Back in August, I posted A Dog Training Epiphany, highlighting a success story from one of the members of the Reactive Dogs Facebook Group. Today, another member posted a joyful success, which she also agreed to share with the readers of my blog:
“This is very much related to desensitizing our reactive dogs to their triggers because it shows that any traumatic experience, even one repeated multiple times and leading to serious defensive displays from the dog, *can* be turned into their favorite game. The underlying fears disappear and with them the accompanying aggressive behaviors.
I wonder how many people here can’t trim their dogs’ nails without some drama. My dog wouldn’t let us touch her paws, let alone trim the nails. It was before I learned anything about desensitizing so I took her to several vets where she was muzzled and held down by several people for the procedure. Of course that made things worse, she would not walk back into those clinics voluntarily so I kept going to new vets (and yes, she’s absolutely terrified of vet visits now – working on reversing that). She became much more cautious with me which broke my heart because except for the paws, I could handle her without issues.
I’m so glad wheels started spinning in my head at some point that there has to be a better way. And what do you know, there is! A wonderful, gentle, and skilled groomer that had met Zoe on a few occasions trimmed her nails twice in a much happier atmosphere than the few times at the vet. And a slow process of desensitization at home followed. Touching her paws and rewarding that with delicious food. Showing her the trimmer and tossing her beloved tennis ball. Touching the paws *with* the trimmer and following that with a game of tug. All in a silly, goofy, playful way to make it a fun game. Watching her comfort level every second of the way. Eventually, I celebrated cutting one nail at a time. Then two. I was thrilled when she let me take care of one full paw for a game of fetch. Then two paws. Eventually, we got to the point where I could trim all the nails at once as she was looking forward to the tennis ball crazy that followed. Slowly, the tennis ball anticipation eased up and she was ok with me trimming the nails even if nothing super fun happened at the end. She was tolerating it very nicely and we’ve been trimming the nails once a week. But today she totally shocked me by showing the same kind of joy at the sight of the nail trimmer that is usually reserved for her toys! That, I did not expect.
I picked up the nail trimmer, she saw it and got a nice big grin on her face… came up to me, sniffed the trimmer and trotted over to the window where I usually trim her nails and looked back at me, all ready and happy. “Come on, mom, hurry up, I love this game!” I swear when it was over, she looked disappointed that she only has four paws.
In case anyone still had any doubt that a negative experience CAN be turned into an extremely positive one. It can. The process took a year and it was very much worth the trouble. I know I could do it faster now. The things you learn…”
Anyone who has a dog that hates nail clipping can understand how nice it would if the dog didn’t have to be so scared. Even if you don’t ever want to trim your dog’s nails yourself, you can do some nail clip husbandry training to help your dog cope better at the grooming salon or vet clinic, using the same technique that worked so well for the person who shared her story above. Using similar training, you can teach a dog to enjoy teeth brushing, too. Or, with this technique, you can teach your dog to accept wearing a muzzle or head halter.
Sometimes, when you are new to the desensitization and counter-conditioning technique used to get a dog to be OK with something he was previously frightened of, it’s hard to see when you are getting that change in emotional response to the trigger stimulus, i.e. the nail clipper, toothbrush, muzzle, etc. Eileen, from Eileenanddogs, shows how to tell when the dog is developing a positive conditioned emotional response.
Getting a dog to accept husbandry procedures can be accomplished at any age, as the although the best time to start is when puppies are very young. More and more, trainers are including husbandry and handling exercises during puppy kindergarten, as we do at Paws for Praise (resistance to body handling is associated with a higher risk for aggression). As savvy consumers, owners should ask for husbandry training, and veterinarians who want to spend less time struggling to get these procedures done should refer to force free trainers who incorporate husbandry training and body handling in their curriculum.
This is Zoe, the dog who now likes nail trims, and the tennis ball that made all the difference!