Getting a dog or a cat used to being handled by humans is important because there will be numerous occasions throughout its life when such treatment is called for, from grooming and veterinary examinations to wound cleaning.
Rosemarie Tang, a certified animal trainer and behaviour counsellor, says veterinarians and groomers can't do their jobs unless the pet remains calm and still. "The more positive and fun you can make these experiences of handling of the pet's body from a young age, the better it'll cope as an adult."
Her key piece of advice is not to turn routine handling into a fight, believing you have to be dominant over the pet.
"If a puppy or kitten has had a bad experience, for example in grooming, it's likely that it'll remember it. Next time, a simple gesture of bringing out the brush may cause a bad reaction. Instead, you want to create an expectation that being close to and touched by humans is enjoyable. This is not the instinctive response, so it takes many good touches to develop a positive response," she says.
Tang suggests owners give their pets a daily body search, as these have many benefits. "One of them is you can locate early signs of illnesses before they have a chance to develop into something serious. Take note of any parts of the body or any type of handling that the pet dislikes. Gently touch these areas and pair up the touching with a treat and calm, gentle praise so that the pet will have a better association."
By building up a pattern of handling followed by a treat, the process becomes a pleasant experience. If the pet resists or seems anxious - with tight muscles, widened eyes, mild struggle and vocalisation - stop and take a short break, Tang says. "Then start again from an area you know it will accept, and be careful not to accidentally reward resistance, whining or mouthing by soothing or coddling."
Tang also advises owners to teach their pets how to accept hugs and restraint. She says to start by sitting on the floor and gently holding the pet on your lap. "Try to settle it comfortably on the lap with one hand gently holding its body and the other hand moving in long, smooth strokes from head to toe." Encourage the calm and relaxation, then gradually and progressively increase the pressure of the hold.
"It is important to not let go until the pet stops struggling for a few seconds. You do not want it to learn to fight to get its way. Ideally with practice, it learns to relax and flop in an owner's embrace - then you'll have a powerful tool to calm the pet in any situation." Tang says if the cat or dog throws a tantrum or struggles violently, it is better to enlist the help of a professional.
Pets can also be trained to tolerate grabbing. "Most pets do not like being grabbed, but getting them used to this can be beneficial, as it prevents the animal from becoming hand-shy. And accidents do happen. For example, someone might grab the pet's hair when reaching for the collar - if the pet feels secure when being handled in this way, it will be less likely to react defensively."
The best way to accomplish this is to arm yourself with a treat and walk over to the pet when it is not expecting it. Grab its collar gently and give it the treat, increasing the pressure progressively.
A pet's nails will need clipping on a regular basis, so in order to prepare them for this, Tang recommends holding a paw and squeezing the toes. When the pet becomes comfortable with that, introduce the clippers. "Don't rush the introduction of the clippers - put them near the pet and let it investigate. Give a treat each time it approaches or touches the clippers. Repeat several times over several sessions."
Next, hold the clippers and touch a paw with them. Give a treat and repeat. Once the animal is comfortable with that, pretend to clip the nail, then give a treat and repeat. "You will finally get to the point when you clip the nails. Clip one, give a treat, repeat, and if going well repeat until all are clipped," Tang says.
Training is best done by an adult when the pet is relaxed and not too excited. It is best to handle the animal frequently in small daily sessions, going gently at the pet's pace. When done correctly, even older animals will readily accept gentle handling, Tang says. But if they don't, seek professional assistance.
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