Day 3: Handling & Husbandry – handling comfort

Welcome to Day 3 of #100daysofenrichment and thank you for joining us on this journey!

Although our challenges are directed mainly at dogs, we want all species to enjoy and benefit from #100daysofenrichment so, please join in, adjust and adapt to help your pet or companion live a more enriched life.

Don’t forget to review all the information leading up to #100daysofenrichment and more here on playing safe. Know your dog!

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Handling Comfort

At a glance:

  • improve your pet’s comfort with handling and grooming procedures
  • all dogs must be handled, in often invasive ways, throughout their lives for grooming, health care and first aid
  • social and cognitive based enrichment
  • although children can make great dog trainers with the right guidance, this exercise is best established by the adults in the household
    Children might help by preparing treats for practicing this exercise.
  • these exercises can be practiced in individual sessions of no more than 30 seconds at a time; have as many sessions as you can!

What do you need?

  • food rewards – you can use your dog’s regular food, a training mix, commercial treats, home prepared treats such as cut up meats, cheese, vegetables or homemade treats such as liver or tuna cake
  • a lappable stuffable (see ideas from Day 1)
  • small towel, such as a face cloth, tea towel, or hand towel
  • a brush or comb for your pet

Most pet owners presume that their dog is pretty comfortable with handling and manipulation, and while many are, most dogs are good at tolerating human behaviour. For this exercise, we don’t want to achieve mere tolerance, we want joy!

This is also the first time we are going to ask you to really observe your dog’s behaviour and think about consent.
It’s not our pets’ obligation to consent to handling or physical manipulation; our pets are individuals who have likes and dislikes, and good and bad days. They are allowed to say “STOP!” and “WAIT!” if they need to.
And what’s more, teaching them that they can consent, or not, is confidence boosting and bond boosting. You become a beacon of trust, you become predictable and reliable.

This is why I have included this in this project. Helping our companions bond over a trust-account, built on consent and choice.
Establishing predictability and controlability are important functions of enrichment.

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This clip shows a summary of the stages to building Decker’s comfort with having drops applied to his ear, treatment for painful ear inflammation. 
Not only is this process helping him to feel better about ear manipulation and medication application, but also because he gets to decide when and how this happens to him. 
He is being rewarded with food rewards (and catching) and choice. That makes uncomfortable medication delivery more bearable and possibly even enjoyable. 

Enrichment Goals:

  • to improve the dog’s comfort with hands approaching, touching, handling and grooming various body areas
  • to teach the dog that they can consent to, delay or refuse handling and manipulation
  • reduce stress associated with loss of predictability and controlability
  • to encourage a dance of communication, consent, and connection between dog and human
  • to build that bond between dog and human
  • to have a fun and rewarding experience in social situations, between dogs and humans

While training exercises certainly fall into the cognitive enrichment category, they can provide so much more.

This process highlights the complex social relationships forged between humans and companion animals. It’s a level of social enrichment that’s tricky to replicate.

By helping the dog learn that they have control over what happens them, in interactions with humans, the world becomes a safer place for them.

When we talk about enrichment being enriching, this is never more clear than when we start to teach behaviours intentionally. It’s the human’s job to set the dog up for success by making sure the behaviour is doable and that rewards are fast-flowing.

There’s no test at the end of this and you and your pet are not under any pressure. Learn to enjoy the time together, whether you achieve the goal behaviour or not. That’s what’s enriching here…the social and cognitive outlets such exercises provide (for both species).

What goals can you add to this list for your pets?

How can we achieve these goals?

  • work with toys or other rewards that your dog enjoys – associate each handling interaction with a reward and after many pairings, handling becomes just as enjoyable
  • make it very easy for your dog by gradually adding handling or pressure
  • watch your dog closely for any signs of reluctance; they might go still, or duck or lean away, they may lick at or mouth your hand or the brush, they might pull away
  • if the animal shows the slightest reluctance, stop immediately
  • review your approach and don’t go quite so far next time
  • working like this teaches the dog that, to object, they only need show minor discomfort because you are listening; to gain relief, they don’t need to growl, snarl or snap
  • keep it simple and split behaviour – reward approximations toward the final behaviour, rather than hoping that your dog will offer the goal behaviour quickly
  • take your time and work in many short sessions
  • try for 30 seconds at a time, 5-10 rewards each session, and then take a break
  • plan each session – what behaviours are you looking for and rewarding?
  • watch the clips and try out the exercise
  • portion out your dog’s daily food and allot some for training exercises

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  • make a training mix by adding in something yummier and leaving it all to ‘cook’ together in the fridge; the smells will mingle, harder foods will soften a little, and everything will become more valuable and rewarding

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  • remember to adjust your pet’s diet accordingly to accommodate the extra calories from treats added, where relevant
  • split your food rewards into little bowls with just the right number of rewards in each bowl so that you are ready to go; stick bowls of rewards in places where you may need to teach and reward behaviours so that you have rewards ready to go

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If you are feeding wet or fresh foods, cut up small or mash to a paste and present on a wooden spoon or spatula. Alternatively you can freeze in small ice cube trays or a pyramid baking tray so that you can use small portions and individual treats.

  • for handling exercises, we love to use a lappable stuffable (see Day 1) – reward the dog by allowing them to have a few licks and then withdraw the toy

What adjustments will you make for your pets?

Applications of handling comfort:

These exercises ensure your dog’s comfort in all sorts of situations and interactions with humans. This means that these interactions become safer and more pleasant for everyone.

Every dog will require veterinary treatment at some point through their lives and most dogs will require some first aid and grooming procedures, sometimes on a daily basis.

Dogs, when super stressed, either go very still and quiet, or move about, struggle and aggress (or somewhere in between). When they are still and quiet, they are presumed to be ‘well behaved’ and tolerant. When they struggle and aggress, we label them ‘difficult’, ‘vicious’ or ‘dominant’, none of which is accurate.

Either way, this isn’t pleasant for our dogs and as the humans (with the big primate brains), we know that our dogs will need to endure such treatment throughout their lives. It’s our job to prepare them for this so it’s a little easier all round.

Helping the dog feel predictability and controlability has wider positive implications, with some research suggesting that these effects generalise to other areas of the animals’ lives. Reducing stress is a good thing!

When we work on handling and husbandry preparations, we establish husbandry comfort at different levels that range from management and distraction, to building comfort, to teaching cooperative behaviours.
Throughout our 100 day project, we will introduce exercises from these categories.

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We help pet owners establish a simple consent test with their puppies, early on during puppy education.

Using a yummy stuffable toy, filled with something delicious, we teach the puppy that if they stop lapping at the toy, we stop the procedure immediately.

We want to make this simple and straight forward for puppy owners, who might not have the time or skill to work on cooperative care behaviours, and to help puppies associate something fabulous with handling plus giving them a voice. Win-win-win!

Enrichment Options

Throughout these exercises we are attempting to establish a CER or Conditioned Emotional Response. This means that our dogs learn that one stimulus makes another very reliably happen; reaching toward the dog’s head or collar, for example, makes yummy treats happen.

A CER helps the dog feel differently about a particular situation. A dog may already have developed a negative CER toward having his ears reached toward due to pain from an infection or uncomfortable cleaning or treatment. To help form a positive CER, we must undo the negative one (by not exposing the dog to that situation) while building a new, positive association.

This requires lots and lots and lots of practice. In the case of an established negative CER, it might take many tens of thousands of repetitions over many months to turn it around.

We are always following the rules that we have laid out for our dogs:

  • building progress gradually
  • allowing the dog decide how comfortable they are, or not
  • always pairing any move with something yummy, no matter what
  • listening to the dog

For a CER to be established, we must also get the sequence right:

  • reach toward the dog and then reach toward the treat
  • reaching toward the dog makes you produce a treat
  • if you reach toward the treat at the same time as you reach toward the dog, or if you have the treat out and visible while you reach toward the dog, the dog might not even notice you reaching toward them so no association will be formed

Option 1: Happy Hands

Lots of dogs are, understandably, a little concerned about hands reaching toward them, especially over their head.

The head is a sensitive, delicate area that many animals will show some avoidance or defensive behaviour when reached toward or grabbed. We presume that dogs like to be patted or scratched on the head, and while many learn to enjoy this, most tolerate it or will find it unpleasant in certain contexts.

Consent matters.

We are going to start with exercises that teach dogs that a human reaching toward them or over their head makes good things happen, and is never overwhelming.

Beginners:

  • have 10-20 tiny treats ready
  • reach toward your dog, without touching them
  • stop your approach with your hand in mid-air and withdraw that hand
  • immediately reach for a treat with your other hand and feed it to your dog
  • as you bring one hand closer to the dog, you withdraw the other hand
  • repeat 5-10 times per session and take a break

It doesn’t matter what your dog is doing, just make sure that your hand approaching makes a treat happen.

Watch your dog closely for ANY signs of reluctance. Adjust your approach by not reaching so close, next time. We will build more gradually, and that’s ok.

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Intermediate

If your dog is comfortable with that sort of reaching, let’s work on building their comfort with having their collar reached for and touched.

We tend to grab our dogs’ collars and restrain them, or even worse, drag or reprimand them via their collars, so it make sense that lots of dogs develop negative associations with having their collar reached for, handled or grabbed.

This is pretty much the same as the above Beginners exercise, except we are reaching toward their collar and touching it gently, providing the dog consents.

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Advanced:

With enough practice, your dog will develop so much comfort that they will want you to touch their collar…”here human, touch my collar, ‘cos that makes yummies happen!

When you get to that point, you’re ready to introduce Collar Grab Games.

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These essentially teach your dog a recall, without you even needing to call them…they ask you to catch them!

The catching part can be a tricky bit of recall training to teach because it invariably leads to the dog losing out on fun.
When teaching recalls we need to make sure that being caught, by their collar, makes the yummies happen AND results in them being released again.

To help this, we teach an exercise we call Runaway Recalls, which teaches the dog that if they return to their human, they get two rewards: a treat and the opportunity to go away again.

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Note that access to water is just about the most reinforcing thing in the whole wide world, to Decker. Coming away from water is difficult for him so it takes A LOT of work to get engagement in anything else when water is available. 

Option 2: Touch 4 Treat

Beginners:

This is our foundation handling comfort exercise that we do with all dogs; because all dogs will require handling at some stage and all dogs deserve to learn that they can consent, or not.

Get a yummy lined stuffable ready and practice this exercise in 30-60 second sessions as many times a day.

We concentrate on building positive associations with handling the face, ears, each foot, tummy and tail.

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Listen to your dog if they show the slightest reluctance. You can work harder on that area to boost your dog’s comfort – this might be especially relevant with your dog’s feet, as many dogs will find handling feet uncomfortable.

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Intermediate:

After some practice, we can begin to apply Touch4Treat to other handling contexts. The first one we will work on is towel drying.

Along with other potential signs of reluctance or discomfort, with towel drying we are also looking for signs that the dog is trying to bite or mouth at the towel. That tells us that we aren’t rewarding fast enough and we are going too far, too fast.

We start with a face cloth, because it’s less concerning for a dog, especially a small dog or puppy, and is easier to control for the human.

When your dog is comfortable with that, you can use a hand towel and finally a bigger towel that suits their size.

This is essentially a Touch4Treat exercise, you just have your hand through the towel and carrying out the exact same motions. Because you have changed something, go back to where you started with Touch4Treat, rather than diving straight in there with the towel.

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With your dog more comfortable with this procedure, you might even be able to use your dog’s already established ‘give-the-paw’ behaviour for towel drying:

If your dog is not comfortable with the handling and towel parts of this, you may run the risk of poisoning your ‘paw’ trick, so take care.

Advanced:

If your dog is truly comfortable with Touch4Treat and towel drying, adding a brush or comb will go smoothly.

The same guidelines apply, in that we start off really easy with just the brush approaching or barely touching the dog to their side or back and then immediately rewarding them.

Build very slowly, particularly if the dog has longer hair or is tangled. In the case of matting, it may be better to contact a professional groomer for help.

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Handling & Husbandry: management

Husbandry procedures such as grooming and medical treatments can mean high stress for lots of pets.

Thankfully, reducing stress in association with husbandry is becoming more well known and popular, particularly among training and behaviour professionals. Lots of positive moves are being made in veterinary treatment too! Good news for pets 🙂

Cooperative care behaviours are the ultimate in husbandry training; teaching the animal behaviours that allow them to be willing participants in their treatment, such as this amazing example.

Pet owners may not have the time or skill to work on this but there are other things we can do to improve our pets’ comfort and manage their experience. Here are some tips:

  • bring a mat or bed from home
  • bring HIGH value food rewards – lappables are best so bring a stuffable toy filled with something your dog can lap
    Not only is this more convenient to handled, but also lappables are less likely to cause reflux or aspiration should sedation be required.
  • make sure the things you bring the vet’s are washable so that they can be cleaned to avoid transferring bugs
  • you don’t need to wait in the waiting room!
    These are high stress places and usually pretty tight. Go in, without your pet, and let them know that you have arrived. Sit in the car, take your pet to toilet, hang out somewhere quiet.
  • Bring notes with you – what questions do you want to ask the vet?
  • be a good advocate for your pet – discuss how you would like your pet handled and what you can do to help
  • stay calm, breathe deeply and massage your pet with long strokes, if they enjoy that
  • if your dog will require a muzzle, fit that before the examination and bring some yummy baby food in a packet that has a dispenser so it’s easy to deliver through the muzzle
  • allow your pet to investigate the consultation room, before they are examined
  • medium and large dogs may prefer to be examined on the floor
  • use the pet’s mat on the table, or on the floor, for them to stand on during examination, to reduce slipping
  • stay at your pet’s head, delivering the lappable treats
  • organise happy visits to the vet’s or groomer’s – go in, have a game or a stuffable and go home, no treatment and no stress
  • consider the urgency and severity of the pet’s condition – do we really need to do this right now?
  • sometimes, acute stress is better than chronic stress so it may be better to get a procedure over and done with quickly
  • talk to your vet about the use of sedation, chemical restraint, rather than putting the animal through distress

Your challenge

Now it’s your turn. Show us what you and your pets, of any species, can do with these challenges!

Post to your social media accounts, using the #100daysofenrichment so that we can find you and join our Facebook group to share your experiences, ideas and fun!
You can comment right here too 🙂

We look forward to hearing from you and your pets – have fun & brain games!

 

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