Once upon a time, many years ago, in a medieval courtyard in a small village deep in the south of France, I was enjoying a glass of locally produced wine at a summer festival. The scene was enchanting and nearly magical to me. I was daydreaming and relaxed as I sipped from my glass and took in the sights and sounds of merriment.
Suddenly my dreamy, idyllic moment was rudely interrupted. Out of nowhere, I was abruptly pulled off of my feet, floating in the air above the ground, then hoisted up even further as I was slung over someone’s shoulder! My feet flailed and I was stuck, dangling in mid-air! I was confused, alarmed, angered.
That moment has always stuck with me. It was such an odd experience to be physically picked up not only against my will, but also in such a startling manner. In my dreamy and relaxed state of mind, I was attending to other things; the sights, smells, my thoughts, and therefore did not see it coming. The culprit was a guy who had too much wine and too little respect for women. It took several seconds and much protest from me to get him to put me down.
I think about this experience often, pretty much every time I meet a new puppy or run a puppy class. It’s been helpful to me to have empathy for puppies because we humans are extremely handsy and grabby, and we pick up puppies all the time. Imagine walking down the street in your neighborhood, or heck, even in your own living room, just going about your own business, and suddenly you’re being swooped up and held without consent or even given so much as a moment’s notice to prepare. I now can say for sure it’s truly startling.
At Sirius Puppy Training, we are aware of how human handling can be unnerving or upsetting to pups. One of the exercises we’ve practiced in class for over 30 years teaches people how to gently handle their pup, preparing them for all of the baths, paw wipes, vet visits, and potentially over-exuberant dog lovers they surely will encounter.
Then there is our signature collar-grab exercise that prepares puppies for emergency grabs we may do when they dart out the door or go for that chicken bone that just fell on the kitchen floor, not to mention all the times that we reach for their collars to end the fun. The idea is to practice collar grabs and handling in a relaxed manner while hand-feeding meals or special food rewards with no other agenda than to teach the puppy to not merely tolerate human’s ape-like, brutish handling, but rather to actually enjoy it so that when the handling is occasionally startling, unwanted, or even uncomfortable, the pup will move from enjoyment to tolerance rather than from tolerance to intolerance or aggressive reaction.
All puppies start small and therefore are easy for us to pick up, but dogs are a peculiar species in that they come is such a variety of sizes as adults. Large breeds quickly out grow the “lift-off” stage and therefore are spared a lot of the anguish and stress of constantly being airlifted out of the blue while small to mid-size breeds must either learn to accept, or, more often, avoid these sudden “air raids.”
So many of my puppy clients very quickly develop some level of hand shyness due to the frequency and carelessness of how they are handled by humans. It is important to both be mindful of how you approach and attempt to touch or pick up a dog of any size. Use the exercises mentioned to condition your dog to like human touch as much as possible to put good money in the behavior bank, so to speak. That way, when you need to make an unpleasant withdrawal, your relationship with your dog doesn’t become bankrupt.
Please resist the urge to just reach out and touch any puppy or dog. The old fashioned stick your hand out into a dog’s face as a form of polite greeting is actually quite a terrible technique.
Each dog is indeed an autonomous, sentient creature and it’s most respectful to take a moment to perhaps get a little low, or at least turn your body posture a bit off-center and let the dog take you in and decide to approach and interact with you. Wait for some sign of acknowledgement and permission before reaching out, just as you would for any person.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: humonia/iStock