How To Become The Best Dog Handler
How to become the best dog handler
Handling dogs isn’t always the easiest. As man’s best friend and our loyal companions, they can sometimes be incredibly challenging.
Professions such as dog grooming, dog sitting and dog walking, plus kennels, the police force and animal charities and shelters such as the RSPCA, will require you to work with lots of different dogs every day and knowing how to handle these canine companions is essential for the wellbeing and safety of both yourself and the dog.
True or false?
Let’s see whether you can spot the dog handling fact from fiction with some true and false statements. (You can see the answers at the end!)
- With the correct handling, a dog can spot the difference between identical twins
- A Doberman is more difficult to handle than a Labradoodle
- When a dog leans on you, it is for warmth and is a sign they trust and respect you
- Treats become ineffective after 5 seconds of reinforcing positive behaviour
- Dogs respond best to vocal commands, rather than any other form of communication
Dog behaviour basics
Understanding whether your dog is playful, anxious, aggressive, needs the toilet, is giving a warning or just wanting to be in charge is a huge factor in being able to handle your dog professionally and competently.
By nature, dogs desire safety and security. Part of this is being able to recognise what position they hold within a relationship dynamic. Who is the alpha? Understanding that a dog - especially if they are un-neutered - will try and assert their dominance is key to building a positive experience.
Step one is understanding your dog. If your dog is repeatedly growling, showing their teeth, their tail is tucked down or they overly pant, bark or shake, this is a sign they are distressed and can lead to possible aggression. This is a time to minimise stress. Offer water, provide a break and importantly, avoid face to face contact and leaning over.
It’s one thing to recognise the behavioural warning signs but actually being able to effectively handle your dog is an essential part of enjoying your time with them. Almost every dog will have a history of good experiences and bad experiences with people and other dogs and an important part of effective handling is having the right mentality from the start. Try to find out your dog’s history for any specific issues, then ensure you are well informed and most importantly, relaxed.
One simple way to make a dog easier to handle is to walk them on a short lead. Walk with them by your heels and do not allow them to go in front of you. Just taking a few short steps and getting them to stop at the same time as you with a short gentle tug on the lead when they go in front of your feet will help to assert a clear order between yourself and the dog.
Remember this should always be done in a calm way. It is easy to get frustrated when a dog doesn’t follow instructions but if you become worked up or tense, your dog will sense this and it can drastically impact their behaviour and and change their experience.
Body language tells us a lot about each other and this does not just apply to humans. A dog will feel intimidated and threatened if you go directly over the top of them or approach them head on. Any swift movements can be unnerving for them too, so a calm, steady and assertive approach makes a big difference in how they respond to you.
Utilising the power of smell will help your relationship with your dog even more than positive body language. Many people forget that dogs do not always have the greatest eyesight and their processing tends to be based on a part of the brain that makes very quick decisions. This is why smell counts.
Reinforcing good behaviour with treats works well if your dog receives a treat within 5 seconds, as this is how long their short term memory lasts for. This also means that correcting negative behaviour should be done within a 5 second period. This works as a dog associates the scent of the treat with good behaviour and good experience.
To apply this premise to dog handling, if you are nervous or calm, angry or unsure, it will show in more than just your body language - you will release something called pheromones. Dogs can even recognise the difference in identical twins through their individual pheromones, so smells which relax dogs and which they positively associate with good experiences are an ideal way to gain the respect and trust of a dog, for effective handling. (We wouldn’t suggest covering yourself in peanut butter or bacon unless you want to be licked all day though!). The more confident and relaxed you are in your practice, the more secure the dog will feel from the smells that you automatically release.
Practice – the three Cs
Practice is essential, as effective dog handling isn’t something that just immediately happens. All dogs can be challenging and all dogs will take different lengths of time to train, depending on how frequently you handle them, how positive their experience is, how frequently you reinforce the training (which must be done within 5 seconds of the event) and importantly, how consistent you are in your approach.
Staying calm, confident and consistent in your work allows a dog to clearly understand their boundaries and to build a bond and sense of trust between you.
True or false? - the answers
Now let’s see how you have got on with spotting fact from fiction…
- With the correct handling, a dog can spot the difference between identical twins. This is through the release of individual pheromones, which are a dog’s main way of recognising and recording both positive and negative experiences
- This is absolutely false. Any breed can be difficult to handle and to train. The three Cs are essential to effective handling
- This is also false. When a dog leans into you and when they jump up for a cuddle, it is the same as them walking in front of your feet. They are telling you that they are the boss!
- This is true. Whether correcting or reinforcing behaviours, it must be done within 5 seconds to have a positive impact in their handling. Beyond this time, they are only building up positive and negative associations with you and not their actions
- This is false, but not completely so. Dogs respond best to pheromones (our scent) and also to the intonation and gestures we use. Saying ‘stop’ isn’t enough, as dogs do not understand the word but are reacting to the physical behaviour and tone in your voice, which alerts them that their behaviour could cause them danger.