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How To Get Your Dog To Love Being Handled (Even If He Doesn’t Have A Costume)

By Kathy Santo | Updated: April 26 2019

This is the time of year when even the most reserved person considers dressing his or her dog up for Halloween! I understand, because my kids used to dress their dogs up, too. The fact that their dogs LOVED the attention they received from “doggie dress up”, combined with costumes that were minimal and “dress rehearsed” weeks before the event, made for a good time for all.

Which brings me to a subject near and dear to my heart:  teaching a dog “body handling tolerance” (BHT).

Simply put, it means that we teach dogs to tolerate – and love! – having their feet, ears, tails, etc. handled).  This is a KEY skill for them to learn, because there will be a time when you have to clip your dog’s’ nails, or clean out their ears, or remove something (a tick?) from their body. If you can’t do what needs to be done because your dog is fearful and cowers, or is bossy and gets aggressive, then you’re in a lot of trouble!

Those are just a few of the many reasons why you need to teach your dog BHT. However, I noticed that even with the best of instruction and encouragement, my students were less than excited about doing the exercises discussed in class that would accomplish that goal. Those of you who are teachers will understand this phenomenon.

After a week of hearing “I just forgot” and “That’s so boring”, I decided to bring in the reinforcements: T-shirts! It started as just a fun way to get the owners to teach their dogs to be handled. Using jars of baby food, we taught the dogs to poke their heads through the head holes (we used shirts 2-3 times the size of the dog’s heads). Once they accomplished that, then we picked up a paw and put it through the sleeve. And then another. And another. And another.  As the weeks went on, everyone noticed that the dogs loved this part of class the most. And so did the people!

Next, I started having contests, like “Dog who can pop his head through the t-shirt the fastest”, and so they began getting more creative with the treats that they were giving their dogs to insure their joyful and immediate compliance (cheese tortellini!). In addition, it came to my attention that the t-shirts were morphing from plain, white, cotton to jersey fabrics with slogans (some of which I cannot print) and designer denim jackets. I started noticing that the dogs were wearing outfits that reflected their owner’s “point of view”. For example, dogs who came from organic families were soon wearing eco-friendly fabrics. Dogs whose owners were more fashion-forward showed up in Hollister tees. Then came the “costumes”, and soon, entire families were showing up to dog class because they wanted to dress their dogs up. Dog trainers reading this will appreciate that last sentence: “Entire families” all coming to dog training class!

Of course, it goes without saying that the dogs who were reluctant to wear anything short of an oversized “T” during the specific training exercise were exempt from more lavish attire, but for the most part, the majority of dogs seemed to enjoy the extra treats and attention they gained from this exercise.

In addition, every single one of the owners reported that their ability to handle their dogs increased exponentially, and the reports from their vets and groomers mirrored the same sentiments:  the dogs were much more comfortable being handled. The result of this was happier vets, groomers, owners, and, most importantly, Dogs!

If that weren’t enough, another side benefit is that there’s now an increased number of dogs in my area joyfully wearing costumes during Halloween. While the children are going door-to-door for candy, the dogs are happily accompanying them, occasionally having a cheese tortellini, or a bit of a cheese stick as a treat.

One of my students who owns two pit bull/mixes (two of the sweetest dogs you’ve ever met) has told me that just the simple act of her dogs wearing t-shirts with goofy sayings on them has reduced the number of people who cross the street to avoid them, and increased the number of people willing to have conversations with her about the dogs (honestly, who can resist a dog in a shirt that says  “Squirrels Can’t Be Trusted” ?).

I know that some people are of the “dogs shouldn’t be dressed up” mindset, but if it eliminates body sensitivity issues, and if the dog enjoys it, and if it strengthens the dog and owner bond, then I’m all for it.  Because I believe that people who are dressing their dogs up aren’t the ones leaving them in shelters.

Kathy Santo has spent her entire career as a dog trainer and handler, training dogs and winning over 500 obedience, agility and Canine Good Citizenship titles. Working with her own dogs, she has achieved every competitive obedience title the American Kennel Club (AKC) has offered and earned the prestigious AKC “Obedience Trial Champion” title (OTCh) multiple times.

In Ramsey, Kathy teaches classes, private lessons, and oversees the training of her student’s dogs using her extensive knowledge, experience and intuition to handle problems from the benign to the serious. Her engaging personality has won her the respect and friendship of her many students, who now consider themselves part of her extended family.

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