The handling style and skills of a dog owner directly affect the behavior of their dogs, even other nearby dogs. Many feel comfortable with their dog handling skills after having pets of their own. However, although people really love their dogs, most of the people you see in public actually have terrible dog handling skills and are way too rough on their dogs without them even realizing it. (Read our dog training tips here.) All you have to do is go to any public park and watch people walk their dogs, command them to sit, or even have them get in or out of the car. They don’t know what they’re doing.
Here’s the first of a series of posts about dog handling basics coming from professional dog trainers to make sure your best friend isn’t uncomfortable.
Dog Handling 101: Greeting or Approaching a Dog
Of all the species you’ll encounter, the dog will likely display the greatest range of reactions to handling. Some dogs are calm and cooperative, while others respond aggressively. These reactions can differ from the dog’s customary demeanor. Often, a dog that’s docile and friendly at home reacts differently in a veterinary hospital.
Taking a few moments to assess the behavior of the dog you are about to approach can make your job both safer and easier. Is the animal you are about to greet a healthy, even-tempered pet who just strayed out of the backyard? A fearful dog? An aggressive dog? Or a sick/injured dog? Your dog handling would vary depending on the scenario.
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Healthy, even-tempered dogs
Here are signs of healthy, even-tempered dogs:
- No signs of illness or injury
- Dog is at the front of the cage
- Dog exhibits relaxed postures, sprawled out in a prone position possibly with belly exposed, sitting upright and alert
- Wiggly body, bouncing up and down, tail wagging, licking, and nose nudging
Before approaching the dog, speak with them in a pleasant, upbeat voice. Then crouch or kneel down on the floor and coax the dog slowly. Verbally reassure the dog with a calm, cheerful tone of voice. Allow the dog to approach voluntarily. If you must approach a dog, always do so carefully and slowly. Make sure that the dog can both see and hear you coming. Slowly hold out your hand, making sure that your hand is no higher than the dog’s nose. The dog may perceive gestures above their nose as threatening and may respond aggressively. Above-the-nose gestures include bending over the dog or attempting to pat their head when they are still unsure of you.
Let the dog sniff your hand. Don’t move your hand toward the dog; let them come to you. If the dog seems happy, stroke them on the shoulder or chest. Aiming for the face isn’t a great idea as the dog could see this as an invasive place to be touched by a person they don’t know. After a stroke or two, stop and see what the dog does. If they let you continue by nudging or leaning, carry on fussing if you feel comfortable. However, don’t hug the dog. While hugging is a sign of affection for humans, holding a dog close to you makes them anxious.
Approaching and dealing with fearful dogs take time. Here are signs of a fearful dog:
- Dilated pupils
- Standing or lying tensely at the rear of the cage
- Facing the back corner of the cage
- Glancing over the shoulder to keep handler in sight
- Ears pulled back
- Tucked tail
In this scenario, it is safer to take the time to allow the animal to come to you rather than entering into the cage or reaching in to grab them. Most fearful animals would rather flee than fight, but they will bite if they feel cornered. Speak to the dog in a soft, soothing, yet upbeat tone. Next, stand sideways or crouch down near cage. Looming over the animal directly head on will only increase the fear level. Avoid direct eye contact, for it can be misunderstood as a challenge to fight. Whenever possible, allow the animal to approach and check you out in their own time. Also try offering a treat without making eye contact. If the animal is relaxed enough to take the treat, this is a good sign.
With time, the dog will begin to better understand what you expect from them and realize that they will be rewarded for doing those things. The dog will also begin to gain confidence and offer those behaviors more frequently. Try this process every day or two for about 10 minutes at a time. Depending on the level of your dog’s fear, you may need several sessions to see a difference. Be patient and don’t give up. Once the dog is accepting your handling without signs of fear, pet softly, slowly and no patting! A shy dog may have been abused, even a soft pat could be taken wrong. Use soft, slow strokes.
If it is not absolutely necessary to handle a dog when it is acting aggressively, don’t. If you must, take every possible precaution. Here are signs of aggression:
- Growling, snarling, snapping, attempting to bite
- Charging the front of the cage
- Standing frozen at the front of the cage
- Staring hardly at people
- Ferocious barking and lunging
Go about your business as usual and refrain from reaching down to touch the dog, unless they show a direct interest in you. If the dog tries to nudge or bump you, just stand still. Again, avoid making direct eye contact. Looking directly into a dog’s eyes will generally be interpreted as an aggressive act. Also, try to position yourself at a nondirect angle to the dog. If you interact with the dog in a head-on way, it may increase the aggression.
When you do decide to get closer to the dog, don’t move in a straight line. Instead, walk in an arc, aiming to get closer to the side of the dog. Only take a few steps at a time and pause if you sense any increasing signs of aggression. Toss a handful of small treats, such as little pieces of cheese, near to the dog. If the dog remains hesitant, try looking away for a moment to encourage them.
If you’ve spent enough time with the dog for them to positively respond to you, it may be time to take the next step. Slowly position yourself closer to the dog and then reach out with a single hand. Keep it palm up and just hover it in the air for a bit. If the dog sniffs you, that is a good sign. If not, you can always try again in a bit.
By assessing the individual animal’s behavior and responding accordingly, your dog handling skills will protect you and allow you to interact with the dog better. To know more about dog handling basics, watch out for our next posts.
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