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Getting to Nail Trims: Prologue

April 30, 2013

With some pets, everyday chores can be a struggle. In particular, many dogs don’t like their feet handled even when owners have worked hard to prevent this. Many dogs tolerate having their nails trimmed anyway, while others are so averse or afraid that nail trims become an ever escalating series of emotionally charged battles. Over several posts, I would like to use nail trimming to demonstrate a technique called counter conditioning (CC) that can help transform nail trims and other other chores such as cleaning ears, brushing teeth, or giving medication from a battle to completely routine.

CC is the process of replacing one conditioned response to a situation with a new, more desirable conditioned response. For example, many of us have a negative conditioned response to being pulled over by a police car. Those flashing lights automatically make many people feel anxious or disappointed because we have been conditioned to make an association between getting pulled over and getting in trouble (a ticket or warning).

For dogs who are afraid of nail trims, seeing the nail trimmer or having the feet handled is like those flashing lights in the rear view mirror. They have been conditioned to associate these things with a stressful, scary experience and automatically start to expect another stressful scary experience before it actually happens. These dogs are not trying to be dominant, spiteful, or stubborn; they are scared and each nail trim reinforces and escalates their fear and stress for next time.

But what if for every one time they gave you a speeding ticket, police gave you a hundred dollar bill fifty times? The conditioned response to being pulled over would probably change; the sight of those flashing lights might now make you happy (or at least neutral). Instead of automatically expecting a speeding ticket, you know odds are that you will probably get a hundred dollar bill. You have been counter conditioned! Similarly, we can counter condition dogs to expect that they will probably get the equivalent of a hundred dollar bill (usually treats) when their feet are handled and/or they see the nail trimmer.

I will be posting a series of videos with my dog Maisy to illustrate the process of CC to foot handling and nail trims. Maisy came to me terrified of having her paws touched, making nail trims nearly impossible. Frustrated with battling with or drugging her to get her nails trimmed, I decided to try this technique and have been very pleased with the results.


Some general principles to keep in mind:

1. This technique works best using a clicker. A clicker is a small noise-making device used to let a dog know exactly when s/he has done what you want (in our case, remaining calm when the paws are handled) and that a treat is forthcoming. You can purchase clickers at almost any pet supply store or online. If your dog is already clicker trained, you are ready to start. If your dog has not been clicker trained, you need to “charge” the clicker so your dog knows what it means. Instructions for charging the clicker can be found at http://www.clickertrainusa.com/chargingtheclicker.htm  If the noise of the clicker bothers you or your dog, you can use a clicky ball-point pen or a verbal marker (such as “yes!”) instead.

2. Use high value treats – that is, treats that are good enough for your dog to eat even though s/he may be a bit stressed  – and lots of them, so use small pieces. Your dog, not you, gets to decide what is high value. If your dog is too nervous to take one kind of treat, try something you think s/he would like better. I like to use tiny bits of rotisserie chicken. A dog who will not take treats may be highly stressed, and you either need to find a higher value treat or back up to the preceding, lower stress step.

3. Go slowly and work in very short sessions, just a few minutes at a time throughout the day. Keep in mind that  Maisy and I have put in a tremendous about of work every single day for a few months working through the initial steps, so we are moving through them quickly in the videos and she makes it look fairly easy. Resist the temptation to compare yourself to us or to move through the initial steps too quickly; you are laying foundations, and they need to be strong to hold up to the more challenging steps later.

4. Quit while you are ahead. It is human nature to want to practice successes over and over but for dogs, it is better to achieve just a few successes (3-5) and stop. Dogs benefit a great deal from what is called “latent learning” – that is, a period of “down time” after practicing a skill or exercise while their brain is processing what they have learned. With dogs, the next session will almost always be far more successful if you keep each session short and end after a few successes than if you keep practicing the same thing over and over.

5. If you are getting frustrated or your dog is getting too stressed, back up to your last successful step, get a few successes, and end the session.

6. It is ok to talk to your dog throughout the process. I am narrating the videos, so I am not talking to Maisy – in real life when we are practicing, I am keeping up a steady stream of cheerful chatter. Many dogs find this very reassuring.

7. Be patient with your dog!  S/he is not trying to annoy you or make things difficult on purpose, but is very likely scared and stressed. You can help your dog learn by staying calm and positive.
Videos demonstrating the specific steps will be coming soon, so watch this space! I hope you will find this technique useful, and if you have any questions please feel free to call the clinic!

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