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Getting to Nail Trims, Part I: Good Touch

May 7, 2013

Nail Trim Counter Conditioning, Step I: Good Touch

The first exercise is for dogs who are afraid of having their paws touched at all. The goal of this step is to simply get to the point where you can gently touch the paw without your dog yanking the paw away. At this stage, the nail trimmer is nowhere in sight; all you need is your clicker and your treats. If you can already handle your dog’s paws, you will be able to skip this step although if you don’t have a lot of experience with a clicker, it is a good exercise to get you and your dog used to using it.

Work in a comfortable, familiar location where your dog does not feel “trapped.” Notice that Maisy is laying on a large futon couch where she can easily move away from me if she becomes overwhelmed, and I am sitting down at her level.

The first thing you need to do is to figure out where on the leg(s) your dog is already comfortable being touched. Even dogs who are very afraid of having the actual paws handled will have some place on the leg(s) or body they are comfortable with. For example, when we first started Maisy would get uncomfortable right around her elbows and knees. Many dogs are okay with everything right up to the paw itself. With some dogs, you may need to start on the back or head. You just need to experiment to find this place on your dog’s body.

Your starting point will be just above an invisible line where your dog is still comfortable, but any farther down the leg and s/he will become uncomfortable. For some dogs, it is less stressful to start this exercise with a hind leg/paw, but you will want to eventually practice it on all the legs/paws.

Gently touch the starting point, click, take your hand away, and treat. Your dog is learning that simply being touched, and calmly tolerating that touch, is rewarding. We start with a safe place on the body to ensure that you and your dog will be successful and so that s/he can focus on learning the rules of the game (1. Tolerating touch earns a reward 2. You can trust me, because 3. I am not going to force you to do anything) instead of worrying about what you are about to do. After 3-5 clicks/treats, stop and end the session.

At the next session, try briefly moving your hand a little farther down the leg before you click and treat. If your dog tries to pull away, let him/her go but do not click and treat. The choice to allow you to touch any particular spot instead of being forced to is extremely important to the success of this technique. Force is scary and counterproductive. If your dog wants the reward, s/he must earn it by choosing to allow your touch; the freedom to make the opposite choice, while not rewarded, allows the dog to feel safe throughout the process and builds trust with you. This is very difficult for many people because we are generally used to training dogs using directions, luring, and/or corrections that are successful relatively quickly, and allowing the dog to freely do the opposite of what we want him/her to do feels very counterproductive. Be patient with your dog!

If you are having a lot of trouble with one particular spot, back up to a safer spot and practice there before moving on. You may have to repeat a safe spot for several sessions in a row before progressing, or your dog may even have episodes of regression where a previously safe spot is no longer tolerated – this is very common and normal, do not be discouraged! Just stick with it, practice, and be patient with your dog. S/he may need to take tiny baby steps. If this technique fails, it is usually due to trying to rush through the steps or putting too much pressure on the dog to progress too quickly. However, most dogs choose to allow the touch very quickly once they realize  that they will not be forced to do anything and that doing so earns the reward. It just takes some dogs longer to reach that point than others.  To get to the point where we can make these demonstration videos, I have been working with Maisy for months.

Repeat this exercise, slowly moving farther and farther down the leg until you reach the paw. As explained in the video, the paw itself can present a problem because many dogs automatically pull the paw back, making it difficult to have an opportunity to click and treat. If necessary, instead of touching the paw directly try sliding your hand down the leg and right off the end of the paw (this is demonstrated in the video). It is a very quick, less threatening motion which gives you an opportunity to click as your hand slides over the paw. It also makes it easy to progress to briefly pausing at the paw which in turn transitions into holding on to the paw for several seconds, which will be the goal in step two.


Video is here:


The initial post in this series is here:


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