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Getting to Nail Trims, Part 3 and 4: Look, Ma, Two Hands!

June 11, 2013

After practicing steps 1 (http://www.grandavevet.com/blog/getting-nail-trims-part-i-good-touch) and 2 (http://www.grandavevet.com/blog/getting-nail-trims-part-ii-increasing-du…), you should be able to hold each of your dog’s paws for a count of 5. The goal of step 3 is to be able to hold on to and manipulate the paw with one hand while touching and handling the paws, toes, and nails with your free hand.

Remember that our three D’s are Difficulty, Duration, and Distractions. We will be increasing the difficulty of our exercise, so it is important to relax and “reset” the duration we expect from our dogs back to zero at first and keep the distractions low (so the nail trimmer is still nowhere in sight, and we will start with just fleeting touches).

How quickly you can move through this step depends entirely on your dog. For some dogs, you may need to have an intermediate goal of just being able to set your free hand next to the paw you are holding before you can work on actually touching the paw. For other dogs, having the paw held at all was their major obstacle and touching with your free hand may come very easily. Remember to be patient with your dog and tailor this step to suit his or her needs. And as usual, work in very short sessions, although multiple sessions throughout the day are ok.

As a reminder, it is important to allow your dog the choice of pulling away. If s/he does, don’t hang on and don’t make a big deal out of it, simply let go and do not click/reward. Take a breath, pause, and try again. Only click/reward successes; this, combined with the absence of any scary forceful tactics and a sense of control leads most dogs to quickly catch on to how to earn the treats.

To begin, take a paw in one hand. Hold the clicker in your free hand and slowly move it towards the paw you are holding. If you are able to reach the paw and touch it with the free hand, click and treat. Do not try for any duration at this point, just touch-click-treat. If your dog pulls the paw away before you reach it with your free hand, let him/her pull away and don’t do anything except try to make a mental note of the approximate distance you covered. In this case, just like step one, you will need to find a safe starting point/distance by trial and error. Try again, and as your free hand approaches the starting point, click, treat, and take your hand away again. Just like in step one, you will gradually move the free hand closer and closer to the paw before you click and treat, until finally you can actually touch the paw.

Once you can touch the paw with your free hand consistently, you can start to increase the duration of your touch exactly as we have done in previous steps. First, pause slightly before clicking and rewarding. Gradually increase the length of your pause, clicking and treating at the END of each pause.

When you can get to a count of five, use the hand that is already holding the paw to manipulate the individual toes. Try manipulating and spreading the individual toes. This will start to simulate how we hold paws and toes for nail trims. Go slowly and click/treat when your dog allows the different types of touch and manipulation without pulling the paw away. If they pull away, allow it but do not click/treat; try again with a more subtle or gentle type of manipulation (for instance, just using your thumb to tap the top of a toe instead of trying to move it.)

Next, add touching those individual toes with your free hand to this exercise; use a finger or fingers to touch and handle a single toe. Because this again increases the difficulty, reduce your expected duration to just a very fleeting touch, then gradually increase duration. Practice with all four feet and all the toes on each foot. The goal is to be able to freely handle each toe individually for a count of five, including the dewclaws (if present). Once you have reached this goal, you will be ready for step four.

In step four, the nail trimmer makes its first appearance.  For some dogs, the biggest source of their stress came from having the paws handled at all; for those dogs the sight of the nail trimmer might not be a big deal and they may breeze through step 4 with little difficulty. However, for many dogs the sight of the nail trimmer is a considerable distraction because they recognize it and the mere sight can increase their fear and stress (like those police lights in your rear view mirror).  It is therefore essential that you and your dog are very comfortable with steps 1-3 before introducing the nail trimmer – don’t rush! You will also need to be patient and reset all of your expectations. It doesn’t matter what your dog was able to do when the nail trimmer was put away; think of your dog as starting over completely from scratch.

Experiment to find a “safe” spot to put the nail trimmer where your dog can see it, but is not so stressed that you cannot make any progress with him/her. This might be across the room, six feet away, or right next to him/her; it is different for every dog. If you start far away, you will have to gradually move the trimmer closer and closer, repeating the exercises each time you move the trimmer closer.

Once you find a suitable spot for your nail trimmer, you will start all over at the beginning and repeat steps 1-3. Most dogs will work through steps 1-3 faster the second time around, but every dog is an individual so don’t get frustrated if it seems you have lost all your progress. The presence of the nail trimmer may not seem like a big deal to us, but for many dogs it is considerable distraction and makes everything else harder again (remember the 3Ds).

In step five, we will begin to hold the nail trimmer in the free hand as we touch and handle the paws. This will be easiest if you have a family member or friend to help you by using the clicker. Otherwise, start practicing holding the nail trimmer and clicker in one hand; for this step I hook my pinky around the handle of the nail trimmer and hold the clicker in the rest of my hand (this is demonstrated in the video).

Video of Steps 3 and 4 is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azJH5byd2pU

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