It’s a common sight in puppy classes – students sitting on the ground, arms wrapped around the puppies on their laps. Some puppies are held like a baby. The larger puppies are sitting up. The instructor lectures that this important exercise teaches the puppies to be calm when restrained. At least half of the puppies are squirming, some with great energy, and students are waving treats in front of the puppies’ noses to try to calm them.
If you’ve attended or taught a puppy classes, you’re probably nodding along. The Puppy Hold is an exercise in most curriculums, often endorsed by well-respected, senior trainers. When I began teaching, I wanted all of my students to be successful when they took their puppy to the vet, so I taught the Puppy Hold as well.
There are at least a handful of things during my career as a horse and dog trainer that, upon reflection, cause me to cringe. As painful as that is, regret is a sign that I am meeting my personal goal of continual growth and critical thinking. It is my duty toward my students to deeply consider the intention and the application of each training method that I employ.
And that’s why I threw out the Puppy Hold. It is unnecessarily stressful for many puppies, and we have more refined tools to accomplish the goal of the Puppy Hold. It also sets a precedent for the puppy that he has no control of his situation, which is a factor in many behavioral issues. Finally, there’s potential to harm the human-animal relationship.
Let’s first consider the goal of the Puppy Hold: usually, this is to teach calm restraint for husbandry procedures. The Puppy Hold is an exercise in flooding. (You can read more about flooding in this great article by Eileen Anderson, which also calls out the pitfalls of Pass the Puppy – an extension of the Puppy Hold.) It is generally taught to pick up the puppy and hold him until he becomes calm. To give up is supposedly to teach the puppy that “he can get what he wants” if he squirms. We’ve generally ditched flooding in other training situations1, so why does this vestige remain? We can teach the puppy to accept restraint using systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, proceeding slowly enough that the puppy doesn’t feel stress or panic. Taking it a step further, we can use positive reinforcement techniques and operant conditioning to train our puppies to be active and willing participants in their own husbandry routines. This approach is called Cooperative Care. It’s the gold standard in zoo animal husbandry, and small animal veterinarians are getting on board as well. (Here are videos on how to use Chirag Patel’s Bucket Game to get started with Cooperative Care.)
In many cases, the Puppy Hold is ineffective, and at worst, detrimental. Some students may never see progress with the Puppy Hold in class. If the puppy continues to squirm, we’re not teaching him anything positive, just harassing him. If the puppy eventually gives up and is very still, it may be an effect of learned helplessness, which doesn’t guarantee that the puppy will be easier to handle in the future, and may in fact cause more problems later on. Furthermore, sensitization is often a (very unwanted) side effect of a flooding attempt2, resulting in a puppy that is even less tolerant of restraint and handling.
It’s critical to respect the dog’s personal space, physical needs, and emotions. In fact, the focus of behavior modification is to cultivate positive emotions so that the dog is physically and mentally able to exhibit what we consider desirable behavior3,4. Building predictability and controllability into training situations and daily life is a central tenet of my approach to working with serious fear, anxiety, and aggression. Holding down your dog until he stops squirming is the opposite of anything empowering and respectful, and certainly builds no positive affect into the learned behavior. Dr. Susan Friedman summarizes all of these effects in her article "What's wrong with this picture? Effectiveness is not enough."
“When an animal’s attempts to escape aversive events are blocked they tend to give up trying even when their power to escape is restored. This phenomenon, called learned helplessness, has been replicated with a wide variety of animal species... Response blocking is associated with additional pathological effects such as depression, learning deficits, emotional problems and suppressed immune system activity. An animal’s functional behavior is made ineffective whenever we ignore its fears, force it to go where it resists going, and coerce it to do things against its will… When a lack of control becomes a life-style, it may result in the aberrant behaviors dogs do such as excessive barking, repetitive licking, and phobic behavior.5”
Now, I don’t have data on the specific effect of Puppy Holds on development of future behavior problems – a study wouldn’t be impossible, but there would be several challenges. We do know that in a survey of training methods and their outcomes, researchers found that dog that were “alpha rolled” responded with aggression in 31% of observations6. The context here (human “punishing” the dog, likely in the home) is different from that of a hold in puppy class, so extrapolation is not appropriate. However, it is a starting point to consider potential ramifications of holding one’s dog against their will. It’s also important to remember that our good intention (a “good-for-you” training exercise versus a punisher) does not necessarily mean the dog’s perception will be positive.
Certainly there are some dogs that get through the Puppy Hold and are “just fine” – so what’s the harm? Like every training exercise, the Puppy Hold isn’t just about the dog, it is also about the human. Everything we teach in puppy class becomes a part of the client’s approach to interacting with their dog: the “lifestyle” as Dr. Friedman phrases it.
What have I taught my students when I coach the Puppy Hold?
Most trainers who advocate for the use of positive reinforcement techniques would stand with me that these three points above are contrary to their goals and methods. In fact, they often take a vocal stand against these viewpoints. But by teaching the Puppy Hold, not only do we run the risk of short-term damage to the bond between client and puppy, but the greater damage may be in the lasting effects of this overall approach to training. I can’t fault trainers for teaching the Puppy Hold because that’s what was taught by senior lecturers and experts. But I do expect that they turn a critical eye upon every training exercise they use, including the Puppy Hold. Professional trainers need to continually check that their training is progressive, dog-centered, and truly matches their ethics – and their marketing rhetoric.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Puppy class attendance has been shown to be associated with an increase in retention7 (i.e. adopted puppies were less likely to be rehomed or returned), and additional studies have identified the benefits of puppy classes include increased obedience and prevention of behavior problems.8,9. (Also see the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s Position Statement on Puppy Socialization.) Remember that you are empowered to say no to your trainer, and choose a more appropriate exercise for your puppy while others are engaging in the Puppy Hold. This can be difficult for some people, so you may want to spend some time mentally planning your course of action. Hopefully, your trainer will be understanding.
There are many things I don’t have space to touch on here – why appetitive and empowering training does not equal permissive, how to teach cooperative care and low-stress restraint, how to set up a classroom environment for cooperative care (why do we attempt to restrain puppies after allowing them to run around wild for 30 minutes, while preaching “setting up for success”?), how to identify a well-run puppy class, and so on. Let me also make it clear that is article is in reference to the Puppy Hold exercise, and does not comment on other forms of holding, picking up, or cuddling your puppy - which may or may not be pleasant for your puppy. Finally, there are some trainers who justify the Puppy Hold as an exercise to punish or discourage unwanted behavior, or to establish dominance and control. I hope that the above illustrates why I would also oppose the Puppy Hold for these reasons.
- Katie Grillaert BS, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CBATI © 2016