Day 17 Handling & Husbandry: Comfort with Gear

Welcome to Day 17 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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Comfort with Gear

At a glance:

  • improve your pet’s comfort with having gear fitted, such as collars, harnesses, leads and other tools
  • almost all dogs will have to wear gear at some point, an experience many individuals find invasive and uncomfortable
  • social and cognitive based enrichment
  • although children can make great dog trainers with the right guidance, these exercises are 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)
  • the gear you use for your dog such as collars, leads and harnesses

With the rise in popularity of ever increasingly complicated harnesses for walking dogs, I see A LOT of puppies and dogs who are uncomfortable with the fitting and wearing of these and other gear. Harnesses aren’t really to blame but some of them are so complex in design, in both fit and fitting, that getting them on and wearing them are disliked by many dogs.

While most pet owners will presume that their dog is pretty comfortable with the sort of manipulation that’s required to fit walking gear and the wearing of it, most dogs do a wonderful job of merely tolerating human behaviour. Our goal is to achieve more than just tolerance, we want joy!

Many pet owners are surprised that their pet might be reluctant to have walking gear fitted…aren’t dogs supposed to enjoy their walks?! And as such, will hope that the dog will just get used to it and eventually associate the appearance of gear with getting to go out and about.

What can happen instead is that the dog will show terribly conflicted behaviour, which their owner might interpret as them playing or messing about.
Because the dog might want to go for a walk, but isn’t comfortable with having their gear fitted or with wearing it, the dog will have difficulty cooperating. Feeling conflicted is distressing and these dogs will often exhibit stress related behaviour.
Dogs are pretty non-confrontational and have a large vocabulary of signals that aim to reduce social pressure, without aggression. Conflicted dogs start by showing the first tier of canine stress related behaviour often referred to as ‘fidgeting’ or ‘flirtation’ but it’s really conflict resolution behaviour. The dog might look like their playing; they might jump forward and then jump back, they might vocalise, they might even show side-eye. But, unlike true play, this behaviour is generally tighter and stiffer as the dog asks for relief from social pressure.
Of course, where not listened to, this behaviour may escalate to avoidance, hiding, strongly appeasing behaviour (often interpreted as ‘guilt’), and more demonstrative distance increasing behaviour (like warning and threat related behaviour).

Some of the excitement seen when walking gear is produced, and when the dog knows it’s walkies time, may also be associated with the conflict related to being physically manipulated into a collar or harness.

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But, even where fear or discomfort isn’t at the root of the dog’s behaviour, these exercises are helpful in teaching dogs about choice and in teaching appropriate alternative behaviour during handling and gear fitting.

Just like Day 3, 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.

I have included these exercises in our project because enrichment is about giving animals skills that help them cope better with their day to day lives (in captivity), along with establishing predictability and controlability.

Enrichment Goals:

  • to improve the dog’s comfort with the handling and fitting involved in fitting and wearing walking gear
  • 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?

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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 gear, 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.

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  • for some of these exercises, I 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 gear comfort:

These exercises continue to build 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.

Pretty much every dog will require some sort of gear to be fitted and to wear it, often 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 handling 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 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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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; putting the harness over the dog’s head, 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 harness fitted due to the discomfort with manipulation for fitting and wearing it. 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
  • gear 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
CER
A perfect example of a CER, that I am sure you recognise! Just as the rustling wrapper predicts yummies, we want your dog’s gear to do the same.

Decker recently suffered a very serious injury to his toe that required regular dressing and bandage chances, sometimes daily.

From the beginning, I made bandage change time a big chicken party! Me preparing his bandages and setting up at our bandage station made a lot of chicken tossing happen. That’s right, I established a CER to bandage prep so that even if dressing changing itself was uncomfortable he always looks forward to the process.

Note that when he jumps up he nudges the laid out dressings and not the lunchbox of chicken…bandages make chicken happen!

Even now, months later, if I take out cotton wool, he’s up and super excited, such is the power of a well established CER!

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The key to improvement with gear exercises is to practice at times when you are not going for a walk, that way you can practice several times a day and gear coming out doesn’t always mean great excitement and action.

If your dog does get excited after these training exercises, help them come down again by working on a stuffable or some snuffling.

Where a negative CER has already been established, it can be a little trickier to get going but you’ve come to the right place to get started!
Right now, when you indicate that the gear, to which your dog has developed a negative CER, is about to be revealed will kick off an internal emotional and stress response in your dog’s brain and body. This cascades into the behavioural response that you observe. Every time this happens, the scenario is further confirmed as being negative, scary, choice-less and unpleasant to the brain and it will do its best to help the body avoid exposure. In other words, every exposure is probably making it worse.

To turn that around, there are some essentials:

  • stop the rehearsal of the scary situation; this might mean using different gear, getting it from a different storage point, changing the picture
    If necessary and possible, use distraction & management techniques to work with old gear but store it and use it in a new place.

Your dog is anticipating when the scary stuff is about to happen so their negative response is starting earlier and earlier on in the process. With more exposure to stress, the brain becomes more sensitive to stress and gets better at anticipating stressful scenarios to allow the body to avoid them.

  • use new gear that’s different from the old scary stuff
  • work in a completely new scenario with the new gear (new storage place, new training location, new words or signals prior to getting it) – change the scene
  • use HIGH value food rewards
  • as above, get your timing right
  • do not use the gear outside of training situations, for now
  • create a positive CER to it and the processes required for fitting:

A new CER will be needed to its appearance. Work in short sessions of 5-10 reps. Have the gear in one hand behind your back and the yummies in the other hand behind your back.
Reveal the gear and as soon as your dog sees it, reveal your other hand and feed a yummy. Reset with everything behind your back again and repeat.

A new CER will be needed to its fitting. For example, its approach to the head, going over the head and so on. Get the first CER, to its appearance first, and then very gradually begin with each tiny stage of fitting.

In separate sessions, it’s also a good idea to create a CER to the sound of the fastenings. Lots of dogs find this aversive, including Decker. All our collars go over his head so that we don’t need to click the buckle. I don’t even fasten non-clicky buckles as the anticipation is aversive to him.
With the gear out of sight, up and over a counter for example, click the fastening and immediately toss a treat to your pet.

Option 1: Distraction & Management

Lots of dogs are a little concerned about things going over their head and having their feet handled, to fit a harness, for example.

Both the head and the extremities are delicate and sensitive and many animals will show some avoidance or defensive behaviour when reached toward or grabbed.

Consent matters.

We are starting with exercises that help us manage the dog’s behaviour while we fit gear to reduce wiggling and mouthing, and to prevent, puppies especially, associating biting with having gear fitted.
So, this is really what we refer to as management; preventing the dog being put into a situation that triggers unwanted behaviour.

If a dog is showing true signs of discomfort with having their harness fitted or in association with the manipulation involved, this is probably not the right option at this stage.

We are effectively luring the dog and even though we are using something the dog enjoys, the lure, we are not allowing them much choice or say in this process. They are there for the food. As such, if a dog is even mildly distressed by their gear and its fitting, we are further diminishing their choice and control over what happens them. Not nice 😦

I particularly apply this to working with young puppies so it’s easier to fit their fiddly little collars, leads and harnesses, while keeping their pointy bits busy. At the same time, they are, hopefully, forming positive associations between their gear being fitted and yummies.

Beginners:

Put the lead on and take it off!

On and off a collar:

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On and off a harness:

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Intermediate:

Getting a harness on or off a dog can be a bit more of a job as there are often more than one or two procedures. For example, we will need to get the next piece over the head and then secure the belly strap.

My preference is to use a really yummy stuffed or lined stuffable to help keep the dog busy while the human fiddles with all the straps and closures.

How you go about it will depend on the style of harness you are using, but generally I lure the dog’s head through the head piece by putting the stuffable through it and then I hold the toy under my knee for the dog to work on. While their head is lowered, I can fasten the belly strap and attach the lead.

For step-in harness (I call them “bra-type” harnesses), hold the stuffable under your foot or knee or between your knee. Feed the harness in under the dog’s head and gently place their legs into the holes.

Only do this if your dog is comfortable with having their feet handled and with you physically manipulating them while they eat something valuable.

This procedure must be applied with consent. If the dog stops working on the toy or comes away from the foot, then you stop. Allow them to resume before continuing.

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With H-harness, sometimes referred to as Figure 8 harnesses, draw the dog’s head through the head piece and then move the stuffable to under your knee so that you can quickly fasten the belly straps.

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Although we will NOT be getting into conversations about training tools and equipment, this is the harness model I prefer because of where it sits on the body (when fitted correctly), that it has a front/chest ring for extra control if needed, and for the relative ease of fitting using this procedure.

This approach has other useful applications, including for grooming and husbandry procedures.

  • use a spatula, dipped in something irresistible like pate, cable tied to the leg of a chair or table so it’s easy to fit and remove for regular use

Stick a dipped wooden spoon into the plug hole of the bath or shower for your dog to work on while you bathe them:

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  • line or stuff a Kong toy or other stuffable and wedge in between the sofa cushions; this will be at head height for a lot of medium and large sized dogs

Use a stuffed or line stuffable between your knees to carry out husbandry procedures, such as eye cleaning:

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  • smear the sides of the bath or the walls around a grooming table so that your dog can lap, while you groom and bathe

I found this vegetable cleaner, with a little suction cup, in a home wares store for €1.50 and it’s been really effective for keeping dogs occupied and happy for grooming and bathing. I jam in some pate and freeze it; there are two sides to keep them interested:

You can also buy stuffable toys with suction cups for dogs like the Chase n’ Chomp Sticky Bone or Licky Mats, and there are lots of other types and designs. The suction cup is handy for in the bath and most will connect readily to slick walls or doors.

A Snuffle Mat or similar feeder can be placed on a stool or chair for the dog to work on while you groom them too.

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Advanced:

Use luring and shaping to help build comfort with a harness or collar being fitted over the dog’s head.

Lots of dogs will find this uncomfortable and show some reluctance. While we are using a lot of luring so far, to build comfort we must add in the shaping component. Shaping is a way to teaching that involves us breaking down the big, goal behaviour into small steps. This is particularly important when we are working with fear, caution or stress because to lump the entire process in one go may cause the dog to become overwhelmed by it all, upsetting them and further establishing negative CERs to these situations.

So, we take it slow and build progress very gradually, over a number of sessions if required. Again, the dog gets to decide how far we can go and we listen. Consent matters.

The design of the harness will dictate how you get going but most importantly the dog’s comfort and consent will dictate how you proceed and progress.

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In emergency situations, where, for example, you needed to catch an injured, straying or wary dog, using a slip lead can be your most effective tool. On our Safe Dog Handling course we talk about all sorts of considerations when it comes to handling dogs in situations where care may be required; this is about keeping the handler safe, rather than training the dog.

Here are just two ideas relating to getting a slip lead on a concerned dog, in an emergency situation:

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Where a dog may be scared of having a lead on but getting a lead on is required for that dog’s safety or welfare, over the longer term, such as taking the dog out to toilet safely or getting the dog to a vet, I have used this procedure successfully.
Over time, the dog will become more comfortable with lead on, but working through these stages little and often is required.

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Option 2: Shaping

As already discussed, shaping means to break a behaviour down into its component stages and teaching each stage, then building to the next until the goal behaviour is achieved. This is done by reinforcing successive approximations of the final behaviour.

When we are working with a dog who finds having a collar or harness put on, over their head, scary, uncomfortable or distressing, we must work very gradually to help them feel better about the process.

We do this be splitting criteria finely, which means breaking the process down into teeny tiny stages and allowing the dog to dictate when and how to move onto the next stage.

With a dog who is afraid to have a collar or harness fitted over his head, we might just start with making a treat happen every time the collar is presented. We are creating a CER to the presentation of the collar or harness.
Next, we might work on the dog approaching or looking at the gear, touching it with their nose, sticking their nose through the opening and so on.
Little by little, always listening to them.
Consent matters.

Shaping is always my choice where a dog is reluctant or showing the slightest comfort with gear. The difference between this and luring, is that with shaping we are pretty sure the dog is choosing to proceed, rather than just moving in blind following of the lure.

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This isn’t just for leads and collars, and harnesses.

I love muzzle training and I want dogs to love their muzzles. Really, all dogs should be muzzle trained to some degree so that they are comfortable with their use during, for example, veterinary procedures. Otherwise a muzzle being used is just another stressor compounding an already difficult situation.

Lots of dogs will require muzzling over their lives due to BSL or during training and behaviour modification.

But, the majority of dogs will find wearing a muzzle uncomfortable and often stressful so careful muzzle training will be required. All our CBTT students must complete a muzzle training demonstration showing their shaping skills and mechanics, as well as showing acute awareness for the dog’s consent and comfort. This is especially clear to assess during teaching procedures such as muzzle training.

One of may favourite muzzle training videos is one produced by one of our wonderful CBTTs, Caterina Lodo of Canis Major, with her dog, Dante.

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For more on using muzzles and breaking the stigma surrounding muzzling, see Maureen Backman’s Muzzle Up Project.

Start building muzzle comfort by feeding the dog from a paper cup so that they start to like sticking their head into a narrow space, for food. They are also feeling that pressure across the top of their nose.

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Get started with muzzle training with a combination of approaches, especially if shaping (as in Caterina’s clip above) isn’t your thing:

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Although I recommend and supervise their use in very specific situations, with special care and under certain conditions, head collars may form part of some behaviour modification programs. If they are to be used, they must be carefully applied and the dog must be trained to LOVE wearing it before it’s operational.

A similar shaping process may be applied to head collar training:

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Option 3 Assume the position

Teach the dog to take up a position to have their gear fitted, using targeting. The dog getting into position is taken as consent to proceed, the dog moving out of position or showing intent to move out of position, means you stop.

We talked about targeting on Day 15  so this is a handy application of these exercises.

For example, a two feet up behaviour can make it easier to fit the dog’s harness as there’s less need for bending. This might be more comfortable for the dog too as the human doesn’t need to loom over so much.

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This clip shows the stages in building to getting the harness on, with two feet up. We split criteria finely again to make sure that the dog has the opportunity to object and come down off the stool.

Stepping up into the harness, of this ‘bra-type’ design might also help:

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Option 4 Calm for lead on

If the dog is already comfortable with having gear fitted, we can begin to teach them behaviours that help maintain calm for having their lead or gear put on.

These are stationary behaviours we are asking the dog to take up and if they are even slightly worried by their gear, this may cause great upset. When a dog is afraid of something, their primary goal is to escape aversion – they want to get away. If we ‘make’ them sit or do some other stationary behaviour, we are preventing them from doing that, diminishing their choice and increasing their conflict and stress.

So, comfort first.

This might be especially helpful for puppies who can get a little overwhelmed with all the handling associated with getting their collar on. This might manifest in what looks like excitable behaviour and lead to lead biting and hand biting. They are seeking relief so let’s make the process a little easier for everyone!

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You could also use a hand target, or ideally a chin target, so that the dog is positioned and still for adding gear. More on targeting on Day 15.

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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