I'm going where?
Most of us have been there. You’re perhaps 8 years old attending some family function. All your favorite cousins and aunts and uncles are there. And then there is that one relative. Perhaps it’s that friendly, outgoing bear of an uncle. Or your great-aunt you haven’t seen in well… maybe twice. They adore you and you love them but the prospect of seeing them is daunting. This well meaning family member who is at least twice your size cannot help but tousle your hair, pinch your cheeks and probably squish you in a hug tight enough to squeeze the stuffing out of you. You wish they’d just give you a little space or let you move at your own pace, right? Well, if this is you, there are a lot of dogs who might sympathize.
Most of us have seen a dog back or dance away when reached for or seen someone go to pick up a small dog or puppy only to have her stay just out of arm’s reach. If not with our own dogs, we’ve certainly seen it happen at the dog park or a friend’s house. Well that’s the dog is equivalent of the scenario described above. It can be very frustrating, especially if you and your pup must be on your way somewhere, but it’s usually no fun for the dog either.
Sometimes it’s simply a game. Dogs do, after all, love a good game of Chase-me. Most of the time, however, it’s simply a matter of the dog not wanting to be grabbed. Perhaps he has other things he wants to do, but more often than not we have made being reached for something less than fun.
If you have a dog that balks, puts on the brakes or shies away when being reached for there is a good chance he has made an unpleasant association with your hands coming toward him, sometimes in a specific setting or when the human has a particular stance. Think about it for a moment. When are most of us faced with this scenario? Often time is of the essence and we are leaving to go somewhere. We may need to be off to work or an appointment or we are leaving the dog park. We might be a little tense, either because we are late or past frustrations. No matter where it is, it’s time to go!
So we reach for, perhaps even go to grab, our dogs by the collar or scoop them up. Our pups may attempt to dance away so we must be quick! If we succeed in nabbing them, what happens next? We clip the dog on leash and leave the park, put them in their kennel and leave for the day or just hoist them up into the air. In the process we often drag the dog into our bodies to do so, and for smaller dogs it’s just like an alien abduction! One moment you’re on the ground, the next, you’re up in the air! YIKES! None of this is a fun thing for the dog, so chances are next time your dog will try that much harder to avoid it by staying out of reach. It’s not that we intend to do this. In fact, most of us are not aware that it’s happening at all!
While it’s unfortunate that this happens it is all too common. But there’s hope! Unpleasant associations can be changed. This is the very essence of “desensitization and counter-conditioning”. If your little dog dances just out of reach when you want to pick her up, start teaching her that your reach isn’t scary. If your big dog puts on the brakes the moment your hand goes for his collar, teach him that moving into you is a pleasant thing! Even for dogs who enjoy being touched and are comfortable being handled, it is not unusual for that one specific move – the collar grab – to be unpleasant. If this is your dog, don’t feel badly. Just work on it!
So how do you do this? First, know your dog’s comfort level. At what point will he or she start to shy or dance away? If it’s when you are within a foot and actually lean down with hand extended that you start to see a reaction, you’ll start before that point. Move into your dog and, keeping your body erect, put out your hand. Then simply drop some kibble or training treats and walk away. Do this many times during the day for several days. When your dog starts getting excited to see your hand coming out it’s time to move on. Slowly, over time, you begin to approximate the “scary” grab more closely, always pairing it with reward.
Only one out of ten times will you actually follow through with any action – putting the dog in his kennel, on his leash or picking him up. You will never physically pull your dog toward you (even one step) or scoop him up without warning during this process. If your dog is reluctant to move into you, put a piece of bait on his nose and lure him in. If you have to pick your puppy up, tell her; “Fifi, up we go!” With enough practice and patience, small dogs can even be taught to jump into your arms. How cool!
How long this process takes will vary by dog and owner. It is important, however, that we all be aware of our own body language and what we are actually doing to our dogs, not what we think we are doing. Just as we cannot read our dogs minds, they can’t read ours! They have no idea what our intent is, only that being grabbed at has in the past been uncomfortable. Teach your dog that coming into your body, being grabbed by the collar and picked up is a fun, rewarding experience and it will make both your lives a lot more fun and stress free! What could be better?