Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Body-handling exercises for puppies can make the difference between a puppy who nips at hands for the sake of keeping them off his body and a puppy who looks forward to human touch because of all the positive associations.
Of course, everybody would like to own the latter: a pup who loves to be touched and who grows up to be a cooperative dog who doesn't mind having his body touched.
This is fundamental. After all, puppies will need to be touched in some way or another throughout their lives. Veterinarians will need to do so during physical exams. A day may come where you may have to remove a torn embedded in a foot, or you'll need to give your dog a bath to clip his nails. If you own a small breed dog, you'll want to pick him up to put him on your lap.
Nothing to Take for Granted
Puppies are often expected to enjoy being touched just because they are dogs. Accepting handling is often something that is taken for granted, and many new puppy owners, therefore, assume that just because dogs are social beings, they must come to accept being touched, no matter how, for how long, when and from who.
Such owners are in for a big surprise the day the puppy starts to bite their hands when attempting to put a collar on them, or when checking for an awn between the paws or simply when trying to caress the puppy's head and body.
Oftentimes, these puppies are labeled as being overly excited, intolerant and sometimes, even aggressive if the biting is rough or the puppy growls.
However, frequently, these are rather normal puppies who simply haven't learned to accept handling or who were handled in the wrong way and at the wrong times.
As the saying goes, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." We, therefore, want to avoid as much as possible leading puppies to this point.
It is far easier making human touch a pleasant experience from the get-go when the puppy is still very young, rather than fixing an issue that could have been quite easily prevented!
The Role of the Breeder
Ideally, handling exercises are started even before puppies are welcomed into their new homes at 8 to 12 weeks of age. It all should, therefore, start while the puppy is in the breeder's care.
Good breeders should have already started getting the puppy used to being handled from an early age, often weighing them on a daily basis and getting them used to human touch.
As pups grow, handling should continue with the breeder having them stand on a coffee table and be rubbed over the head and back areas; having their paws lifted and touched; and having their teeth inspected, all in a positive way so to show the pup that body handling is a good thing. This work will prep the pup once they go to their new homes.
Not All Is Lost!
Not all new puppy owners are fortunate enough to have purchased their puppy from a knowledgeable breeder who had the time and commitment to start their puppies on the right paw.
Puppies are often sourced by backyard breeders, shelters, or even worse, pet stores selling puppies obtained from questionable sources. Puppy mill rescued dogs, in particular, can surely pose some challenges in being handled, potty trained and socialized.
Not all is lost though if your puppy wasn't granted the luxury of being raised by an ethical breeder.
This is where body handling exercises come into place. However, even if your puppy was granted a great start, it's always a good idea to continue to work on all those positive associations with human touch, and every now and then, hold refresher sessions so as to preserve them in an optimal state!
Did You Know?
According to a study, puppies not handled until 7 weeks of age were more hesitant to approach humans than were puppies handled at 3 to 5 weeks of age. Puppies not handled until 14 weeks of age remained persistently fearful and resistant to handling.
— Dr. Ellen Lindell, board-certified veterinary behaviorist
Body-Handling Exercises for Puppies
Before starting these basic-handling exercises, it's important to understand how they work and what to do if your puppy seems to be growing impatient/frustrated.
These basic handling exercises are based on two powerful behavior modification techniques known as desensitization and counterconditioning.
- Desensitization aims to introduce the puppy to touch using baby steps so as to introduce touch in a gradual method, always at the pup's pace.
- Counterconditioning aims to create positive associations with touch so that the puppy looks forward to it because it leads to happy outcomes.
As mentioned, it is very important to work at the pup's pace, always paying attention to his body language for signs of stress and ensuring he is not sent over threshold, the imaginary line where things start deteriorating.
Therefore, if you reach a point where the pup gives early signs of getting uncomfortable or frustrated, stop and keep track of this point and consider it as an intermediate goal.
So take a few steps back and once you gradually build back up to this point with your puppy being calm, then progress a little closer to your final goal, always making sure your pup is doing OK.
Continue this until you can touch with little or no negative reaction from your pup, aiming towards your puppy exhibiting what's known as a conditioned emotional response.
1. Happy Paw Handling
Start by touching each paw and feeding a treat. Rinse and repeat several times looking for that lovely conditioned emotional response. Next, progress to picking the paw off and feeding a treat. Rinse and repeat.
Once your puppy looks comfortable having his feet touched and picked up, start to touch the toenails one-by-one, always feeding a treat so to create positive associations. Gradually build up to spending a few seconds touching each toenail, aiming to keep it short and sweet and feeding tasty treats.
Once the pup seems happy with this operation, progress to touching each nail with a nail clipper or grinder and feeding a treat each time. Repeat several times. Do not turn the grinder on until the puppy seems perfectly fine. Only then, you can have the grinder running at low speed.
Turn it on and give a treat, turn it off once the pup is done eating. Do this several times. When the time comes to use the grinder, use a very light touch of the nails with the grinder and feed a treat.
2. Happy Mouth Inspections
Good care of your pup's teeth is important. Did you know that statistics show that, by 2 years of age, 80 percent of dogs have some form of periodontal disease? This means one thing: you'll need to start early in getting your puppy used to having his teeth brushed!
So start by touching your pup's lip and feeding a tasty treat. Do this several times. Aim once again to get what's known as a conditioned emotional response. Then, once the puppy seems okay with this, raise the criteria, and progress to raising the lip and feeding a treat.
Continue the exercise until opening the mouth is a fun game for both of you and your puppy starts acting eager to having his mouth inspected. Aim to again get that lovely conditioned emotional response and then work your way up—aiming to get your puppy used to have his teeth brushed.
3. Ear Cleanings
A time may come when you may need to clean or medicate your dog's ears. Don't skip training your pup to enjoy having his ears touched!
Start by very lightly touching your pup's ear, while feeding a treat. If your puppy moves/balks away, split this further and work on approaching.
Start by approaching with your hand towards the ear, and feeding a treat with your other hand. Move hand towards ear-treat, hand towards ear- treat, hand towards ear- treat. Look for happy anticipation.
Next, start by very lightly touching your pup's ear, while feeding a treat. Touch ear/treat, touch ear/treat, touch ear/treat.
If you need to wipe their ears, hold your cotton ball/pads behind your back, and then present it, allowing your dog to sniff, give a treat. Once done eating the treat, hold it behind your back again. Rinse and repeat.
Next, start by very lightly touching your pup's ear with the cotton ball, while feeding a treat. Touch ear with cotton ball/treat, touch ear with a cotton ball/treat, touch ear with a cotton ball/treat.
Next, touch your pup's ear with the cotton ball and progress to wiping the ridges of the outer ear, while the pup is fed a treat (you may need a helper to feed or clean). Rinse and repeat several times, working on both ears.
If at any time your pup seems uncomfortable, always stop and go back to a previous step and work until comfortable, splitting the more challenging exercises into smaller steps.
If your dog's ear appears red, has an odor or there is discharge, or if your pup strongly objects, consult with a vet as your pup may be suffering from a painful ear infection.
4. Eye Cleanings
If you need to clean the area around the eyes, hold your eye cleaning pad behind your back, and then present it, allowing your dog to sniff it, give a treat. Once done eating the treat, hold it behind your back again. Rinse and repeat.
Next, start by very lightly touching the area around your pup’s eyes with the pad, while feeding a treat. Touch the area with the pad/treat, touch the area with the pad/treat, touch the area with the pad/treat.
If your puppy moves/balks away, split this further and work on approaching. Therefore, start by approaching with your hand towards the eye, and feeding a treat with your other hand. Move hand towards eye-treat, hand towards eye- treat, hand towards eye- treat. Look for happy anticipation.
Next, touch your pup's area around the eye with the pad and progress to wiping, while the pup is fed a treat (you may need a helper to feed or clean). Rinse and repeat several times, working on both eyes.
If at any time your pup seems uncomfortable, as always stop, and go back to a previous step and work until comfortable, splitting the more challenging exercises into smaller steps.
If your dog's eye/eyes appear red or there is discharge, or if your pup strongly objects, consult with a vet as your pup may be suffering from a painful eye infection.
5. Happy Brushing
Many pups struggle with being brushed. They may not want that unfamiliar object near them or perhaps they don't like to be touched with the brush in certain areas, or maybe they got accidentally hurt when the brush met a knot or an area with matted fur. For this, take a step-by-step approach.
Start by creating positive associations with the brush. Hold the brush behind your back and then present it to your puppy. Feed a tasty treat when your puppy looks at it or sniffs it. Then, once your pup has finished eating the treat, place the brush once again behind your back and repeat the sequence. Treats happen only when the brush comes out!
Next, start placing the brush on his back(or any area he seems to not mind much being touched), and feed a treat, brush touch/treat, brush touch/treat, brush touch/treat. Repeat several times, until your puppy looks forward to being touched with the brush.
Next, start passing the brush with a small stroke, and feed a treat. Once done eating, stop the brush stroke. Rinse and repeat. Move on to brushing different areas while you feed treats. Be very careful with the tail and many pups struggle with that, be very gentle and feed treats as you pass the brush and once done, stop the treats.
6. Happy Lifting
Lifting up pups to hold them is also a body handling exercise. The process remains the same, using small baby steps and creating positive associations. You can find a detailed program for this in this article: how to pick up and hold your puppy correctly.
Habituating Puppies to Training Tools
Although you aren't always directly touching body parts when you are using training tools, puppies may feel as if you are, and the ways these tools impact their bodies indirectly, may scare them and cause a reluctance to wear them or to walk. Here are some basic handling exercises to habituate your pup to them.
7. Putting on Collars
Some puppies struggle with having their necks touched to put on a collar. Once again, good breeders should get their young pups used to wearing a collar from an early age, but not all puppies are so lucky so here is a guide to getting a puppy to accept wearing a collar.
Start by creating positive associations with the collar. Hold the collar behind your back and then present it to your puppy. Feed a tasty treat when your puppy looks at it or sniffs it. Then, once your pup has finished eating the treat, place it once again behind your back and repeat the sequence. Treats happen only when the collar comes out!
Start presenting the collar when feeding time is around the corner. When you place your pup's bowl down, place the collar next to his bowl. Once your pup is done eating, remove the bowl and the collar. Do this every time is feeding time. Meals happen only in presence of the collar.
Next, unbuckle the collar and allow it to briefly touch the top of your dog's neck as you feed a treat at the same time. Touch neck with collar, treat; touch neck with collar, and treat. Rinse and repeat several times always looking for that lovely conditioned emotional response. Treats happen when the collar touches the neck. .
Next, place the collar on your puppy's neck and try to make the two ends of the collar touch while you have a helper feed your puppy treats at this point if you can't do this with two hands. Remove the collar when your pup is done eating. Rinse and repeat making always sure that the tasty treats occur contingent upon the collar being on the neck.
Next, advance to doing the same exercise, only that this time, you'll pretend to buckle the collar as your helper feeds the treats. Once done eating, remove the collar.
Now, aim to actually buckle the collar making sure though that it remains loose. Have your helper feed treats and rinse and repeat various times. As your pup looks comfortable, gradually buckle it more and more snug (as your helper feeds treats) until it's snug enough that you can fit two fingers between the collar and your dog's neck. Then unbuckle once your puppy is done eating treats.
Once your pup seems OK wearing the collar, make a big deal of it, tell him how good he looks in it and let tasty treats fall to the ground. Then, remove the collar and act boring, no more praise and treats.
Keep up the great associations with the collar by making great things happen when he's wearing it. For example, you can let him wear it before feeding his meals and remove it right after. Or you can let him wear it before taking him on a car ride (if he loves them) and remove afterward.
Tip: if you have a very young or small puppy, start with a very lightweight collar. I like to use the ones of different colors meant for breeders, and known as ID collars.
8. Rewarding Collar Grabs
Puppies may struggle with being grabbed by the collar especially if the collar grab leads to something unpleasant. It's therefore a good idea habituating puppies to collar grabs just in case we need to get ahold of the puppy in an emergency situation.
So work on this and equip yourself with high-value treats. Call your puppy and slightly touch the collar, feed him a treat while you are touching the collar, remove your hand the moment your puppy is done eating the treat. Repeat several times, until upon touching the collar your dog looks at you for treats.
Next, start raising criteria: put your fingers under the collar, feed a treat, once done eating, remove your fingers from under the collar. Rinse and repeat until your pup seems happy when you hold on to the collar.
Next, grab the collar and feed a treat, once done eating, remove your fingers from under the collar and release. Rinse and repeat.
Next, grab the collar and gently let your pup walk a step, while you feed a treat, once done eating, release. Rinse and repeat.
Next, call from a distance, call your dog and when he arrives, grab the collar, make him walk a few steps and give a treat. Once done, release.
As seen, the goal is to make great things happen when the pup is grabbed by the collar. While many pups swerve when you try to grab them by the collar, in my puppy classes, pups are actually eager to be grabbed; which makes it tremendously helpful in case of an emergency.
It goes without saying that you should avoid grabbing your dog by the collar to correct him or do anything your dog in general finds unpleasant.
9. Happy Leash Attachments
Some pups struggle with us attaching the leash to the collar. This can be due to the puppy not liking us handling for too long or they may not like the sound of the leash snapping or it may be just the pup disliking being handled.
So once your dog has got used to the feel of the collar being kept on for gradually longer and longer periods of time, you can then start introducing the leash.
Start by creating positive associations with the leash. Just as with the collar, hide behind your back and then present it, feeding your puppy treats when he looks at it and sniffs it, and then once he's done inspecting it, place it behind your back and no more treats.
Next, start getting your pup used to the sound of the clasp. Keep the leash behind your back, then make the snapping sound of the clasp and feed a treat. Clasp sound/treat, clasp sound/ treat, clasp sound/treat.
Next, proceed to attaching the leash, giving a treat, then uncliping it once your dog is done eating it. Rinse and repeat. The leash snapped to the collar should become a cue that a treat is coming!
Once your dog gets used to this, snap it on before mealtime and then unsnap it once he is done eating.
Next, have a helper snap the leash on feed a treat and then you call your dog to you with him dragging it and give a treat. Unclip the leash when he's done eating. Rinse and repeat.
Next, raise criteria. Snap the leash on and hold it, walk a few steps ahead and call your dog to you, give treats when he reaches you. Try to avoid pulling your dog harshly on the leash considering that this will create negative associations with its use.
Teach your pup to give into the leash pressure rather than resist it. Sit on the couch and if he moves away, gently put pressure on the leash and show him a treat so that he learns to give in to the pressure. Praise and reward.
Start walking your pup on a leash. If your pup lags behind or pulls in another direction, coax him to catch up and keep walking. The moment the leash becomes loose when he catches up, praise and reward.
As seen, it's very important to get puppies used to being handled. Here are some extra tips and strategies for challenging cases.
- If your puppy is particularly touch-intolerant, pay a visit to your vet to ensure there is no underlying health condition at play causing pain.
- At least initially, avoid touching your puppy when he is overly excited. Focus instead on practicing low-stress handling when your pup is chill. This may be challenging if you have young kids who rev your puppy up. Ask your kids to be calm around the pup.
- Ensure your puppy is getting enough sleep. Puppies tend to get cranky and very nippy when they lack sleep.
- Wait for a time when the puppy is calm and quiet to do the exercises.
- Always end the exercises on a positive note, possibly, with your pup wanting more touching rather than resisting.
- Never punish your pup physically (alpha rolls, scruff shakes) as this will make your pup defensive and may cause him to even dread being touched more!
- An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to raising puppies and starting them off on the right paws!
On top of engaging in these handling exercises to prevent touch intolerance, make sure to involve your puppy in these exercises to prevent resource guarding in puppies and these exercises to prevent separation anxiety in puppies!
- Wiggs RB, Lobprise HB. Periodontology. Veterinary Dentistry, Principals and Practice. Philadelphia: Lippincott – Raven, 1997, pp 186-231
- Clinician's Brief, Developmental Stages of Puppies, Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB, Veterinary Behavior Consultations, New York & Connecticut
- Friedman DG, King JA, Elliot O. Critical period in the social development of dogs. Science. 1961;133(3457):1016-1017.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Sp Greaney from Ireland on December 17, 2020:
Puppies are definitely a lot more work in the beginning it seems. But I really found your advice on how to approach and get them used to all aspects of touch so useful. Any new puppy owner should be well prepared after reading this article.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 14, 2020:
Thank you for sharing the great suggestions. There are a lot of useful tips in this article!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 14, 2020:
You have given us many good tips on how to treat puppies so that they get used to being handled. We have adopted older dogs that tolerated but did not especially like having their toenails clipped. It would have been so much easier if they had been taught to tolerate it when they were still puppies. The same could be said for cats and kittens.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 14, 2020:
You have provided a wealth of great information for people that are getting or having trouble dealng with a dog. This is a well-documtented article, Adrienne, and I enjoyed reading it.