Low Stress Handling Part 5 - Teaching them skills for Life November 5, 2015 15:41


Any seasoned pet owner knows there are some things that just need to be done. Nail trimming. Ear cleaning. Giving  a tablet . Have you seen the humorous “how to give a cat a tablet” list, which ends with taking yourself to the hospital? Many of these things are health or vet related, so stress from them often sabotages the happy healthy low stress vet-patient-client relationship that we are trying to achieve.

It seems that people often just expect their pets to accept these things, without any help or training. What you need to do is condition them to accept and even enjoy them, BEFORE they form a negative association. If they haven’t been given this training, and become uncooperative, they will usually end up missing out on important health care. Some pets are easy going and you can get away with it. But many are not.

This is my list of things that I feel pets should be trained to enjoy – or at least accept in a calm manner. Teeth checking and brushing.  Being given tablets. Ear checking and cleaning. Foot touching and nail trimming. Being patted on top of their head. Being physically restrained in a variety of positions. Wearing a muzzle. Having tummy touched/gently pushed. Having tail touched and lifted. Brushing coat. Being given injections and having their temperature taken.  Your vet will need to help you with these last two. If all dogs and cats had this list of “skills”, life would be so easy!

So here is how you do it, assuming you are starting from scratch – either with a puppy or kitten, or with an adult pet that has not had a particular procedure ever done to them before. You make it POSITIVE. That means you find a reward that works for your individual pet – food, toy, pats, praise – and give them that reward simultaneously with the skill you’re practising. Not after – that’s too much to expect in the initial training stages. You have to do it at the same time. Once a strong positive association has formed in your pet’s mind (ear checking = peanut butter) – then you can delay the treat and give it as you finish ear checking. Not before the association is strong and clear in their minds though.

Because the timing is important – that the reward has to be done at the same time as the procedure you are conditioning them to enjoy – you will usually need two people for this stage. Here’s a clip of a super cute pup being conditioned to accept two restraint positions, and some feet and nail handling:

You need to do short “sessions” of concentrated training like this regularly. Daily if possible. This little pup was very focussed and happy. Some pups will need to progress slower than this. Repeat these same lessons lots of times, and don’t forget to do all the various skills, in different combinations, in different surroundings and with different people present.

I think this sort of conditioning is just as important as teaching your dog to sit, toilet training, walking on a lead and coming when called. They are skills for life, and if you’re not teaching your baby pet these skills, you are leaving them unprepared and setting them up for fear, anxiety and less than ideal health and medical care later on in life. You are also setting them up to have a difficult relationship with the people who have to do these things for them in future – ie vets, vet nurses, groomers and/or yourself.

Once a problem has developed, then it’s much harder – my next blog article will address how to approach pets that have already developed aversions to necessary things. In many cases these can be reversed and they can be “counter conditioned” to enjoy something they have previously disliked. But you will need to be dedicated and persistent, and I do notice that most people need professional help with this process. So that can be costly.

I don’t want to sound critical or harsh here. If your pet hasn’t got these skills and has developed phobias or makes things difficult, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad pet owner! None of us get everything right 100% of the time. You were probably not given the right advice initially, or shown how to do it properly, when you first had the opportunity. I would say perhaps 50% of my patients have difficulties with some of these things, so it’s not an unusual occurrence. If you have a pet that needs to be sedated to have a toenail trim, trust me you are not alone! But I do want as many people as possible to know that these struggles are mostly preventable. I hope this article has helped to give you the skills to get it right next time around.  And if you currently have a pup or kitty, or your dog hasn’t developed any associations with these procedures, then you have the perfect opportunity. And it’s fun to do, increases your bonding and is a positive experience for everyone now as well as in the future.

 Dr Amy Coles