You have just adopted a rescue dog, accidentally cut your dog’s quick before, or got a new puppy. They are not cooperating for a nail trim, now what?
To cut your uncooperative dogs’ nails there are a few options. You can counter condition its negative feelings or introduce the concept of cooperative care to your dog. A workaround solution is to pick an alternative way of cutting your dog’s nails.
Besides a short explanation on counter conditioning and cooperative care, this article will also touch on why some dogs are uncooperative and two different ways of keeping your dog’s nails short.
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There are many instances where dogs link negative experiences to a trigger. This can cause fear, to which the dog overreacts the next time it is faced with this same trigger. It can cause all sorts of issues that range from simply not cooperating to feeling the only way to tell you they disagree is violence.
When trimming nails there are all kinds of ways to accidentally create a negative experience. In the end, the dog decides if it was a bad experience or not and they can respond negatively to small triggers. For example, the sound of the nail clipper can be a big obstacle. But simply not understanding what is happening when it’s your dog’s first trim can be a reason for your dog to defend itself too.
One of the widest known ways to help a dog move past its fears is counter conditioning. The method is based on Pavlov’s discovery that an involuntary response to one trigger can be linked to another trigger. In his famous experiment, a drooling response was paired with hearing the sound of a bell by offering food right after the sound was heard.
When changing a dog’s emotion from fearful to happy when trimming their nails, this same principle is used. To know where to start you need to find out where your dog’s fear kicks in. Some dogs panic at the sight of the nail clipper, while others only lose it once you touch their paw.
Once you have figured out when your dog panics, you go one small step back if at all possible. This is your starting point. The goal is to link a happy feeling to nail cutting, which in most cases is done with high-value treats. Let’s say your dog panics once you put the clipper on the nail, then your starting point is holding the nail clipper while holding your dog’s paw the way you would when cutting. To link the happy feeling to this action, you make this action the cue to the high-value treat. Keep repeating the cue, directly followed by the treat until your dog is giving off happy body language or anticipates the treat. Then you move on to the next step, putting the cutter on the nail and repeating the process. This way you make your way through squeezing the clipper to eventually cutting the nail. Make sure to reward your dog for nice behavior even after he is letting you, to keep the experience positive.
Some dogs are braver than others. If your dog tells you it is uncomfortable in any way, you move back to the last step and move forward with a smaller step the next try.
Cooperative care is a method where the dog gets a say in if the care is continued or stopped. This way it gets a sense of control over the situation and therefore becomes more confident with its owner’s handling.
This is often done by teaching the dog that engaging with a bucket full of treats by only looking at it is going to earn it treats. Once that principle has been established, gazing at the bucket is going to be linked to consenting to care, and looking away from the bucket is a way to stop immediately. This is done by first simply reaching out to touch or stroke the dog and stopping when it looks away from the bucket to see what you are doing. When it keeps looking at the bucket, it earns a treat every once in a while.
When you can successfully touch or stroke the dog without it looking away, you start over with a simple care routine like brushing. The same principle is used here: looking at the bucket is starting the care routine and earning treats, looking away from the bucket stops the care immediately. Once the dog has understood you can move on to different care routines like cutting nails.
With this method, it’s very important to directly stop every time the dog chooses to stop. So if you aren’t able to do so, it’s best to not use this method.
Both counter conditioning and cooperative care can be very long processes when lots of negative experiences have been established. It may however be necessary to cut your dog’s nails in the meantime. Using a scratchboard can be an alternative to keep your dog’s nails short. With this method, you teach your dog to scratch its nails on a board with sandpaper. But going for walks on rough surfaces can also help keep your dog’s nails short in a natural way.
Even when we do our very best to keep care a positive experience for our dogs, sometimes that just doesn’t work out the way we intended. When this leads to an uncooperative dog it can become a real struggle.
Luckily counter conditioning and cooperative care are two methods to help you cut your dog’s nails without the struggle. However, the downside to both these methods is that it may take a long time before you can cut any nails.
In some cases, it’s better to teach your dog an alternative way of cutting nails altogether. Or you could simply choose to do it the natural way.
Hi! My name is Joan. I’m 25 years old, and I live in The Netherlands. I work in healthcare and study applied psychology. Besides this, I am helping my dog Chester recover from a bad start in life.