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The Dreaded Nail Cutting: Counter Conditioning to Nail Work

Video courtesy of Shana Deitrick's YouTube Channel. When counter conditioning, it is imperative that the process is broken down into as many baby steps as possible. What we might see as 10 total steps, a dog might see as 100, especially if they have a very negative association with you, the room they are in, the clippers or file in your hand, the facility you bring them to, or all the above.

Counter conditioning is NOT about rewarding good behavior, it is freely giving food for your dog being exposed to the situation (dremel, file, clippers, handling, etc), REGARDLESS of behavior.

It is about creating an association. "When this happens, I get food, every time".

Once you begin breaking down your steps, you may notice that one step is harder for your dog, so you just break that one down further. The better you break it down, the faster your dog will make progress because you are not inadvertently raising the challenge before they are ready. It should feel smooth, as if each criteria rolls into the next without a hitch.

Things to keep in mind of steps you may need to break down: *sound of equipment *location of dog *positioning of dog *angle of arms/body/equipment/head/body *duration *distractions *other dogs being around *distance *current stress level and pain/soreness. Rather than start at the criteria that your dog doesn't do well with; make each repetition one that your dog can win.

You don't want them to practice pulling away or moving away. That breaks trust, because you are repeatedly doing something uncomfortable. Let them win by always staying where they are comfortable. Go at their pace - they should feel like a million bucks on nail day! Make them look forward to the next trim!!

Here is my breakdown that I used to condition my dog. Keep in mind that many of these steps happened quickly in a single session. But, some were a session all by themselves. Some steps took multiple sessions. Read your dog and adjust with them! Create your own steps by looking first at your goal behavior (ie standing still on the mat while I lift a paw and file one nail), and then breaking it into as many parts as possible to build to that goal.


· Dremel in sight (off). (From a distance of 10, 9, 8 feet... if necessary)

· Dremel in sight presented from different angles

· Dremel in sight moving (starting with a slight movement, and moving to large ones)

· Dremel in sight + other hand briefly touching shoulder

· Dremel in sight + other hand progressively touching body in different spots, making sure there were no parts that she pulled away

· Dremel in sight + touching paws

· Dremel in sight + picking up paws (I start at shoulder and then slide down to paw)

· Dremel in sight + holding paws for duration

· Dremel in sight + holding paw + separating the toes

· Dremel in sight + holding paw + separating toes + leaning over as if to concentrate

· Dremel in sight + holding paw + separating toes + leaning over as if to concentrate + moving the Dremel toward the nail in increments until can touch/hold to nail

· ^doing above with all nails, and switching up your body position to mimic a real trimming, just no sound or vibration yet.


· on for 3-5 second spurts

· building incrementally to 30 second spurts

· on for 3-5 second spurts, moving from side to side

· on for 3-5 second spurts, moving along sides of body (incrementally)

· on for 3-5 second spurts, moving over head/body (including there they can't see)

· on for 5-30 second spurts, moving anywhere around body and between legs

· Dremel on (about a foot away - in my lap) with other hand touching body briefly

· Dremel on with other hand working the body the same way as when it was off

· Dremel on, short spurts, running hands down legs

· Dremel on, running hands down legs +lingering on feet

· Dremel on, running down legs + duration on touching feet

· Dremel on, running down legs + picking up feet

· Dremel on, running down legs + picking up feet, holding feet with duration/height of foot

· Dremel on, picking up feet, separating toes

· Dremel on, holding feet, separating toes, leaning over closely to "concentrate"

· Dremel on, holding feet, separating toes, "concentrating", moving Dremel small incremental distances toward nail until it is within a hair of the nail.


· Touch running dremel to nail for a split second, give dog heavy amounts of high value food (even if they run away! No matter what!)

· If vibration is too hard, begin with touching the back end of a rubbing Dremel to the dog's elbow and condition THAT vibration first.

· Continue touching running dremel to each toe, and jackpotting each time. You may need to stabilize the toe with your fingers to minimize vibration.

· Begin adding in your other pieces one by one: holding feet, separating toes, concentrating, duration, etc. Remember: this is teaching, not worrying about actually getting the nail done.

· Keep on, keepin' on!! Once the pieces are all being done together, then it is continuous heavy reinforcement and you can actually begin to trim nails while you teach them how to do nails! It will be less teaching, and more trimming. But, patience, young grasshopper!! Building trust is most important, so watch your dog and listen to them if they start to feel uncomfortable.


**if my dog freaks at any time and moves away or jerks or is otherwise having a hard time, go back a few steps and make it easier. Once they are back on board, you can raise your criteria again. If they can't get back on board, end your session. We all have bad days!

**if my dog jumps when the dremel touches, I would alter the way I was holding the nail (either holding the nail bed more firmly, less firmly, pulled up paw vs bent back paw, less pressure of dremel, etc), changed the angle of the Dremel, change it to low vs high speed, etc.


Check the video at the top of this blog post to see the difference between management trims and working on conditioning (or "teaching"). Video is courtesy of Shana Deitrick's YouTube Channel.

Happy counter conditioning!!!


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