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How to Teach Canine Nail Trims with a Team Approach

Shaping human behavior

Just mentioning trimming a puppy or dog’s nails elicits a wide range of reactions from dog lovers. You might call it a rainbow of reactions that carries various colors of learned conditioned emotional responses. Green means go for a fun owner experience. Red translates to panic and avoidance of a punishing scenario. There are many colorful reactions in between these two colors on the spectrum.

Nail Trims With a Team Approach

One-trial learning is extremely effective. When an owner hears her dog yelp when his paw is picked up, or sees her dog tremble as the nail trimmer or dremel comes out, the owner’s heart fills with sadness. When she sees the puppy bound up with enthusiasm for treats and playtime during paw tactile games, an owner’s heart bursts with joy.

What it comes down to is “What does an owner choose to participate in?” We hear often how important it is for animals to have the power of choice. Dog owners must have choices, too.

But short of a puppy or dog filing down their own nails naturally, perhaps from daily exercise on various surfaces, humans are needed to help in dogs’ day-to-day paw care, including nail trims.

My own nail trim experiences with Luca, my first Rhodesian ridgeback, were noted in a previous article titled How to Teach Voluntary Blood Draws: Lessons from Dolphins and Horses Apply to Dogs. It took time to increase not only Luca’s comfort level with nail tactile and care, but also the comfort level for my husband and me. We all worked as a team.

Listen to the dog owner

Some clients rely on a grooming, training, or veterinary professional to handle nail trims. Is that a valid choice for them? Absolutely. If a client tells me that s/he is truly scared of hurting the puppy or that s/he is physically shaking trying to steady the trimmer, that is my cue to find the smallest success point to support what the owner can do comfortably in order to stay involved in the dog’s paw care.

Does the owner feel comfortable feeding treats while watching me tip a nail? Yes? Excellent. Now I have an open door to shape the owner’s behavior, to see what is possible with positive training and patience. We don’t advocate flooding when teaching an animal. We should use the same criteria with our clients.

It should go without saying that trainers always advocate for the puppy or dog. In addition to teaching about canine communication, it is important to observe a dog owner’s verbal and non-verbal communication that conveys how the owner feels.

Show and tell

“Show and tell” can be another helpful platform in helping a skittish client. Allowing a client to practice with another dog, one that is comfortable and relaxed with paw tactile, can be an excellent foundation point and can help decrease anxiety. This experience also provides a “feel” for how each small approximation can proceed with the help of a shaping plan.

In the first video clip of this “show and tell” strategy, one of my friends is practicing with Santino, our four-year-old intact male Rhodesian ridgeback. The video was recorded so that my friend can reference it in creating a training plan for her own dog. The ultimate reinforcer for me? The follow-up video my friend sent that includes footage of help from her grandchildren. What better way to teach a caring approach to canine care than to help with the family dog, in this case a flat-coated retriever named Booker?

Note that my friend’s grandson places the treat in the bowl that her granddaughter holds behind her back. The sound of the click is the granddaughter’s cue to feed Booker. Isn’t this lovely!

The value in variety

The more that those of us who are professionals share our successes, the stronger the voice for compassionate husbandry and medical care becomes.

Sometimes a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. When a naive puppy owner does an Internet search about nail trims and is flooded with misinformation, that can lead to problems.

But, a little bit of knowledge can also be priceless. More and more professional trainers, groomers, and veterinary professionals are contributing to the web and social media, adding an always-growing pool of excellent information. There is power in numbers. The more that those of us who are professionals share our successes and how we achieve and maintain milestones, the stronger the voice for compassionate husbandry and medical care becomes.

What works for us

Our “Ready …Set … for Groomer and Vet!” program, described here, has been shared in media outlets and seminars worldwide. The program integrates husbandry training into group and private sessions, using video tutorials to add to our clients’ libraries. These visual resources complement their training experiences with us.

Spending time to integrate paw tactile into daily training along with other basic good-manners skills pays off.

We also collaborate with grooming and veterinary professionals to bring team support back to the dog and their family. There are situations when medical intervention is required to care for an injured paw or a long-overdue nail trim. The hope is that the many short and easy training sessions that were done in advance of these unexpected issues provide a solid foundation that leads to a quick recovery after these emergency procedures. Spending time to integrate paw tactile into daily training along with other basic good-manners skills pays off in the long run.

The average dog owner will most likely not train a dog to lie comfortably on a mat or on the dog’s side or back for nail trims. And that won’t be for lack of interest. Many owners are not invested to that level of fluency because of time and budget variables. However, some of our most enthusiastic clients do take nail trims to that level! Some of those who do should seriously consider a career change toward becoming professional dog trainers. They showcase truly impressive training skills!

Video lessons

This next video clip shows one of many positive approaches to nail trimming, and stars Santino at the vet’s office. With us is vet tech, Alex. A solid and positive partnership with veterinary professionals can lead to success.

(Do I normally trim Santino’s nails at home? You bet. My husband loves to be the one to feed Santino treats while we practice leg and paw tactile. Makes for great family fun!)

Another video clip highlights how basic good-manners training, playtime and petting, and the use of a clicker and treats all help achieve successful nail trims. Note the breaks in between working with each paw. Some dogs may need a break in between each nail! The presence of the veterinary technician is not stressful for Santino; the successful introduction of a second person is very important to the training.

Just another day, training session, nail trim

My aim is for nail trim mock-ups and the actual process to be upbeat and part of a general training session. Puppies and dogs read human body language and tone of voice extremely well. If owners and trainers start moving in a stiff and unusual manner, talking to dogs in a stressed tone (a tone that may just be to keep themselves relaxed!), the dogs react to this unusual context.

Do we want Scenario A from a dog?

“Hmm…those humans are acting strange again. Must be nail trim time. I’ll just back away until they calm down.”

Good for the dog for choosing to back away as a coping strategy. The dog is communicating that the approach is stressful.

How about aiming for Scenario B?

Their body language and vocal repertoire really can let us know exactly how they feel in a situation like a nail trim.

“Look at how relaxed these humans are! They are cueing some of my favorite behaviors while also touching my legs and paws. This is the easiest gig in town. Plus, it’s fun!”

Anthropomorphic light humor, I know, but it makes the point. Canine companions are incredibly smart. Their body language and vocal repertoire really can let us know exactly how they feel in a situation like a nail trim.

What works for you?

Hearing from training and veterinary colleagues who are enthusiastic about the success of our canine husbandry programs brings me joy. What I find even more enjoyable is hearing how these professionals integrate the training behaviors into their own programs successfully.

What can you do for the team? How will you help spread the word that canine nail trims can be stress-free? In what ways can you help your clients and their dogs succeed based on their individual needs?

The sky is the limit! Thanks for letting us share what works for us.

About the author
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Laura Monaco Torelli, Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) and a member of the KPA and ClickerExpo faculties, is the Director of Training for Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago. Since 1991, Laura has worked with and trained beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters, seals, river otters, and penguins (at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago), primates, large cats, birds of prey, reticulated giraffes, Arctic foxes, horses, parrots, macaws, tree kangaroos, and red pandas (at the San Diego Zoo and Brookfield Zoo), and, of course, dogs (just about everywhere). Laura has spoken at many professional conferences and has appeared on various broadcast media.

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