The importance of handling

By Emily Larlham

Handling is a great way to communicate with your dog that most people overlook. It is also a great way to build calmness and trust in your dog.  The benefits are endless.  When your dog is comfortable with handling, touching your dog causes the release of the calming hormone, oxytocin, in your dog’s body that helps calm your dog.  It also can make your dog more social, and even increases his ability to learn.  Oxytocin is also released in humans when they touch dogs.  This is one of the reasons why dogs are used in animal assisted therapy programs.  Conditioning dogs to handling makes them less likely to bite when put in the situation of being touched unexpectedly.  Most dogs, unless previously trained, are uncomfortable with being touched in certain circumstances.  Some dogs have body sensitivity issues making them less likely to want to be social.  Handling exercises are also great for teaching your dog impulse control.

Without prior conditioning, handling a dog when the dog is aroused can be over stimulating, arousing and even highly punishing.  Sometimes handling can cause a dog to bite.  However, with conditioning handling can act as a way to calm your dog down, help him feel comfortable, reorient him to you, and help him deal with stressful environments.  Handling can also be used as a test to see whether a dog is really relaxed or just “faking” it.  If you touch a dog while he looks settled and the dog jumps up or swivels around excitedly, you know not to give your dog reinforcement for being calm, but if the dog lays calmly as you touch your dog you can drop a treat between his paws to reinforce the calmness.

You can train your dog to be comfortable and calm when being handled using Counter Conditioning.  This means pairing handling with high value reinforcement such as treats, so the dog’s emotional response to being touched changes from feeling stressed by the interaction to feeling relaxed and comfortable with it.  It’s important to use high value treats so that you create a strong emotional response rather than a weak one.

Tip: If you remember to do handling with your dog’s dinner every day for the first couple of weeks, you will keep on track, and not forget about working on this HIGHLY important lesson.

How to condition handling:

First start out by just reaching for your dog and saying “yes” and feeding a high value treat like a piece of meat.  Make sure not to look directly at your dog and blink often so your dog doesn’t think what your doing is an intimidating gesture.   When your dog is relaxed and comfortable with handling, you can then start to look at your dog as you handle him.

When your dog seems comfortable with you reaching toward him, reach and touch your dog softly.  Then say “yes” and feed a treat.  I personally don’t like to click because the clicking can cause your dog to get excited and also “offer” behaviors when you are simply trying to do conditioning.  Also it is very difficult to hold a clicker while you are touching your dog and also feeding your dog with your other hand.

Picture 4If your dog is very shy or fearful, you can initiate the handling exercise by feeding your dog AS you pet your dog at the same time.  No conditioning will be taking place, but you will show your dog what you are going to be doing without it being a surprise.  This also helps with working on handling with a mouthy puppy.  If you try to touch him for the first time, the puppy might try to nibble your hand as you reach toward him.  So for the first few repetitions, simply touch the puppy AS the puppy is eating the treat to get rid of the puppy’s habit of opening his mouth.

If you notice during the exercise that your dog is fixated on your hand that is holding treats and not paying attention to being touched, you can hold the hand of treats behind your back so that your puppy finds the handling the predictor of the food rather than what you are doing with your other hand that is holding the treats.

Once you have done a couple training sessions, reinforcing reaches and touches, and your dog looks comfortable, you can move on.  Touch your dog and hold your hand still for 3 seconds on your dog before saying “yes” and rewarding.  Then touch your dog and hold the hand still for 5 seconds, say “yes” and feed a treat.  If your dog looks relaxed and calm, try slow circles or strokes with your hand after touching your dog.  Say “yes”, after you have done a few seconds of stroking, and reinforce.  Remember, for your dog to build a positive association with handling, the handling has to happen BEFORE you say “yes” and feed the treat.

IMPORTANT:  Never trap your dog or puppy while doing this exercise.  If your dog ever backs away from the handling, simply do not reward the dog and see if the dog will come back on his own.  What the dog is telling you when he backs away, is that what you were doing is too much for him and that you need to go back a step and raise criteria in smaller increments.  If you think your dog might bite you during these exercises view the video below for a more detailed list of cautions.  You can also teach your dog to like wearing a muzzle before you start conditioning handling, if you are seriously worried about your safety.  You can also seek help from a professional trainer who doesn’t use physical or psychological intimidation to train dogs.

During the handling exercises, experiment with breathing and sighing and offer your dog calming signals (signals that dogs tend to do when they are acting non threatening), so your dog doesn’t think it’s some sort of intimidation game and also to help calm your dog.  Some calming signals you can do are: offer your dog a “look away“(look away from him as you touch him), blink your eyes softly and slowly, lick your lips, yawn, and sigh.

Here is a video briefly describing calming signals:

Most dogs feel the least worried with being touched under the chin and on their chest as the first place to begin the handling exercises.  However, all dogs are different and all have different body sensitivities.  Find out which parts of your dog’s body are the least sensitive to being touched and begin handling exercises with these areas.  Save the areas your dog least likes being touched for last.  By starting out with the areas that are the least stressful for your dog, you can teach him that handling games are highly reinforcing BEFORE you get to the parts of his body that he is insecure about.

Here is a list of a possible progression of parts of the body to conditioning handling:  Under the chin, chest, sides of the face, neck, shoulders, sides, top of the head, back, ears, legs, feet, tail, and rear.

For some dogs this progression could take a matter of minutes in one session, while for other dogs, especially adult dogs that have not been touched, this progression could take months of conditioning for the dog to feel truly safe, trusting, and relaxed when being touched in all these places.

Conditioning handling is a great way to set your dog up to be relaxed when massaged.

Here is a video that goes over the process of how to condition handling in shy dogs, but is great for all dogs and puppies:


25 Dog and Puppy Training Tips:binderlayingopen11-247x300
For each month of the year, I will release 2 training tips that will be accessible for free at  If you simply cannot wait for the information to be published online, you can buy the collection of all 25 training tips in an ebook format here: 25 Dog and Puppy Training Tips

This is a list of all the tips included in the ebook, and that will be eventually available online:

  1. Teaching a dog previously kept outside to be calm inside the house
  2. The problem with ignoring unwanted behaviors
  3. Fading a lure
  4. Adding a verbal cue or changing a cue
  5. Dogs and babies
  6. Socializing tips- Our world can be a scary place!
  7. What to do if your puppy bites you OUTSIDE of a training session
  8. Changing your thinking from “I don’t like” to “I need to work on”
  9. What to use as reinforcement
  10. Treat deliveries
  11. Teaching your puppy appropriate greetings on leash
  12. Teaching “All done” for training sessions and dinnertime manners
  13. Variety is the spice of life… and training!
  14. Teaching your puppy to walk off leash
  15. Don’t let your dog free feed
  16. Don’t only work on one behavior at a time
  17. Separation training tips
  18. Monkey see, monkey do- Take advantage of social facilitation
  19. Always remember to release your dog!
  20. The importance of handling
  21. Chewing
  22. Teaching “Drop” and “Get it”
  23. What to do if your puppy sits and refuses to budge on a walk
  24. Generalizing
  25. Training your dog to do absolutely… NOTHING!

Happy Training!