It's mani pedi day in our household. Dog mani pedi day that is. I myself have not had a mani pedi since February before our trip to Maui. It is now mid July and half the summer is over. I am hoping my other half will read this and surprise gift me a day at the spa while he takes care of all dog and cat poop scoopin' duties while I get pampered. I am hoping...
But today is all about the Kona Pants, (her nickname is "Pant Suit Lady". Don't ask.). As I grab the nail clippers, Kona knows what's up. She trots to her bed, lays down, and eagerly anticipates what is to come. Kona used to hate getting her nails clipped. She dreaded it. I dreaded it even more. This sassy 85lb Rottweiler would pull her paws away, lift her lips at me, snarl, and at times she would even snap at me. Nail clipping is not an option. It needs to be done. Something needed to change. And that something was me.
Enter SCIENCE and the wonderful process of Desensitization and Counterconditioning (DS/CC). I've included a link here to save me from having to explain the definitions and process in detail. In a nutshell, DS/CC is a powerful technique used in the world of behaviour modification to effectively treat issues such as fear, aggression, and anxiety. When you change how an animal feels about something, their behavioural response will follow suit.
Kona had a fear of nail clipping. I don't blame her. She has black nails which makes it difficult for me to see the quick. As a puppy, I once clipped a bit too far and made her bleed. It's like going to the dentist, right? Maybe your dentist drilled a bit too deep one time and hit a nerve. Pain rushes over you and you've now made a negative association to the sound of the drill, the smell of the drill, your dentist, his yappy assistant who keeps asking you questions you can't answer because her entire fist is in your mouth. You despise it all and you give the receptionist stink eye when she asks what your schedule is like 6 months down the road so she can book you in for another appointment. Hearing the word "dentist" probably makes you cringe as a result. We go through life making associations all the time and so do our dogs.
By executing DS/CC correctly, I was able to change how Kona felt about getting her nails clipped by creating positive associations with the routine. I started by using high value treats such as boiled chicken. In order for counterconditioning to be successful, it is crucial that the appearance/interaction with the trigger comes FIRST so the trigger becomes the predictor of all good things to come as illustrated by the poster below:
With Kona, I started with the tiniest of steps over multiple short sessions. The following actions resulted in boiled chicken landing in her mouth every single time:
- appearance of clippers
- touching her paws
- clippers touching her paws
- clippers tapping her nails
- air clipping with no nail contact
- air clipping right beside the nail with slight contact but no nail clip
- clippers making full contact with follow through nail clip
If at any time, Kona decided she had enough and pulled her paws away, she had the freedom to disengage and leave our session. HOWEVER, that also meant that the boiled chicken disappeared as well. Kona does not like disappearing chicken. She WANTS the chicken. Pretty soon, she started offering behaviours to initiate the start of our sessions again such as:
- targeting the clippers with her muzzle
- pawing at the clippers
Any interaction with the clippers from her part earned her boiled chicken, period. I never missed an opportunity to reinforce these behaviours. Over time, she started to associate nail clipping with all good things. I varied my treats and used cheese, hot dogs wieners, and freeze dried liver. Eventually, all I had to do was grab the clippers and squeeze them a couple times. The squeaky sound of the clippers would elicit a response along the lines of, "HOLY CRAP, NAILS DAY!!! WHAT AM I GONNA GET TODAY?!?". For Kona, nail clipping eventually became a party in her mouth and she did not want to miss out, not even for a second.
It's crucial to not rush this process. Before proceeding, you need to make sure you dog is fine with one step before moving on to the next. If you find your dog is stressed and pulling away, then you need to take a few steps back to the point where your dog was not exhibiting any fearful responses. Maybe you can only clip one nail per training session. THAT'S OK. There is no rule in the book that says, "Thou shall clip ALL the nails before 8pm yoga class". When I started DS/CC nail clipping sessions with Kona, I was able to do maybe 1 or 2 nails a day over the course of a few days. These days, I can clip everything in one session and I've been able to use just her morning breakfast kibble after every nail clip, (another way to sneak your training sessions in while feeding your dog their breakfast!).
Do you run into spazzy dog syndrome when it comes to nail trims or other grooming procedures? Hopefully this post will shed some light on how you can start helping your dog feel comfortable and eventually love being handled.