What is body handling and why is it important? Body handling is being able to touch the dog all over, sometimes in slightly invasive or uncomfortable ways, to do various procedures like nail trims, vet exams, blood draws, baths, wiping muddy paws, restraining for grooming, etc. In order to keep our dogs happy and healthy, it is critical to be able to handle our dogs in ways different from standard petting and affectionate contact. The number of dogs traumatized during veterinary and grooming experiences is staggering. Even well-meaning pet professionals have to deal with fear and aggression in their animal clients regularly due to, what we often refer to as, handling sensitivity.
Labels sometimes alienates people in the community, so when I refer to handling sensitivity, I am describing dogs that show stress signals when being handled in a particular way. Some dogs may only be handling sensitive if you do something specific, like opening their mouth; whereas, other dogs will shy away from or snap at any person who reaches for them. Most dogs have some level of sensitivity that could use a little training to help them become more handleable, especially by a stranger.
Dogs that are taught how to be handled, through positive reinforcement techniques, show less stress at the vet or groomer, are able to be still through procedures, can participate in the procedures without excessive force or restraint, have positive associations with the humans handling them, are more pleasant for the pet professionals and owners to work with, etc. Struggling with a handling sensitive animal makes the entire experience more stressful for everyone involved (animals and humans) and makes it much more challenging to provide the best care for that animal.
I spent years working as a Veterinary Assistant for an equine veterinary practice. If we were doing a dental procedure on a horse who stood calmly and required little restraint, we were able to do a much more thorough job, than if we were doing the same procedure on a horse that was reactive and resisting. This may have nothing to do with the quality of the veterinarian, but instead with the handling practice done with the owner prior to our visit. Veterinarians are not trainers. Owners enlist the services of a vet to address the physical health of the animal, not teach the animal how to sit still for a procedure.
Though many vets would love to be able to spend that kind of time, working with every patient, this is what training is for. Think, if you took your car to a mechanic, but locked the doors and took the keys, it would be much more challenging for the mechanic to do the same quality of work if they couldn’t access the interior of the car. The vet (or groomer/pet professional) is only able to do their job if the client first does theirs. That being said, there are plenty of veterinarians and other pet professionals, including trainers, that practice outdated handling methods. Using force, fear, punishment, intimidation, or correction teaches the animal that they have to participate in the procedure, but we are here to teach animals to want to participate.
When I work on body handling with an animal, I am continually asking three questions. I need to interpret “yes” answers from the animal in order to continue handling. If the animal answers “no” at any point, it is important to stop and reevaluate the situation before moving forward.