Teach Your Puppy to Like Human Handling

Teach your puppy to accept and enjoy handling as a normal part of life.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #43

let her go immediately. If you hang on, and her struggles escalate to the point where you must let her go, she will have learned to struggle frantically. Bad lesson. Next time you do the exercise, go back to a much shorter period of restraint and work your way back up, slowly, over time. If you keep running into trouble, get competent professional help. You can probably muscle your way around a puppy, but pound for pound even a small dog is stronger and faster than a person, and of course she has pointier teeth. The road of confrontation leads nowhere good.

How to Cut Your Dog’s Nails

As for adult dogs who are skittish about touch, the best response depends on the extent and intensity of the skittishness. At one end of the spectrum is the dog who, say, holds still while you clip one nail but pulls away when you go for a second. With such mild problems, you may make substantial headway on your own. Start with a tired, relaxed, and somewhat hungry dog. Clip one nail and immediately deliver a delicious treat, then quit. Repeat every day for a week, then give a second nail a go after you’ve delivered that treat for the first nail. Each week, add another nail. Keep those between-nail treats coming! Another trick is to smear the front of the refrigerator with peanut butter or cream cheese and clip nails while your dog is distracted by all the lickable deliciousness.

What Should You Use as a Doggy Nail File?

You can also make a doggy nail file out of a board with glued-on sandpaper or abrasive stair treads, then teach your dog to wear down his own nails. The doggy nail file needs an article of its own, but the Resources section includes links to instructions for making one and teaching your dog to use it.

Teach Your Dog to Accept Being Groomed

For mild grooming problems, combine a tired, relaxed, hungry dog with just a brushstroke or two, followed by a deluxe meaty or cheesy treat. Over the course of days or weeks, depending on how quickly your dog grows comfortable, add more brushstrokes, and keep the treats coming.

When Can You Stop Giving Treats?

People often want to know when they can stop giving treats. You can thin out the treat frequency as your dog becomes more and more comfortable with handling. But really, what is the problem with giving Dogalini a tiny piece of cheese or chicken every 15 or 30 seconds while you groom her? Especially if you start with a dog who’s twitchy about some aspect of handling, there’s no harm in constantly refreshing that new, positive association.

What to Do If Your Dog Aggresses

If your dog spooks easily, or resists several kinds of handling, or responds to handling by stiffening, curling his lip, growling, or any other display of aggression, you’ll need a careful behavior modification program. Check out my article on how to find a competent behavior counselor.

By the way, many people whose rescue dogs have difficulty with handling take this to mean their dog was abused. That’s certainly possible, but, more likely, your dog just didn’t get a lot of human handling in early life and so never learned to feel comfortable with it. Whatever the cause, you can probably make a big dent in the problem with patience and the right professional help.

Visit me on Facebook, email dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com, or call 206-600-5661. I answer questions when I can, and may use them in future articles.


Shirley Chong’s instructions for the doggy nail file are here. A somewhat more detailed explanation by a South African trainer, Claire Grobbelaar, is here. You’ll need basic clicker training skills; I’ve posted my primer as a Note on my Facebook page. Much more information is available in the articles at www.clickertraining.com, and I especially recommend Melissa Alexander’s wonderful book Click for Joy

Here are some YouTube videos of dogs using nail files. Something I like about all of them: there are technical mistakes in the training, and you can see that the process works anyway! You don’t have to be perfect.

Margaret with Max
Bella Gets Pet-icure
Dog Nail Filing Board


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).