Clipping, snipping, brushing, poking...
Pets have to tolerate not-so-pleasant procedures during grooming or veterinary care. But it's hard to convince a feisty Fido that it's great fun to be held down while the vet puts drops in his ears! On your own at home, without the benefit of practiced technique and extra pairs of hands, a task like that can be more of a wrestling match than a calm medical procedure.
With some planning and training, you can prepare your pet to know what to expect, and to cooperate with necessary procedures. Using as an example the routine task of clipping a dog's nails, here are suggestions that increase the chances for success. (The principles described in this example apply to many other procedures as well.)
Have the proper equipment—and know how to use it
Be sure to have a good-quality pair of clippers, with a nail guard that prevents you from cutting too far. Ask your vet or groomer to show you the proper way to clip the nail, and practice on a matchstick before moving on to the dog.
Associate the procedure with tasty treats
One common approach to teaching a dog to cooperate with nail trimming is to associate the task with food. Have a helper hold a bone stuffed with yummy filling, and allow the dog to lick it while you trim his nails. Eventually, the dog will not require continuous feeding, and will allow nail clipping if a treat is offered after each foot is complete. It may be just that easy!
Train the dog to accept each step of the process
In some situations, the treat association may not be enough to ensure success. If you are alone, it is difficult to hold the foot, clip the nail, and feed the dog. Some dogs have had negative experiences with forcible or painful nail trimming, or are hypersensitive when it comes to their feet. Pets may be less amenable to the tasty treat approach when it comes to eye drops, ear drops, or wound dressing—procedures that are more invasive or more difficult for a pet to tolerate.
There is another extremely powerful option that involves planning and that applies to any situation where the dog does not want to cooperate but must: the step-by-step approach.
To start, outline the steps (in this case for nail clipping): 1) get the clippers; 2) go to the clipping location with the dog; 3) have the dog lie down; 4) sit beside the dog; 5) pick up a paw; 6) use your fingers to isolate the nail; 7) pick up the clippers; 8) move the clippers toward the nail; 9) position the clippers around the nail; 10) clip the nail.
Next, teach the dog to welcome each step. The goal of the early training sessions is not to trim the nails, but to move through one or more steps in the process, ensuring that the dog is always comfortable. If your dog hides under the bed when you approach the clippers drawer, break that first step into attainable sub-steps.
- Nail clipping
- Ear cleaning
- Teeth brushing
- Fur clipping
- Veterinary examination
- Wearing a muzzle
- Being in a crate
- Being without an owner
Establish a marker to mean "Yes! You win!"
Use a clicker to tell the dog, "Yes! That's right! You will get a treat!" The clicker allows you to be very precise in giving the dog information, but a bit flexible when it comes to giving treats. Once you have clicked, you do not need to give treats at the exact moment you are holding the dog's paw with one hand and clipping with the other. The dog learns that every time you click, the treat comes within one to three seconds.
In our example, step one is "get the clippers." Call your dog; when he comes, click and give him a treat. Put your hand on the clippers drawer, click and treat. Open the drawer, click and treat. By now your dog is probably paying close attention to you and may even be running through his tricks trying to figure out how to get you to click and treat. This is exactly what you want! As you show the dog what he needs to do to keep the clicks and treats coming, he will become a willing participant in the nail clipping game.
Teach the dog that clippers are wonderful!
Take the clippers out of the drawer, click and treat. Hold them out for the dog to investigate. Click and treat when he just looks at the clippers, and then if he sniffs or touches them. Start walking toward the clipping location. When he follows, looks at, or touches the clippers, click and treat. At the clipping location, ask the dog to lie down, or lure him down with a treat. Put the clippers near one of his front paws, and click and treat if he does anything other than get up. End the first session when the dog will lie with you in the clipping area, with the clippers nearby. The entire session should take about 5 minutes and use up 20 treats. Take a play break and then start another training session later.
In the second session, run through the same steps as the first session, but click and treat less often. Maybe clip once when you take the clippers out of the drawer, once during the walk to the clipping location, and once when the dog is settled with the clippers nearby. Now you can start handling his paws. Touch a paw, and click and treat if the dog accepts the touch. If he pulls away, back off and click/treat when your hand is four inches from his paw, then two inches, then one inch away, and then after a light momentary touch, and so on. The idea is to keep the process within the dog's comfort zone and to expand his comfort zone gradually. Some dogs will zip through all the steps, and some may get worried at various points.
Take steps that follow the dog's lead
It is not necessary to describe every step of the nail clipping training in detail once you know to click and treat at each new step, and to break steps down further if required. Subsequent steps for the nail clipping project could be: isolate a nail with your thumb and forefinger; apply slight and then gradually more pressure with your thumb and finger on either side of the nail; move the clippers nearer to the nail; touch the clippers to the nail; clip a matchstick near the nail so the dog gets used to the sound; put the clippers around the nail, ready to clip; finally, clip a small part off one nail. Click and treat every step that the dog accepts.
If the dog seems uncomfortable or uncooperative at any point, go back to a previous step. Allow the dog to set the pace and offer the behavior that you want. Let him place his paw in your hand rather than simply tolerate you picking up the paw. The more engaged the dog is in active participation, the better chance of success.
Work in short sessions
Work in 5 minute sessions, or count out 20 treats and when they are gone take a play break. Each session should get you closer and closer to your goal, and in three to five sessions you may have actually clipped one nail! Subsequent nails will go faster. Remember to click/treat when the dog cooperates, and soon you will notice the dog actively trying to cooperate.
Watch for body language signals
Pay close attention to your pet's body language. Go back to an easier step if he pulls away, tries to leave, or if you see him yawning, licking his chops, or looking at you with the white of his eye showing a half moon shape. These behaviors all indicate anxiety—you have moved too fast.
Nail clipping is just one example where using the step-by-step method achieves the goal. Other everyday grooming tasks can be approached in the same way, as can the medical treatments that many pets require from time to time. Zoo trainers use this same step-by-step process to teach a rhinoceros to walk onto a weigh scale and present its shoulder for an injection, or to teach a killer whale to offer a flipper for a blood draw. Use the techniques the world's top trainers use to teach your dog or other pet to cooperate with tooth brushing, or even eye and ear drop administration.
When medication must be given right away, and not after a few days of training, you can still follow the steps described above. If eye drops need to be administered, the training steps might be: 1) get the medication; 2) go to the treatment location; 3) take the lid off the medication; 4) position the dog's head; 5) position your non-dropper hand; 6) position your dropper hand; 7) administer the drops.
Work on each step using lots of click/treats. You may need to break some steps into sub-steps. If your pet won't allow you to approach his eye with the dropper bottle, you may have to click/treat when the bottle is two feet away and gradually decrease the distance to keep the pet in the game. At first you may even need to move an empty hand close to your pet's eye if there is a past history of bad experiences with dropper bottles.
Start with an empty dropper bottle and work with it until your pet will voluntarily position himself for the procedure when he sees you with the bottle. A cat may come and sit on a chair. A dog may come and put his head on your lap. Next, move on to a dropper with just water, and go through all the steps again. Repeat again with the actual medication. Vary your routine so that sometimes you click/treat partway through the process and then end the process, and sometimes you go all the way to administering the drops before giving the click/treat.
Use extra delicious treats and do several five-minute training sessions with five to ten minute breaks in between. Within an hour, you can do four to six sessions. The time you spend working up to the actual administration of the drops will be well worth it, since you will have to give the drops several times a day for five to ten days. If you do the procedure by force or without treats, your pet will become more and more anxious, may try to bite, scratch, or run away to hide, or may fall into a state of helplessness. Even worse, you will have done serious damage to the relationship of trust that all pet owners want with their pets.
Don't wait until your pet needs medical treatment to train for these kinds of procedures. Use an empty dropper bottle and condition your dog (or cat) to the various steps leading up to the actual administration of drops. Similarly, teach your pet to accept the handling that is required for general medical exams and grooming. Run through the steps quickly every so often. When it comes time for grooming or a trip to the vet, use extra delicious treats and a click/treat for each step of the process. This routine will comfort your pet, and will show the vet and groomer how to use your training method, and the foundation you have laid, to make their jobs easier. The professionals will appreciate it—and so will your pet!