Pamela Rhodes is a colleague of mine through the Academy for Dog Trainers who was recently tasked with helping an elderly dog who has body handling issues and very long nails. She was unsure about the best approach at first, ultimately deciding that a scratchboard might be the best route to getting started and getting some of the length off. And boy, was she right! Take a look at Holly before..and we’ll get to the ‘during’ shortly! But first, I wanted to get some more insight into Pamela’s planning and approach.
LN: Tell us about the dog you are currently working with on nail care.
PR: Holly is a 14 year old Jack Russell Terrier belonging to a neighbour who was very distressed following a vet visit. Using sedation and a muzzle, the vet had managed to clip Holly’s back nails, but was unable to get near her front feet. Her nails were excessively long and curled, causing discomfort and slipping when walking.
LN: I know you struggled initially on the best way to get started because Holly’s nails were so long, how did you end up choosing to start with a scratchboard?
PR: My initial thinking was that the only way to remove the bulk of the length and relieve Holly’s discomfort asap would be with clippers, but it soon became clear that fear of body handling was a much bigger issue than I had realised – she was backing away every time I reached towards her so I knew it was going to take much longer than I had hoped. In the meantime I needed a solution to resolve the immediate crisis without causing her distress, so I decided to try the scratchboard.
LN: How long did it take Holly to start scratching at the board? What method did you use to achieve this?
PR: As an initial experiment I held the board at an angle in front of me, and within seconds Holly was putting her front paws on the board to reach for a treat. As she moved back down her very long nails caught on the sandpaper so we got small scratches very quickly.
LN: Are you using a training plan and if so what are the components and criteria?
PR: I used a shaping plan starting with paying her for touching the board then watching for her to make small scratching movements before increasing criteria requiring more intense scratching and increased number of scratches with each paw. Holly progressed to multiple vigorous scratches very quickly, but for dogs who find it more difficult, the plan allows for a more gradual approach, starting with simply placing a paw near to the board and moving forward at the individual dog’s pace.
LN: As you move forward, how are you starting to transition? Meaning, what are you doing to help build comfort with the handling component?
PR: I am currently combining scratchboard nail maintenance with handling training, the latter of which is likely to take some time due to Holly’s prior history. Initially she was only comfortable with me reaching partway towards her, so I built up from that to touching her shoulder and gradually to lower down her leg, increasing pressure and manipulation of toes. I am also working on building a positive emotional response to a new filing tool which can be incorporated into the training plan at a later stage.
LN: Which tool do you plan on using- file, Dremel or clippers?
PR: I plan on using a standard nail file in the future, the least invasive method. The scratchboard worked well so Holly’s nails must be soft and therefore likely easy to maintain with a file. There will be no need to worry about overcoming previous bad experiences, as with clippers, or potential risk of cutting through the quick, and no need for additional training to get her comfortable with a dremel. The other tools may be better options for some dogs, so it’s important to consider individual circumstances.
LN: Are you coaching Holly’s owner to be able to do this on their own? If so, what are some of the tips you are giving them?
PR: The owner has been watching me train, and has been very surprised at Holly’s ability and keenness to learn. She was also previously unaware of small body language signs that Holly was uncomfortable because this is the first time she has had freedom to move away rather than being forcibly restrained. So far I have coached her how to build a positive emotional response to a new tool by showing it at random intervals throughout the day then running to the fridge for chicken, and use of the scratchboard. Initially I am working on the handling training myself, as I am able to get regular access to Holly, but hoping to transfer the skills at a later date. It will be very important to coach the owner to resist the temptation to move too fast, especially when dealing with a dog who has had so many previous bad experiences.
LN: Any advice for someone who has similar issues? Anything you wish you had done differently?
PR: Carefully consider all the options before deciding which method to use and be prepared to change approach if things aren’t working as well as you had hoped – you might be surprised how much difference an alternative method could make. And it can’t be said too often to go really slow – it is so easy to push forward just that little bit too much which can delay progress considerably.
LN: Is this something you hope to be able to offer to more people as part of your training services?
PR: Yes, I really hope to be able to help more people who have dogs uncomfortable with nail care, grooming and vet procedures in the future. It will be so rewarding to help people understand there is so much that can be done to make routine care much easier and less scary for their dogs. In addition I would like to do prevention exercises to reduce the likelihood of puppies and dogs experiencing unnecessary fear in the first place.
LN: Do you see applications for grooming and husbandry procedures beyond nail care based on what you are currently doing with Holly, or any other whose nails you have worked on?
PR: Yes – there are lots of similarities between nail care techniques and other body handling and tool applications including grooming and preparing for vet procedures. My own dog suffered extreme anxiety at the vet surgery in the past, but following training is now much more able to cope with blood draws, thermometers and stethoscopes etc.
And here’s an ‘in progress’ shot of Holly now:
#teamholly has made great progress in a very short period of time! And as Holly shows more comfort with handling, Pamela will be able to transition to a nail file. By working with the scratchboard, they’ve gotten off an incredible about of length and Holly is already more comfortable. The file will serve as a way to keep up with maintenance and even the nails out.
Here’s some footage of Pamela and Holly in action. Check out how Holly willingly and enthusiastically scratches at the board! Pamela reinforces her away from the board to help set up the next repetition!
Nailed It: A Course in Canine Nail Care is designed as a desensitization procedure, gradually building a dog’s comfort level through careful steps. Using operant conditioning as an adjunct, like Pamela is doing here, is a great way to get the process started, especially when you consider that you can dovetail the training together along the way!
Big thanks to Pamela, Holly and Holly’s family for sharing their progress. It serves as an important reminder that there are often solutions where we might not have seen them before. And boy, do I wish I had a Pamela to help my Rocco when we needed it!
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