are hurting them, and stop- so the puppy has learned that throwing a temper tantrum gets them what they want. All I do is wait until they are done wiggling and vocalizing and then I praise and go on with my business. I DO NOT try to distract them with treats- I want them to think about and be aware of what I am doing, realize that it is NOT the end of the world and that struggling does not get them the desired result, and then reward the behavior I am looking for- standing calmly- by releasing them and THEN giving cookies as well as kisses, butt rubs, etc. If you use the cookies to distract them from what you are doing, they never learn the most important part of the lesson- they are bribes, not rewards in that situation. 90 % of puppies started at 8 wks or younger (ideally I would start at 3-4 wks) will cry once or twice, wiggle for about 10 seconds, and then settle down. On night two you will get about half that much before they settle. The other 10%, and older puppies, will put up more of a struggle; I like to do this while I am watching TV so if they decide to have a prolonged tantrum I can distract myself and keep from getting frustrated by focusing on the TV show while I wait them out. Cory as a singleton was one of the tougher ones- I find singletons in generally to be very possessive of their bodies, very intolerant of restraint, and somewhat bratty, and he was no exception. I am happy to report that by 10 wks old he was very good and I can now do just about anything I need to to him with no one to restrain him, including having him lie on his side for up to 2 hours while grooming or reach down his throat to pull out whatever he stole from the neighbor's trash.

Part two is teaching that lateral down; I slide the puppie down my body with his back against me and his legs away from me so that he is lying on his side; on hand holds the front leg closest to the table and my wrist rests lightly over his neck, the other hand holds the rear leg closest to the table. Again, as long as he wiggles I do not respond, as soon as he relaxes I praise, rub his belly, and release. Gradually you stretch out the time and add in brushes, etc. This should be CALM and relaxing, you should not be flipping the puppy over like an alpha roll.

Part three is foot handling/nail trims. I like the puppy to stand on the table while I hold a foot; I DO NOT want anyone else holding him as I want HIM to learn the responsibility for holding still. I will pick up a front foot and hold it gently. Most puppies will cry and wiggle, some will start to twist all around to try and get away. Whatever; not recommended but your choice; I DO NOT LET GO but wait until they hold still and then praise and release and move onto the next foot. I will only correct for aggressive biting but I will not let go, even if they twist themselves in circles. Too bad, so sad, you might not want to do that next time. 80% of the reaction usually occurs on the first foot, by the time you get to the third foot they usually are getting the idea. Once they tolerate that I introduce nail trims one or two nails per night. Again, if started early most puppies are tolerating the handling in just a minute or two. If you wait until 12 wks to start, expect to wait out the struggling longer as this seems to start a more oppositional age, but it still can be done! I will not let the puppy fall off the table, but I will let him get a foot off so he realizes there is an edge and standing still is worth his while. I also recently saw an idea on Susan Garrett's training blog that I thought was excellent- use a metal spoon to tap on the puppy's toenail tips to acclimate them to the sound and sensation before going to regular adult nail trimmers (we also use human nail trimmers for the smaller puppies- much easier to use on the tiny nails, less likely to hit the quick, and quieter).

Timing your praise is critical- we all are tempted when the puppy is uphappy to croon to him and comfort him. SHUT UP! This sounds just like praise and reinforces the behavior you want to eliminate. Keep your mouth shut until you feel that first instant of relaxation and then praise like crazy. It makes a HUGE HUGE difference.

Although I do not use treats until I get the behavior I want, I usually use a fairly high value treat like squirt cheese once I do reward so the puppies find it is very worth their while to cooperate. It is very important that while you are doing this you do your best NOT to have to do anything that is painful or any scarier than what I have described above; I want the puppy to learn that restraint may not be their favorite thing, but it is a necessary evil and no big deal; they learn to trust me in a mildly stressful situation. By teaching your dog to tolerate this handling it will save them SO much stress through their lives! Nothing is more frustrating than an owner whose dog pitches an absolute tantrum because he has never had to tolerate any restraint until he has to go to the vet and have something unpleasant done, and the owner is unhappy with US. Um, YOU did not do your job to prepare your dog for a basic part of life, so now WE have to deal with it as quickly and atraumatically as we can- but it won't always be pretty. I can't even tell you how many patients I have who have suffered needless discomfort literally for years because the owner cannot treat them at home, and 99% of them could have avoided it by five minutes a night from 8-16 wks old.

My old cocker was one of those dogs that took three people lying on her to do her nails, and ended up with everyone covered in poop, pee, and anal gland juice. I swore I would NEVER have a dog I had to do that with again and I never have :-). I run up against maybe 1 puppy a year in my practice that, started at an approprate age will be really and truly difficult to teach this too- and boy, I wouldn't take that puppy home on a bet! Those puppies do better using the operant conditioning techniques I would use with a wild animal to teach them to allow handling- but I think they have missed the important point of the lesson in learning to tolerate restraint in many instances. Essentially it has been trained around rather than through. Virtually all of the rest do great with it, if only as many of the owners would do the necessary follow through at home! With adult dogs and older puppies you may be better off to use the operant approach as well (see my post with a good video on the subject by clicking on nail trims in the index to the right of this page) as they are likely to resist more and we don't want to turn this lesson into a huge conflict. In general I prefer to teach almost everything I can by shaping and positive reinforcement, but this is one situation where I want to work THROUGH the puppy not liking what I am doing rather than around it- he doesn't have to learn to love every bit of it, but he does need to learn that he MUST tolerate it, it is not optional, and he does have the power to make the situation be short and non-traumatic if he cooperates. I think dogs taught this way are much less likely to decide to stop cooperating when the time comes that we DO have to do something particularly unpleasant; plus, they have learned how to deal successfully with stress in small doses, which makes for a much more mentally balanced dog who deals with life in general much better.

The video below goes through this process rather quickly with Poppy, a 12 week old Maltese puppy. This is Poppy's second visit, so she had experience with this at her first visit when she was 8 or 9 weeks old. You can see she wiggles a little, but settles down pretty quickly and is not especially upset by the experience. This is pretty typical for what I see, although certainly many puppies will resist a little more, especially on holding that first foot the first time. I think Poppy has decided that playing by our rules is well worth the cookies and cuddles!