Being a dog mom is awesome. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But there’s one thing that most dog owners dread. In my best 14 year-old girl voice, I will bitch and moan that this thing is “Literally. The. Worst.”
I’m talking about nail trims.
Now some lucky bastards have dogs that are naturally tolerant of these husbandry-type chores. I am not one of those lucky bastards. Other people work really, really, really hard to make husbandry tolerable, or even pleasant, for their dogs. I aspire to be in that category of people. However, it’s a slow and steady sort of thing, and I’m not a slow and steady kind of gal.
There are a lot of ways to go about training a dog to tolerate nail trims, but this is the one I go by right now. My training plan must:
- Respect the dog.
- Provide a way for the dog to clearly consent to being handled.
- Gradually change the dog’s emotional response from negative to positive.
- Be safe for the dog and for me.
With guidance and inspiration from trainers like Chirag Patel, Dr. Susan Friedman, and Sarah Stremming, I’ve set up this training loop that seems to work well for us. This loop involves operant behaviors that have a long history of reinforcement outside the nail filing desensitization context. The cues for these behaviors are just that: cues. They are stimuli that the dog can perceive and inform the dog that reinforcement is available. If the dog chooses not to perform the cued behavior, it’s important that I respect that decision and not insist that the dog comply. The dog has a choice.
- Engagement: Severus communicates that he is interested in training with me by laying down on the mat. Mat is a behavior that he learned as a puppy. I love it for so many things, but in this scenario, the mat functions to provide him with comfort while he lies on the hardwood floor. The cue is situational. I am sitting next to the mat with my equipment (dremel, file, scratch board, clippers, etc.) and a bowl of treats.
- Consent: I cue an avada kedavra (play dead) behavior. This is a behavior that was also trained a long time ago using positive reinforcement. It is a vulnerable position to assume so Severus will not perform this behavior unless he is comfortable. I like it because it keeps his head away from his paws so he isn’t watching me handle his nails. The cue is a hand gesture. Severus has learned that this behavior leads to handling, which then leads to a delicious treat.
- Handling: Once Severus performs the play dead behavior, I handle his feet in a manner consistent with where we are in our desensitization journey. If I was concentrating on his back paws, that means using the dremel to file down one nail (about 4 swipes). For his front paws, that means “filing” his inner nails with a piece of wood for about 3 seconds. Eventually I will glue sandpaper to the wood, but for now it’s just a piece of wood. The criteria for this can be fluid, but the goal is progress on average. Increase duration little by little.
- Reinforcement: I reinforce Severus by throwing the treat away from the mat. He gets up to eat the treat and then has a choice as to whether he would like to re-engage or not.
If Severus chooses not to re-engage with me, there are a couple things I consider.
- Is the treat high value enough? He has extremely sensitive front feet, so whatever I’m paying must be worthwhile.
- Was the criteria I set for handling reasonable? Sometimes I get greedy and try to do too much, too soon.
- Has the training session gone on too long? For dogs that are not really into handling (like Severus), keep these sessions short. Quit while you’re ahead. I believe this is my most common error.
A note of practicality for people who live on earth: If a procedure is time sensitive or the answer cannot be “no”, don’t ask the question. If your dog’s nails are so overgrown that they pose an immediate health risk, have them trimmed in a way that has the least potential to negatively impact your dog’s emotional response to your desensitization set-up at home. Perhaps take your dog to the vet or the groomer for a nail trim. You might need a muzzle. You might even need sedation. Will an experience like this set back your desensitization training? Probably. But handling desensitization is about building trust so do not mislead your dog into believing he has a choice if he, in fact, does not. If Severus chooses not to perform the avada kedavra behavior, the session ends. I don’t re-cue. I don’t lure him into it.
In the meantime, I manage Severus’s front nails with a scratch board made of wood and sandpaper. It’s an awesome tool for dogs who don’t like having their front paws handled. Unfortunately, it does not evenly file all the nails. In our case, Sev’s inner nails always need extra filing, thus our work to desensitize a manual file.
Let me know how your dog does with nail trims! And are you as impatient as I am?!