Many, many moons ago, when I was just a young pup working in a rural Wisconsin animal shelter, part of my job was doing exams for the dogs coming into the shelter. I vaccinated them, checked them for lumps or bumps, cleaned their ears, and clipped their nails.
I have scars from clipping dogs nails.
Not only would they scratch, many would try to bite, requiring us to pin them down or muzzle them to get the job done. This added suffering to the already traumatic experience of being at the shelter. Somewhere in the struggle, I vowed that I would never allow any dog of mine to be tormented by the nail trimming process.
Fast forward a decade to the day I decided to take in a fat, homely, unruly, blonde beast of a dog (I’m an adult now, the age at which the Powers That Be like to make you eat your own words). Rubi had two serious issues when she came to my house. The reactivity you know about. The second issue was a deep, violent aversion to having her nails done. Her previous foster person told me when I picked her up, “She’s a good dog, but the only time I felt like she might bite me was when I did her nails.” I can’t say that I blame her in the slightest. If I’d spent years being pinned down and muzzled so people could take bolt cutters to the tips of my fingers, I’d probably try to bite them, too.
Unlike B’s reactivity, I tackled this problem with enthusiasm. I approached from two angles. First, I worked to desensitize her to the nail clipped, a tool that had only brought her pain in the past. I left the clipper lying around where she could see it not being used. I stopped leaving the clipper lying around after Allister decided it made an awesome chew toy. After that incident, I moved it into the treat closet. Every time I took a treat out of the closet, I’d first take out the clipper, show it to B, and then give everyone treats. I do think it helped B to see that the other dogs weren’t put off by the clipper in the slightest. I also took a more active approach to teaching her that clippers = good things. We worked the clippers as a target, teaching her to touch them with a nose or a paw, and eventually to retrieve them in exchange for a few treats. It wasn’t long before B decided that the clippers in and of themselves were awesome. She’s a fast study.
At the same time, we worked on condition B to allow her paws to be handled. The first time I reached over B to pick up on of her paws (to check for a burr), she jump up in desperation to get away so quickly that she banged the top of her head against my face hard enough to spilt my lip. There wasn’t any malice in the action – she just wanted that badly to get away. We started small. I would touch her paw, mark her with a verbal “yes,” and then give her a treat. Then we moved to letting me pick up a paw and rest it in my hand, mark, set the paw down, treat. From there we moved to picking up her paw and allowing me to hold it in my closed hand with a little bit of pressure. After that came letting me play with her toes. Eventually, she let me scrape a fingernail on the underside of her toe nail, a mellower approximate to the sensation cause by scraping the metal clippers against her nails.
If we seemed to go at a snail’s pace, this was intentional. I’ve said it before, but I’m just not strong enough to go head-to-head with B. This was also when B first came into our house, when our relationship was just beginning. I didn’t really give a damn if she liked me, but I did need her respect and trust. Hurting her or pushing her too far would’ve damaged that. Lastly, if there’s one consistent mistake I see other make when conditioning their dogs to accept handling and grooming, it’s moving too fast and making the dog uncomfortable. It may be more convenient to do all the nails at once, but it’s not always what’s best for the dog. Our sessions might have been short and simple, but we diligently practiced nearly every day.
Once B accepted both handling and playing with the clippers, we made the jump adding them together. At first, I just set the clippers next to me while handling her paws. Then I handled her paws while holding clipper. The first time she let me touch the clipper to a nail – without actually trimming the nail – she got a big cookie jackpot, and we ended the session. Once she was comfortable with having the clipper touch her nail, I taught her to accept the clipper scraping her nail as I had done in earlier training with my fingernail. The first time she let me actually trim a nail, she again got a big jackpot and we ended the session on a good note. Slowly and carefully, we kept increasing the criteria until we got to where we are today. She doesn’t love the clipper, but she accepts it without any trauma, and that’s the part that matters.