Body handling with our SideKicks - and regular practice of it - is something that's been on my brain a lot lately.
A recent visit to the vet with my SideKick, Ruby, was pretty eye-opening - to say the least. Getting vaccinations were difficult; drawing blood for testing was impossible; even listening to her heart and lungs with a stethoscope was not going to happen.
She wasn't comfortable in the environment; she wasn't comfortable with strangers touching her; and she wasn't comfortable with some of the weird stuff they wanted to do to her at the vet. I'll be frank; the vet visit was frustrating and overwhelming and even embarrassing - though the vet and vet technicians were all great and very accommodating.
This vet visit reminded me of a valuable lesson that I often teach to my clients: regular body handling is important.
Admittedly, some of our difficulty during the vet visit was because we were lax in our body handling practice since Ruby's last annual visit; but, there were also new things we found out we need to work on that we hadn't considered or practiced before.
What is body handling?
I couldn't honestly offer an official definition of what body handling would be; but, for the purposes of this blog post and for the purposes of conversations with my clients, I refer to body handling as activities that involve touching your SideKick or doing something to your SideKick. As you can imagine, this may encompass a lot of different activities.
In our house, there are a lot of activities that do or have been considered body handling with Ruby:
Application of skin ointments/oils (for allergies)
Paw touching and towel-wiping
Introducing, fitting, and wearing a new body harness
Application of monthly flea/tick treatment
Practicing vaccinations (with items similar to a needle)
Most of the time, I recommend against activities that mean you have to do something TO your SideKick. I always prefer that your SideKick have the opportunity to tell you they are uncomfortable with something by opting out of that activity; however, there are a lot of medical and grooming activities that simply need to be done; we and our SideKicks don't have the choice to opt out of those activities for the health and safety of our SideKicks, but we always have a choice in how we go about those activities.
The Importance of Body Handling
Dogs are not programmed to understand that a lot of these medical and grooming activities we do as humans are normal. And body handling can be frightening to a lot of dogs (particularly if done by strangers). Our SideKicks need to be taught that body handling is OK; in fact, I want us to teach our SideKicks that body handling is more than just OK - I want it to be rewarding!
Regardless of your SideKick’s age, practicing regular, on-going body handling is a great idea and is important for a few different reasons:
It helps make visits to the vet a little less stressful for your SideKick and for you. If you’re regularly practicing some of the things the vet does during annual exams or might need to do during emergency visits, your dog could be less anxious and stressed about a stranger (the vet) doing those things.
It makes grooming tasks, such as hair trimming and nail clipping, less stressful and anxious for your SideKick, you, and your groomer.
If you’re regularly doing a pretty good check of your dog’s body, you’re more likely to notice changes in your dog – lumps or bumps, scratches or scabs, and ticks, for example – and know approximately how new those changes are. You can also keep an eye on the progress of those changes for reporting to your vet if a visit ends up being necessary.
It’s fun and relaxing – for both of you! Who wouldn't want to give or get a daily massage? In our house, we have a "nightly fawning session" with Ruby when - unbeknownst to her - we're checking out her paws and belly and armpits for allergy irritations and ticks, etc.
Get creative with how you approach activities that your SideKick may or may not be comfortable with; you can each learn a behavior that can assist the activity, such as a chin rest or sustained target.
Practice counter-conditioning and desensitization to teach your SideKick that something scary actually means good things, yummy treats, and fun.
Explore the use of No in training or
Consider alternatives for your SideKick, such as in-home visits from a vet or groomer to help your SideKick remain more comfortable during those activities that we have to do.
Practice, practice, practice.
Most importantly, set realistic expectations for your SideKick - and for yourself. Part of the reason my recent vet visit was so difficult was because of the expectations I had for myself (as a trainer) and for Ruby (as the fur-child of a trainer) and they set both of us up for failure and frustration.