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Success Story: How I Used Fear Free Handling for a Frightened Puppy

Susan Claire, CPDT-KA, FFCAT

A young man called me because he could not get a harness or even a collar on Oakley, his 6-month-old Pomsky-Klee Kai mix. He explained that this had recently become a problem after an unfortunate incident with a Velcro-closure harness, which accidentally stuck to Oakley’s thick coat. It was frightening and painful for him when the owner pulled it off.

The situation was urgent because Oakley now snarled and snapped at the owner whenever he tried to put a collar or harness on him so he was unable to attach a leash to the dog to take him out for walks. I advised him to try to slip on a martingale collar and leave it on Oakley temporarily until we could get him to accept the harness. I don’t normally use a martingale but in this case it was a logical option.

When I arrived for the first session, Oakley—one of those dogs who never stop moving—showed interest in interactions and did not give distance-increasing behaviors, but he also didn’t ask to be touched. I began by using a clicker to mark and reward every time he stopped moving or made eye contact. Then I laid down a super-soft non-skid consent mat, sat in front of it, and used the clicker to shape Oakley into lying down facing me on the mat.

Then I showed the owner how to desensitize Oakley to first tolerating a stethoscope, then having his feet and ears touched, and finally to a fake injection with an empty syringe. We showed Oakley each item, marking and reinforcing him for sniffing it. We moved each item slowly toward him, always stopping if we observed stiff or avoidance body language. I name each item and procedure so the dog knows what to expect during these sessions, and I advise clients to use the same words while the veterinarian is performing an exam or procedure: “heart” for stethoscope, “feet,” “ears,” and “pinch-poke” for syringe/injection.

After this, we tried to use similar techniques to put a Sensation Harness and then a collar on Oakley. I saw the problem the owner described, so we switched gears. I wanted to know if Oakley was generally fearful, so I set up boxes for nosework, a Snuffle Mat, a Wobbler, and a Spin-it. Oakley engaged with these items enthusiastically, demonstrating no fear. We did a few behaviors on the consent mat (sit, watch me, touch, and down), allowing Oakley to disengage and go to the boxes or Snuffle Mat if he needed to de-stress and return to the consent mat when he was ready to re-engage. I instructed the owner to practice all of the above between our sessions.

During the second session, we repeated the above and added one behavior to the consent mat training: holding the harness for Oakley to see, clicking if he sniffed it or moved his head toward it, and eventually trying to lure his head through it while saying “Put it on” but not restraining him in any way. We were successful with this but not in clipping the harness. We then did some obedience/safety exercises, such as come and loose-leash walking and finished with a game of fetch.

At the third session, Oakley greeted me with distance-decreasing behaviors and physical requests to be touched. He was happy to interact and be touched. When I put the consent mat on the floor, he ran to it and lay down, eagerly awaiting our interactions. The owner and I slowly went through the desensitization-to-handling process and he was able to get the mini Sensation Harness (with its tiny little clip) onto Oakley and clip it, with no snarling, biting, freezing, or avoidance behaviors of any kind from the dog. I was pleasantly surprised and the owner was thrilled.

I advised him to continue to use food while putting the harness on or taking it off to keep the positive association going, to always use the phrase “Put it on” to alert Oakley to what was coming, and to continue the consent mat handling exercises so that Oakley would be comfortable during veterinary exams. I advised as well to always end with a short play session or walk.

The icing was the nice Yelp review from the owner, who described the problem and wrote,  “Susan was amazing! She was great to work with and I am so happy with the results!”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.


Happy Paws Magazine

Spring/Summer 2020 Issue Available Now!