By Tori Ganino, BS, CDBC, CPDT-KA

Nail trims

Cooperative care has become a frequently used term in the positive reinforcement world of animal training. This is where an animal has a choice in his care and is an active participant. It is even used with animals in zoos. Do a quick internet search and you will find videos of tigers, alligators, and hyenas participating in physical examinations and blood draws. If these animals can be comfortable with the process then so can your dog.

When I say “choice”, I do not mean that the dog can pick between fighting against having a nail trim or just submitting to it. I mean that the dog can choose when he is ready to begin and give calm signals letting you know that he needs a break. The whole process does not cause any stress to the dog.

Dogs are always communicating with us. The goals with cooperative care are to to teach the dog that the overall process is a good thing and that there is no need to growl or bite when being handled for activities necessary for his health, such as vet examinations, teeth brushing, ear cleaning, and nail trims. If they aren’t telling us that they are uncomfortable by these signals, what else can they do? My personal preference for my dogs is telling me that they need a break simply by lifting up their heads.

Two of my dogs have their own individual goals to assist them with better care. This blog will be focusing on Jeter and nail trims. By breaking down the task into many small stages, and only proceeding to the next stage when he was comfortable, we built up to a great cooperative nail care regiment.

Jeter not only disliked seeing the nail clippers, but he was extremely upset when you tried to touch his feet. His nails were extremely overgrown when we adopted him as an adult.

Our original strategy to get them trimmed took two people. One was feeding him the entire time while the other attempted to cut the nails. We were not always successful, and often times the session ended with him growling. This was not the kind of care that we wanted for him.

With the help of a fellow trainer, Deb Jones, his training plan was broken down into many stages: seeing the nail clippers, nail clippers touching his paws, nail clippers touching his nails, my hand touching his paws, my hand holding his paws, my hand squeezing his paws, isolating each nail, touching the nails with my fingers, squeezing the nails, touching the nails with the clippers, putting clippers around the nails, then clipping. He started out in the down position on the edge of the bed for these steps.

I was not just teaching him that these activities were okay to do, I was helping him develop a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER) to each, and therefore the entire process. In other words, he was happy. This was obvious by the anticipatory tail wags while we trained. A +CER is created by being performing a step, like the ones described above, at your dog’s comfort level and then immediately following it with a reward.

For example, placing the clippers around the nails predicted that a special treat would be delivered.

By the time we worked up to clipping nails, he was relaxing on his side which he was taught to do separate from all of the handling.  If Jeter lifted his head off of the bed during the session, I knew that he was letting me know that he was not comfortable and wanted me to stop. If his head went back down, he was letting me know that he was ready to continue.

It sounds like a lot of work and it was. Over the course of six weeks, with a few daily sessions lasting about two minutes each, Jeter was able to progress tremendously with his routine.  But why go through all of this just to trim his nails? The previous technique not only caused him a great deal of stress, but it stressed me out to the point where I dreaded doing his nails. I also was not able to get them shortened to where it was a good length for the health of his paws and joints. What was worse is that any time I forced him to deal with an upsetting situation he was losing trust in me. This was greatly upsetting for the both of us and not the type of relationship that I wished to have with him.

Anytime we force our dogs to do something that they are not comfortable with, we run the risk of progressively making the activity more traumatic each time, to the point where the dog bites. By taking the time to break down the steps of the care routine, and training your dog to be happy with each one, you can have the same success as Jeter.

Tori Ganino CDBC, CPDT-KA is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC, Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed through the CCPDT, and a member of International Canine Behaviourists (ICB) and the International Companion Animal Network (ICAN). She owns Calling All Dogs located in Batavia, NY where she teaches group classes and private lessons for obedience and behavior modification.

You can find out more about Tori from her website