Can I Teach My Puppy to Tolerate Petting?

Petting puppy
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Q. My puppy gets squirmy when I try to play with her ears or feet, and struggles to get free. Can I help her get comfortable with petting? I’m worried this aversion will cause a problem when she’s an adult.

A. You’re right to anticipate that your puppy’s discomfort may be an issue later on — problems can arise with dogs who aren't taught to relax while being handled. Puppyhood is the best time to teach your dog that it's OK to be touched, lifted, cuddled and moved. This is important during veterinary exams, grooming and nail trims. Teaching your puppy to tolerate touching will also make her less likely to react if an accident occurs, such as someone tripping and falling over her.

Many dogs have specific areas where they are uncomfortable being touched, like the paws and ears. Your goal is to get your puppy comfortable with being held, touched and moved in a variety of ways, while paying special attention to her more sensitive areas. Rather than forcing your puppy to stay still while you’re handling her, which doesn’t eliminate the fear or discomfort that causes her panicked reaction, teach her that good things happen when you’re touching her. You want to take an uncomfortable experience and turn it into something that she not only tolerates but enjoys.

Help Your Puppy Relax

Choose a time when your dog is relaxed and comfortable, such as when she's settling down on the couch at night. Right before you pet her, give your dog a cue, such as “cuddle,” to let her know what you’re going to do. Begin by petting areas where your dog already tolerates touching, to help her stay relaxed. If your dog is uncomfortable with her paws being handled, for example, start petting away from the paws and in an area she's comfortable being touched, such as her shoulder. Say your word, “cuddle,” and then touch this area. Immediately after, give her a palatable reward, such as a small slice of cooked turkey hot dog.

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