Creating Confidence in Handling
By Kama Brown
Working with dogs can be intimidating at times. Employees working in the canine boarding and daycare sector should feel confident in their own judgment and handling skills. Kennel owners can create this confidence and good judgment by setting up demonstrations, sharing knowledge, and allowing the employees to share their experiences with each other. Handling an aggressive dog is a finicky process. There is a lot of balance between space that needs to be decided in a few moments based on the dog’s behavior and breed. Employees should understand that different breeds bite differently. There are always exceptions, but in general, retrievers and guarding breeds will bite and hold, terriers will bite and shake and all the other breeds will bite, release and bite again. Within each breed, each individual dog is going to have a history and threshold that determines the intensity and function of the bite. Being able to assess an individual dog’s threshold before the dog bites is a key to creating confidence in handling uneasy dogs.
Assessing threshold is always looking for subtle changes in the dog’s behavior. Subtle fear signals include tensed muscles, weight shifted backwards, tucked tails, body lowered to the ground, crouching, closed mouth, tongue flicking, yawning, dilated pupils, wide eyes, ears back, head held very still, and puffing out upper lips. Being aware of small things can make a big difference.
Hands and faces are the most commonly bitten areas on the human body so having an employee who is overtly aware of where their hands and faces are in relation to a dog’s mouth is critical. For example, employees should use their feet to kick toys, bowls and bedding to the front of the kennel or away from the daycare group before picking them up. Employees should never reach down into a group of dogs to retrieve a toy or a dropped object. Pickup sticks or chuck-it toys are great at providing a way for employees to keep their heads up.
If a dog does not immediately greet a human in a friendly way, it has become common advice to extend a hand out while walking towards the dog, to allow the dog to smell you. It’s important to remind employees that dogs have twenty times more scent receptor cells than humans and a scent processing center in the brain to match. Dogs can already smell anyone in the room. A dog who does not approach a human is deliberately doing so and this needs to be taken into consideration. If a dog is hesitant about coming to you, the most threatening thing you could do is to walk towards them, bend over them and touch them.
When meeting new dogs, employees should always squat down and invite the dog into their space. When the new dog does approach, they should slowly rise out of the squatting position and begin to touch the dog in preparation for handling. If slowly standing up causes the dog to jump back or crouch, that is a sign of fear.
Fear and aggression have a circular relationship and usually the first sign of aggression is going to be a fear signal. If the dog begins to step backwards, crouch down, pant excessively, roll over or pee, the employee should take a few steps back and squat down again, repeating the invite for the dog to come forward. If the dog never chooses to approach, this should be noted in the dog’s file as a dog that employees should consider hesitant.
Using treats, a soft voice and slow movements will usually help the dog regain enough composure to feel safe, thus helping to avoid aggression in the future. Once the dog begins to approach willingly and offer flexible body movement, it’s a great sign that the dog is now feeling comfortable and an employee can go forward with more extensive handling, such as harnessing and bathing. However, if the dog remains hesitant to approach, handling should be managed in a different way. There are three ways to manage handling with a hesitant dog.
1) The first way is to give the dog the complete freedom to choose. This looks a lot like waiting at a kennel door for a dog to approach before connecting a leash, waiting for a dog to choose before coming in from the daycare yard, allowing a dog to walk away during a brushing session if they become uneasy, etc. Allowing a dog to choose is always going to result in zero aggression. It should be expected that some of these things may never happen. A hesitant dog may never choose to have a leash put on and the owner should be told that certain services will not be performed because the dog is uncomfortable with them. In the world we live in now, that means most kennels would not be performing very many nail trims.
2) The second approach is to force the dog into these situations while managing their ability to bite. This looks a lot like putting a muzzle on, getting a second person to restrain the dog, throwing a leash over the dog’s neck to pull them outside or inside. This approach often results in aggression and should be eliminated in boarding and daycare settings.
Owners are becoming increasingly aware of the negative long term effects this type of handling can have on their dog’s behavior and are unwilling to risk it. Dog trainers are increasingly discouraging owners from taking dogs to facilities that implement forceful handling. The trend towards force-free daycares and boarding kennels is significant. Loyalty is increased when employees take the time to notice the dog’s emotions and thoughtfully explain their observations to owners. Referring owners to a certified dog trainer or veterinarian is a safe way to ensure the dog owner can have all their dog’s needs met while maintaining the daycare and kennel as a safe and positive experience for the dog and the employees.
3) The third approach is a mix between the two, often times referred to as Low Stress Handling or Gentle Restraint. This method works to create a positive experience for the dog by using food, breaks and a quiet atmosphere. Dr. Sophia Yin developed a protocol and learning course that allows businesses to become certified in these methods and use them as a marketing tool as well.
Employees should have practice recognizing the subtle differences between appeasement, arousal, aggression and fear. Appeasement is often a sign of mixed emotion. Dogs are masters of appeasement and many times overly appeasing dogs can be the snappers and biters that nobody expected. Appeasement behaviors are behaviors often called submissive; rolling over when being greeted, constant licking when being petted, repeatedly extending their paw during grooming or trying to lick a person’s face nonstop. These behaviors are the subtle, polite way that dogs express they want something to end. It’s easy to decide if the behavior is appeasement by stopping the interaction and taking note of what the dog does next. If the dog is restricted to a leash or kennel and is constantly licking, pawing or rolling over, it’s best to give the dog some space and see if the dog chooses to continue the interaction.
Often just taking a step back will give the dog a chance to walk away (which should be noted) or the dog will stand up, compose themselves and restart the interaction in a more confident manner. A dog that is offering appeasement behaviors repeatedly without being given a break is at risk of being pushed into mental exhaustion and over stimulation. Employees gain confidence in their own interactions and handling by offering the dog a break and taking note of the dog’s behavior.
Quite often people feel that their dog is being friendly when they roll onto their backs and that rolling over is an invitation to rub their belly. However, unless the dog is relaxed and happy, this is not true. Showing their belly to an unknown individual, be it a person or a dog, is an appeasement gesture. Confident, happy dogs will always greet other dogs and people standing on four feet with fluid and flexible body movement.
Arousal is another set of behaviors that can have contextual meanings. Common behaviors that come from arousal but are not necessarily aggression are nipping, hackles rising, mounting, humping, neck biting, barking and backing away and playing the “chase me” game. Employees should begin to find ways to reduce the dog’s activity when these behaviors happen. Remaining calm is critical as any surge of energy from the human end will often result in a mirrored response from the dog. Walking the opposite direction will often bring a dog to follow. Looking at something in a corner or along a fence will usually peak interest. Luring the dog with a treat while a leash is attached is a great diversion. Directly grabbing the dog is never a good idea but herding the dog into a smaller space is a great way to control the situation without applying too much pressure on the dog. If removing the most aroused dog in the group isn’t working, bringing the rest of the group into the separate space momentarily can sometimes prove easier. It’s important not to overreact, yell, chase or punish an overly aroused dog. Over arousal on its own is not aggression but it can easily lead to it, so it’s important to quell the behaviors that go along with over arousal as indirectly and quietly as possible.
A fearful dog has three options; fight, flight or freeze. If a dog cannot create distance because they are confined in a small area, on a leash or in a kennel, the behaviors shown will be a dog that becomes very still or a dog that aggresses. Sometimes freeze is the predecessor to a growl, lunge or bite, and sometimes freeze is skipped entirely.
Space is a great way to reduce the freeze behavior, so whenever possible add some distance and see if the dog relaxes by offering backwards movement, lying down, looking away, lip licking, stretching or “shaking off”. If the dog does not respond in this way, remove yourself and/or the other dogs from the environment and wait in a safe place until the dog does show these signals. Once the dog begins to offer these “calming signals”, it’s a safe time to begin interacting again.
Experience and seeing these behaviors first hand is a great way to create employee confidence. If these situations arise, encouraging the employees to share the experiences among each other is a great learning tool. Setting up demonstrations with local vets, rescues or trainers can offer valuable learning opportunities without jeopardizing client dogs or employee safety. Keeping owners informed and giving employees numerous opportunities to learn these skills will create happy dogs, loyal customers and experienced employees.