Ask Crystal: Conditioning for Clothing

Welcome to “Ask Crystal,” where you can ask your pet behavior questions! You can submit your question for Crystal at the bottom of the page!

a chihuahua looking dog with a pink sweater lays on a tan rug.Dear Crystal, 

I have a four-month-old Chihuahua who has started biting and snapping when I try to put her coat on or off. And also, when I put her into a puppy carrier bag to take her in the car. This has only started in the last 3 weeks. Have you any advice?  


Chi Mama 


Dear Chi,

Most dogs can get used to wearing clothing items with some training. The speed at which the dog learns and accepts clothing will depend on the personality of the dog. Laid back dogs usually accept things much more quickly than your more sensitive type of dogs. These dogs need a lot more work and time to change their minds about things.

If your dog is snapping and biting at you, I would highly recommend that you contact a Professional Certified Dog Trainer or Behaviorist. You can locate one here. When a dog is displaying aggressive behavior, there are often a lot of other factors which are contributing to their behavior. It is best to have a professional help you look at your dog, her stressors and triggers and develop a plan for management and behavior modification.  I can explain how we would condition a dog to be ok with wearing clothes but this would apply more to a person whose dog is not displaying aggression. The fact that she has already displayed aggression makes this much more complicated to treat.

Creating and following through on a management plan is always going to be the first step to fixing any behavior problem. If we can’t follow a management plan, we have little hope of improving the behavior with any significance. We do not want to provide more opportunities for her to practice this behavior. The more times she snaps and bites you and it works for her, the more likely that she will resort to that behavior again. We want to avoid situations that make her feel like that is necessary and then begin working on a plan to help her feel better about the situation.

I also feel it is worth noting that we should be sure we are not punishing a dog for growling, snapping or biting. These are all just methods of communicating with us. If we punish the dog for giving us warning signals, all we get is a dog that bites hard without warning. Instead, we need to understand that something we are doing is making the dog afraid or uncomfortable and decide how we can make things better for them.

A black dog sits wearing a grey sweater

For this particular situation, stop attempting to put clothes on her at this point and stop putting her in the carrier. If she seems cold inside, maybe offer her a little blanket. If she needs to go outside, keep it quick and she should be ok. If you need to take a car ride, consider buying one of those booster chairs she can sit in and be attached to. They also make a lot of seat belt connectors which can help her ride in a safer manner. You may find if the crate is much larger or a different type, you can more easily get her into it.

Learning dog body language is essential when working with a dog with fearful behavior and/or aggression. So many times, our dogs are actually giving us subtle signals of discomfort that we are simply not recognizing. For example, she may look away, lick her lips, yawn, shake, lift a paw, move her ears back to name a few stress signals that dogs give before proceeding to snap and bite. If this behavior is new, my guess would be that she has been trying to tell you in the past that she doesn’t like what you are doing. When a dog communicates discomfort and we don’t listen, they feel they must escalate their warnings to aggressive threats to get the point across.

There are some good resources out there to start educating yourself on dog body language. is a great resource for explaining body language and helping you uncover the function of the behavior. There are some good videos on such as: (82) Understanding Dog Body Language – Learn how to read dogs behavior better – YouTube and (82) Understanding Dog Body Language – Part 2 – YouTube by Kristen Crestejo.

The training we do to change a dog’s emotional state about something is desensitization and counter conditioning. Desensitization means that we expose the dog to the trigger at a level which it is comfortable with. This means that we break the entire sequence into very small parts. We pair that with food or other high value reinforcers to counter condition the dog to change its emotional state regarding the trigger. Always be looking for the body language of the dog to make sure that she is happy and not stressed.

Hopefully your dog is not stressed by seeing the clothes alone, if she is not, then that is where we are going to start. If she is, then you may need to start by rewarding her for watching you walking towards where the clothes are and breaking the behavior down into very small pieces. Let’s say for a starting point that she is ok with you getting clothes out and bringing them over.

Start with a piece of clothing which you have never tried to put on her and is less threatening and easy to put on. A scarf, bow tie or bandanna is usually a good place to start. A good coat to start with would be the kind that just lays on the dog’s back and attached under the belly with Velcro.

Hide some treats in the clothing and bring it over to her to find the treats. Once she finds the treats, put the clothes away. Bring them out several times daily for a few days so we can build up some excitement around you getting the clothes out.

If that is too much for her, bring the clothes out and reward her for just looking at the clothes. Next step, reward any movement towards the clothes and then for sniffing the clothes. You could then hide treats in the clothes. Once she is comfortable approaching it, pick it up and just touch her with it and treat her. Repeat it several times. The next step being that you would rub the clothes along her fur and treat. Make a big fuss about how great she is and remove the clothing.

For the next couple days, rub her fur with the clothing for longer and longer periods of time before feeding the treat. Then begin laying it on her back for a few seconds, treat and remove. Keep slowly increasing the time it is on her by a few more seconds. Gradually work your way up to a couple minutes of her wearing the clothing.

You can work on the movement of your hand towards the Velcro belly strap if that is an issue by just moving your hand slightly towards the belly and treat. Move more and more towards the Velcro until you can close it, treat and unclose. Then again slowly work on the amount of time the clothing is fully on.

A chihuahua looking dog wearing a blue sweater with a diamond pattern has its front legs up up a step with its noise towards a treat held up by an a human hand.Once you get her comfortable with easy to put on clothing, you could begin working on more difficult to put on clothes. I always prefer the dog to put their own head through the collar of a shirt. Roll up the shirt so it is just a ring to put the head through. Hold the treat in front of and outside of the collar to encourage her to put her head through herself. Repeat until she is quickly and easily putting her head through.

If she has issues with her paws being handled, you can work on that separately so that she doesn’t mind her paw being picked up at other times. If you can teach a shake cue, that could help her to bring her own paw up to put through a shirt. You can also use a lure over the dog’s head and lure her head to the side to get her weight to one side so it’s easy to get her to lift her paw and not fall over when you pick up the weight from one paw.

The carrier I would work on the same way as I teach crate training. The first goals being just I have written a number of posts on how to crate train that you can refer to on our website. The posts are under the news section and you can search “crate” and find a few articles.

At the end of the day, if you try all these techniques and your dog still hates wearing clothes, then don’t make her wear clothes. It is important to the bond we have with our dogs that they can trust us. We build the bond of trust by not forcing them to do things that they don’t want to do. If it is really important to you, then take the time she needs to make her feel better about it. I had a dog that got so excited when I pulled out her clothes because she knew it was treat time. That is the response you want or you just shouldn’t do it.

Until next time,