Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Having trouble clipping your dog’s nails? Try less, not more.

Leopold and the journey to peaceful nails trims.

When I first got Leopold, I had no trouble trimming his nails. His foster parents had been trimming his nails as soon as he had nails to trim—the idea was to get him used to the occasional, necessary trimming. I know a lot of dogs really hate to have their nails trimmed, so I was grateful that they started Leopold off early. And for a while, things were good on the nail trim front.

The problem:
And then I accidentally cut a little too far down on one of his nails—I clipped a quick! Leopold yelped, and that was the end of easy nail trims. As soon as Leo saw the clippers in my hand, he didn’t want me anywhere near his paws and would snatch them back every time I tried to pick them up. Nail trims became a two-person job. We tried having one person restrain him while the other trimmed. Eventually we got frustrated with this method because he struggled too much. We then came up with the idea of suspending him; one person would pick Leo up and hold him with all fours paws in the air while the other trimmed. The idea was that without purchase for his feet, it would be harder for him to try to push and get away from us. That worked for a while, but then he learned to wiggle his body around, and trimming again became too difficult. We tried trying to really hold him down on the floor, but by then clipping Leopold’s nails had become too much of a horrible experience for both human and dog. It got to the point where Leopold would bolt as soon as he saw the clippers at all. Because it was an arduous task, time between nail trims and the nails themselves started getting longer.

The solution:
Though it was tempting, I did not give up on trimming Leopold’s nails. I had to find some way of completing the task. Untrimmed nails can eventually cause a lot of problems—they push the toes in weird directions and can malform the feet. In really bad situations, toe nails can even curl around and then grow into the foot. Ouch! And by the number of dogs I’ve seen come into our vet clinic with nails that are curving and growing in funny directions because they’re so long, this dislike for having nails trimmed seems to be somewhat of an epidemic among dogs.
I decided to try a sneak attack: I waited until Leopold was sleeping and then I would creep over with my clippers and trim as many nails as I could before he woke up—usually just one or two nails. I tried to make this a daily practice, so that over time every nail got trimmed. Eventually, I tried to trim a few nails even after he woke up. I used no restraint and would stop if he started pulling his paws away. After a while, Leopold didn’t mind the nail trims any more. Nail trimming stopped being a horrible experience for him, so he stopped freaking out.
I haven’t restrained him since. He is no longer afraid of the clippers and seems indifferent to the task. Now our nail-trimming routine goes something like this:

Boring video, right? No crazed and upset dog to see here! (Just really loud cicadas apparently).
Getting to this relaxed nail clipping routine has been a journey. And in the end I’ve learned that I am much more successful using little or no restraint in order to trim a dog’s nails—I’ve tried a no-restraint method with other dogs as well with success.

Using positive reinforcement with Halo.
Halo hated having her nails trimmed when we first got her (surprise surprise, right?). So I’ve slowly been training Halo to tolerate nails trims as well. Because she’s so treat motivated, I’ve been using positive reinforcement methods to get her to tolerate nails trims. We’re still in the learning stage, so it goes something like this:

I have her sit. I show her a treat that she knows she’ll have to work for. I ask for a paw, I clip one nail, and then give her a treat and praise her as soon as the nail is trimmed. And then I repeat for another nail. And that’s it! We’re starting off slow—two nails at a time—so that she never has a bad nail trim experience again.
Like many dog-training situations, less is much, much more.