Most of us who live with dogs are accustomed to dogs that love attention and being petted. It can be disconcerting and confusing if your new foster dog from a puppy mill doesn't like to be handled. There are a number of things you can do to help your foster dog become more comfortable with being picked up, petted and even having his teeth or ears examined.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
First, take it slow, quite literally. Fast movements trigger alarm for most dogs. Even my couch potatoes bark if I get up from my chair and run across the room. They're on alert. Moving slowly, using a calm voice and pausing so your foster dog has time to prepare himself for your approach is important.
Leashes and Harnesses = Safety & Comfort
All new foster dogs in your home, whether from a puppy mill, a shelter or an owner surrender, should wear a harness and a leash when they first arrive. The leash comes off whenever you are not there to monitor the dog. (You never want to leave a leash on a dog that is placed in a crate or x-pen. It could wrap around their neck and choke them. You can leave the harness on but unhook the leash when you're not there to supervise the dog.)
The leash means it's possible to stop a dog that is running and about to escape without having to grab hold of the dog directly. It keeps both you and the dog safe.
Cue Me In and Pick Up Lines
Begin immediately using cue words to let the dog know when you're going to pick him up or touch him. Find something that makes sense to you that can be used by everyone. For example, before picking a dog up, you can cue by saying, "Up..." Pause long enough to give the dog time to prepare to be handled and then pick him up. Very quickly the dog learns what "up" means.
You can cue going into the crate by labeling it each time. Soon the dog can learn to go to their crate when you tell them it's time to do so. (If you feed in their crate, they may well learn this particularly quickly. You can also leave a treat in the crate for the dog to find, thus teaching the dog to associate the crate with the treat.) By giving the dog cues, their environment becomes less scary and more predictable.
Not Everything Should Be Approached "Head-On"
As humans, we typically greet each other face to face. Eye contact varies according to culture. For dogs though, face to face contact is confrontational. Watch a well socialized dog greet another dog and you'll see they don't travel in direct lines and we ALL know the famous greetings our dogs give each other.
Keeping dog manners in mind, it's much better to approach your dog from the side and also give a cue that you're coming so as not to startle the dog.
A pet under the chin or the neck is less threatening than reaching out over a dog and patting him on the head. An ear rub can be less threatening when the dog is in your arms. More on the "pick up" later.
Practice Makes Perfect
Practicing a skill is helpful for dogs just as it is for humans. You and your foster dog from a mill will likely need to practice the pick up line and the pick up itself many times for your foster dog to be comfortable.
First, cue your dog as mentioned earlier. After you say, "Up!" you may see that your dog stands still or postures in a way for you to take hold of them. Another may go to an area where they feel comfortable and safe. It might be under a table or a kitchen chair or some place rather "den like". Maybe the dog will run into his crate. Watch to see the pattern. It may not mean a dog is trying to escape when they leave the immediate area. It can be a way they're signaling they're ready now to be picked up. Learn to read your dog's signals. Communication goes both ways!
Catch and Release
It's a tough call for a foster parent - picking up your foster dog stresses her out. Should you pick her up often or hold off and hope that it will be less stressful when she's more accustomed to you?
Ask yourself a different question: What do you want her to practice? If you pick your foster dog up often but briefly, using the cue words, and mark her release with a cue word such as, "all done" you give your foster dog many opportunities for something that's new to her. She learns that even though you pick her up, you always let her go.
What's more, most of the time that she's picked up, it's for a very brief period of time and it's not too demanding. You're not trying to pill her, work on a mat, or give her eye drops or ear meds. This is simply an opportunity to be held for a minute, spoken to softly and then released. Being picked up becomes less stressful in a shorter period of time because of the opportunity to practice this new skill.
You Looking at Me?
It's not uncommon for people to report that dogs from puppy mills are very uncomfortable with eye contact. Keep in mind that in the past, their interactions with humans may have been frightening and even painful. Being seen meant being hurt or being scared. It takes time to change that mind set.
Speak softly and calmly and avoid trying to look in the eyes of your foster dog from a mill. Try using a sideways glance, when necessary, or attempt to look a bit past or over the dog. Nonverbal cues such as yawning or looking briefly and then looking away and looking at the ground in between glances at the dog can help as well. Those are the same signals your well mannered dog uses in interacting with other dogs. Watch and you'll see!
The Puppy Mill Committee