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Puppy Suspension In-Clinic





Dog held too high. Puppy needs to look up into your eyes.

 Dog Behavior Library

The Suspension Technique

Puppy and Kitten Prime Socialization Period
The prime socialization period in small animals is approximately 4-12 weeks of age for puppies and 3-7 weeks for kittens. During this period, veterinarians and owners have the greatest opportunity to influence (positively or negatively) the future personality of the individual pet. Puppy and kitten veterinary visits are an ideal time to start shaping a pet's future behavior, creating a friendly patient for life. The goals are to prevent dominance and fear, bond the pet and owner to the practice, and to encourage a friendly, cooperative pet personality.

Puppy and kitten veterinary visits are an ideal time to start shaping a pet's future behavior, creating a friendly patient for life.

The Suspension Technique
This technique triggers a parental leadership and calming reflex similar to the youngster being picked up and moved by its mother. Its effectiveness is inversely proportional to the pet's age, hence an excellent technique for puppies and kittens. The ideal age range is 4 to 14 weeks, though the technique can be used in pets of any age who are small enough to be easily picked up. Although useful in young kittens, the results are enhanced with puppies because of their natural social instinct.

The technique can be described as picking up the puppy (suspending it) with one hand under each foreleg, and letting the back legs dangle for a few seconds as if picking up a human toddler. Kittens can be lifted the same way, or gently by the scruff. If possible, in the hospital setting, have the owner pick up the pet and hand it to you. The pet is often accustomed to the owner picking it up, and the "hand over" is a type of non-verbal transfer of trust. Your thumbs should be place under the pet's chin to prevent any possibility of biting your hands. If convenient, give a small tasty food treat just before beginning a suspension of 3-10 seconds.

Some puppies will fidget with their rear legs dangling. If this happens, let the rear legs touch a table or your body. It is essential to smile and talk in a high, happy reassuring voice tone to the puppy to communicate this is not a threat. It is also recommended to keep the puppy's eye level below your own to maintain leadership.

If the puppy panics or does not stop wriggling, just put the pet down to be sure there is no fear imprint. Then recommend to the owner that the puppy enroll in an off leash puppy socialization class that includes handling exercises to build confidence.

Shaking the puppy or verbal scolding is ineffective and contraindicated since it generates fear instead of trust. The goal of suspension is to communicate strong but positive leadership position. Some dogs grow up without ever experiencing non-punitive subordination, which may increase the likelihood of dominance aggression later in life.

Suspension is a type of non-threatening, "Situational Domination" because the pup has been put into a situation where it cannot fight, bite or escape. What it learns is that nothing bad happens, and the person doing the suspension is friendly and powerful.
During the suspension, look down at the pup and directly into its eyes while cooing and talking friendly. Because of the high happy voice, the threat is minimized, and the pup is being conditioned that a direct stare is not always a threat. As soon as the puppy looks away, pull the puppy in to your chest and give a firm hug for a few seconds. With these two acts, you have competed two additional mild leadership exercises; i.e. visually, then physically dominating the pup. In each case the pup is learning that by acting subordinately, (looking away, and submitting to the hug) nothing bad happens, and there is no fear generated.

In the ideal scene the next step is to cradle the pup on its back in one of your arms. Assuming this does not elicit a fear response (because of the verbal cooing), you should give a small tasty treat (with owner's permission). If convenient, hand the pup to another staff member to repeat the suspension so that the pup generalizes the trust and leadership to all staff. If a pet accepts the first treat, then refuses one after or during suspension, it may be an indication of mild stress. In this case go more gently, and recommend to the owner to do the technique frequently to desensitize the pet to being touched by strangers.

In Summary (A typical suspension exercise should take 10 - 15 seconds to complete)

Build trust: Have the owner pick up the pet and hand it over. Give a small food treat.
Handle safely: Don't drop the pup, and don't let it bite you.
Avoid fear: Smile and talk high and happy. If the pup panics, just put it down.
Suspend: Situationally dominate (pup can't "fight or flight" in this situation).
Eye contact: Visually dominate (when the pup looks away, go to the next step).
Hug: Physically dominate (pressing the pup's body against your own).
Cradle: Positionally dominate (the pup is held cradled in a subordinate posture).
Reward: Give a very small bit of a tasty food (e.g. piece of freeze dried liver).
Generalize: Have other members of the staff also do suspension.

Indications for the Suspension Technique

Bonding To The Practice
Probably the very best time to do suspension is to have the veterinary receptionist suspend the pet upon their entry on the pet's first visit. This gentle leadership with cooing and a cookie is a great ice breaker for both the pet and owner. The owner sees how pets are loved and enjoyed, and the pup learns that this cave is full of "friendly powerful cookie givers." Every member of the staff can repeat this process as often as time permits. As long as the pet is not fearful and a cookie is included, this technique cannot be overdone.

Day Care Activity
If the hospital offers "Day Care," all staff members are encouraged to stroll through the ward, and if the kennel card indicates "Day Care," take the pet out (even if quietly resting) and perform suspension, followed by a cookie. This is great fun for staff, and great socialization and bonding experience for the pet. (esp. puppies and kittens.)

Preparation For Examination
The veterinary nurse or DVM will find that if they first take a few seconds to suspend, the pet will often be much easier to examine. The reason is that through suspension, the handler has communicated leadership, strength, and lack of threat.

Puppy Kennel Barking
Barking is an instinctive method of solicitation, and the puppy often uses it to get attention (even if negative) and so escalates the kennel barking. Bribing with food may reward the barking, and punishment increases the stress, which is relieved by increased barking. Elevating this pup will work to quiet it in some (not all) cases. The suspension is a reminder of the strength and leadership of the handler, which is calming to some pups.

Puppy Biting
Suspension is one technique on a menu for the owner as a response to puppy biting. The fact that the pup is touching the owner with its teeth is a concern. After bite inhibition training, the second best technique to teach the owner as a response to puppy biting, is suspension. The goal is to communicate to the puppy that the owner is a leader who may be touched with the tongue, not a subordinate to be touched with teeth.

Puppy Frenzy
When teaching this technique to the owner, it is important to emphasize that lifting the pup for 5-10 seconds allows a cooling off period ("time out") and helps establish leadership. This is not a punishment, and any punitive efforts (shaking or yelling) are somewhat dangerous (similar to shaken human babies). Adding anything punitive to suspension only increases fear and distrust, while losing the opportunity to communicate a positive message.

As A Low Level Correction For Any Unruly Canine Behavior
A client recently reported a positive outcome. She had learned about suspension during puppy class, but her now one year old poodle tended to bark inappropriately in several situations. Without yelling or punishing, she found that if she merely suspended the dog, it calmed down and subsequently followed her instructions. It seemed to her as if the pack hierarchy had just been reestablished with a calm clear maternal message.

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