A counter conditioning protocol for trimming nails


1. Determine the location of touch that your dog can tolerate without being fearful or aggressive. Maybe it’s her shoulder, maybe her elbow, or maybe it’s right above her paw. She should be a little concerned, but not growl or try to move away. This is “below the threshold” – the emotional state we want her to stay in for all of this work.

2. Briefly and gently touch your dog on the leash where it is slightly below the threshold – you are aware of your touch and a little concerned, but not very concerned. As soon as your dog notices your touch, feed their pieces of chicken continuously. After a second or two, remove the touch and stop feeding the treats.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until you touch your dog at this point for a second or two so that your dog gives you a happy smile and a “Yay! Where is my chicken “Expression. That’s a conditioned emotional response (CER); Your dog’s association with the brief touch at this point is now positive instead of negative. Note: Feed the treats whether or not your dog is showing the desired CER. The happy CE is a product of that process, but you don’t waiting so that it happens every time.

4. Now increase the intensity of the stimulus by lengthening the length of time in which you touch them in the same place for a few seconds, receive the desired CER with each new touch and continue to feed for the duration of the touch. Do several repetitions of two to four seconds until you get a consistent “Yay!” Looks then several reps for four to eight seconds, then several four for eight to 12 seconds, etc. that work for that consistent CER with each new duration of your touch.

5. If you can touch your dog’s body with him in “Yay” mode for a long time at this point, start increasing the intensity of the stimulus again, this time by increasing the Duration from your touch, then the pressure, before moving your hand to a new place a little lower than the place you touched before. I suggest starting at your first point of touch and sliding your hand to the new spot instead of just touching the new spot. Continue the iterations until you get consistent CERs in the new location.

6th Work your way up to your dog’s paw incrementally, an inch or two at a time, and get firm CERs at each point before approaching the paw.

7th When working on the leg, be sure to add duration and pressure to each step before continuing. Each is a separate step in the CC&D process.

8th. If you can touch, grip, and apply pressure on the paw, raise the paw very slightly at first, then gradually as you get to the desired CER with each increase in buoyancy. Then repeat the process for each leg. The other legs probably won’t last that long, but still walk slowly and make sure you get the happy CER with each step.

9. Did you think we’d never get to the nail grinding part? We are nearly there! Start the process again, this time with the nail grinder (or hair clipper) in hand. Show your dog the tool at a distance below the threshold until you get consistent CERs, then gradually move closer (CERs at each step!) Until you can touch the tool on her nail. Gradually increase the duration of contact with her nail and feed her a treat over and over until the appearance of the nail trimmer gives a “Yay!” Response. Then condition the sound of the grinder (or the clipper action of squeezing the clippers) by starting again from some distance and gradually moving closer, while achieving consistent CERs with each step.

10. Go through the entire touch sequence again, this time with the trim tool in your hand, touching it with the tool too, and then again while turning on the grinder or squeezing the hair clipper. Remember, you will still be feeding tasty treats and getting the CER you want throughout the process. If you can hold her paw and use the tool right next to her nail with a happy reaction, grind or cut a nail, feed lots of treats and stop. Do one nail a day until she’s happy with it, then move on to two nails at a time, then three until you can grind or cut all of the nails in one sitting.

The more complex the stimulus, the more successful the dog’s avoidance or aggressive strategies have been, and the more intense the emotional response, the more difficult it is to change behavior. Take your time. Be patient. A few more weeks – or months – with long nails isn’t the end of the world and the result – a dog who willingly participates in the nail cutting procedure – is worth the effort.

On the subject of matching items

Grinder vs. Clippers: What’s Best for Your Dog’s Nails?
What’s the Best Sharpening Tool for Your Dog’s Nails?

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