This is my dog getting her nails clipped. When I first got her, her nails were overgrown and she was afraid of the clippers. The reason she's so calm is that I've built a system of consent with her. What this means is that if she needs a break, she can ask for it and I will honor her request. Before I manipulate her paws, I ask her if she's ready before I do so. When you give your dog more power and control in this sort of situation, you also give her more confidence and more reason to trust you.
When you go to the dentist, the dentist doesn't hold you down and put things in your mouth against your will. Rather, you hear "say ah" and the dentist will explain what he or she is about to do to you and if you are ready for it. Small things like this helps you feel more at ease.
The focus of a training program to get your dog to be able to get the nails clipped should not be to get the nails cut. Believe it or not, the only thing you should ever focus on is how comfortable your dog is. That was all I focused on for my dog. Within a month, she was as comfortable as she is in the above video.
Below, I have a video tutorial of the process I took to get there as well as an explanation for the training choices I have made and why they were important:
Step 1. Start with impulse control exercises to teach a calm marker word
A calm marker word is important when building calm behaviors where it will be useful to mark the exact moment the dog has succeeded in a task. The calm marker word tells the dog "yes, you've earned the cookie, but wait for me to calmly hand it to you."
I usually just start teaching it with a normal leave it. When I say good, I pick up the treat and hand it to my dog. That's it. Note in the video the difference between good and Pip's normal marker word yes. Also notice how she gets calmer and calmer with each good.
Step 2. Touch the dog while the dog is leaving the treat.
I gently touch the dog's toes. All she has to do is hold still and then I'll mark with good as I touch her feet and after I say good, I take my hand off of her and reach for the cookie. The dog is actually working for both the food and for the hand to retreat. A good trainer recognizes every reward the dog is working for--not just the one you intended for the dog to work for.
Note the calm treat delivery. What that means is that I put the treat under her mouth so she has to lap it up out of my hand rather than snatch at it.
Step 3. Practice with a cookie pile and feed from the pile
Pip is aware of the cookie pile, but is not obsessed about it. But the point is that the dog stops focusing so intently on the treats and is more focused on what you are doing and what you are asking of her. If your goal is to do this exercise without the cookie pile, you may start fading the cookies by putting them further away and eventually hiding them.
If the dog pulls her foot away, let her. It's important feedback for the both of you: It tells your dog that you will honor her requests for space and it tells you that you pushed your dog further than she was ready for. My dog Pip is a rescue from the shelter and she typically begins every nail clipping session by pulling her foot away to see if this is still true. It always is. Then, she proceeds with confidence.
I use low value rather than high value cookies for this training for several reasons:
- High value rewards skew the dog's threshold. Many dogs will do things that make them uncomfortable for the sake of a reward that they really, really want. There used to be a game show on TV that was based on this concept, where people did things that they would never do for the sake of a substantial cash reward.
- The dog's focus should be on what's going on--not on the reward. In addition, I don't direct the dog's attention onto or away from anything. I want the dog to look where she needs to look. Doing it this way also helps the dog have an easier time transferring the coping skills they are using to times when there are no rewards. The dog is working more for feeling comfortable and safe than for the cookies themselves.
- Using low value rewards also forces the trainer to work at the dog's pace. Dogs are very honest. If she won't let you touch her paw for a piece of kibble, but will let you have your hand reach towards her as long as it stays 18 inches away, that's where you have to start.
- Low value rewards help promote calmer behavior. Using low value rewards brings down the energy level of training in general for a dog. Handling a nervous dog is absolutely a place where you want the dog to display a calmer affect.
Once again, the dog sets the pace. The reason why this method works is it gives the dog a safe structure in which to feel mildly stressed, learn to process, and cope that stress at the pace the dog needs to do so. You can adapt this structure for different behavior issues as well.