Polite Sitting at the GateSome readers already know his background (but in case you don’t) our LGD, Moses, is a retired show dog. He’s a finished champion that was never really cut out to be a “campaign dog,” travelling the road for years, racking up group placements and best-in-show wins. So, he’s here now, and farm life seems to suit him much better. One problem I’ve faced with him is grooming, however. Ironic, since he must have spent a lot of time on the grooming table when he was a show dog. But perhaps this is one reason he needed a career change, as he hates being groomed!

When he arrived here, he displayed extreme neurosis around both having his toenails cut, as well as the intensive brushing that’s required to manage a show-bred dog’s coat. He is an emotionally sensitive dog, and anything that’s done to him in a way that he perceives as victimizing will send him into a wild-eyed, howling panic. I suspect that if I were to push his buttons enough in these “scary” areas, he may feel forced to bite. Of course, we don’t want to purposely create those situations and test our reaction time at avoiding getting bitten! So, that’s something I’ve been working to re-program.

Moses Long ToenailsToenails are a big issue, because his grow like crazy, and turn into eagle talons within weeks if they are not constantly trimmed. Contrast this to Bronte (our Maremma) I don’t think I’ve ever cut her nails except when she was a puppy, just to teach her to be comfortable with it. Her feet are shaped such that her toenails naturally wear down- yet one of the many desirable attributes she possesses that seem to come with a breed that’s only bred for function. I procrastinated on Moses’ feet for a while, but finally couldn’t ignore them any longer, they looked hideous! Something had to be done.

I asked Moses’ former owners how they trimmed his nails, and their method was to sit down on the floor, lean against the couch, and pin the dog upside-down between their legs. This is not so convenient in a pasture, nor does it help with his sense of victimization, so I wanted to create an easier system for both our sakes.

Enter food. Moses lives to eat, and his excitement over every meal is unsurpassed. So I started bargaining with him at dinner time, requiring him to do something before I’d set his food bowl down. First, it was polite sitting at the gate, as pictured above (obnoxious, demanding “kennel barking” is another thing I’m always working to correct in this dog…). Once he got the drift that he was required to do something before I’d set down the dinner bowl, then I started with the toenail cutters.

At first, just me holding the instrument was enough to set him on edge. If I asked him to lie down, he would only do so reluctantly, and very tensely. Barely touching a foot with my hand in preparation to trim a nail would cause him to leap up, holler, and run away in fear. <sigh> Such ridiculous behavior, but he had really built this thing up in his mind as a terrible scene.

So it was necessary to spend many weeks desensitizing him to all this drama. I started simply with having him lie down on command for half a minute, then he’d get dinner. Next I’d just touch a foot, then hold a foot, then handle a foot. Then I started touching the toenail trimmer to a foot, then dinner- no nail cutting yet! These preparatory steps took weeks. Then, finally, one toenail trim, just the tippy end, so as to be very minor in sensation. These first ones, I found I had to do it freehand- if I held his foot, it would make him panic again. But, after a few cycles of one toenail cut per day, and he started to relax and be OK with it. Now I can set his food bowl down next to us without him leaping up, do one whole foot, then verbally release him to eat. In four days, his toenails are trimmed. Yay!

Lately, he’s been “volunteering” in anticipation when I’m holding the trimmers, rolling over as I bring his dinner bowl, offering his feet up without me even asking. This makes me smile, and is my favorite way to train dogs to handle toenail grooming. By paying them a small reward for compliance (the indoor dogs get one animal cookie for the entire job), it takes away the whole drama and makes it so much easier for me. No hunting down dogs hiding under the bed when they see you get the tools out, no wrestling them down, pinning them, and pushing them through fear so strong they are brought to the brink of biting. Instead, though it’s still not their favorite exercise, they politely offer up their feet and wait expectantly for it to be done so they can get their reward.

Some may say, I want my dog to obey, I am the alpha, and I will trim toenails when I want and the dog shall comply! And so, indeed, you can do it this way, but you have to put up with the drama, which usually worsens with time. Using a reward system is so much better. Sure, it creates a situation where the dog thinks he’s in control, that he has a choice not to do toenails if he’s willing to forego the treat. But *I* know who’s really pulling the puppet strings. Winking smile By using a high-value treat, and setting the conditioning up slowly, I know what the dog’s choice will be, I’ve determined it ahead of time. I’ve never refused him his dinner, I’ve never needed to. I just always make the choice easy, then only a tiny bit harder, until each new habit is established and comfortable. Classic conditioning always works in favor of the trainer. But the great thing is the dogs don’t know it, so everyone is happy. By putting the focus on the end goal of getting to the treat as quick as possible, it shifts the focus away from the worry about the nails.

Most importantly, it seems to change the dog’s perception of what’s happening. Cutting or grinding toenails is definitely uncomfortable- I suspect it’s akin to what we experience at the dentist. Only for us, we understand why the dentist is causing us the discomfort and it’s our choice to undergo the treatment. For dogs, this few minutes of perceived cruelty is hard for them to understand. If we “make” them do it, it creates all sorts of fear and mistrust in their minds, as they struggle to understand, why are you doing this to me even when I cry Uncle? Pushing dogs into emotional and defensive-based thinking makes them get all squirrely. In contrast, by turning it into a bargain, they perceive I’m asking them for compliance and offering a reward for doing it. Now they can use their logical brains to choose to accept the terms of the negotiation, keeping them out of that deep-instinct reactionary mode. Then all the drama disappears, and the job gets done efficiently! With Moses, what a turnaround from the yelping, panicked, you’ve-cut-my-foot-off! behavior of a year ago!