Cooperative Care & Handling for Anti-Aversives Nail Trimming on Shiba Inus
Any time I sit down to trim one of my dogs’ nails, the other dogs swarm around, awaiting their turn.
It’s understandable if you think that’s odd or maybe even false, given how frequently pet dogs are made to suffer restrained, forceful, and terrifying methods for nail care, bathing, and other grooming procedures.
Arguably barbaric practices continue because not enough people know that aversive methods aren’t necessary.
Unfortunately for dogs, it has been and continues to be all too common for people, including many professionals, to use force and other aversives to achieve nail trimming.
In the early 2000s a vet tech instructed me to hold my trembling greyhound down on the ground with my knees so he could more easily trim her nails. She was already terrified before that, and would be much moreso afterward.
All one has to do is really look at their dog, another sentient being who relies on you to protect them from pain, threat, and the frightening results, to see what is and isn’t right.
The recommending, accepting, and practice of forced nail trims has become a bit of a trigger point for me personally, especially as the guardian of a fearful dog and as a fearful dog specialist.
I know how much damage even a single scary experience can do to a dog, and that can be true of previously non-fearful dogs as well.
We pride ourselves on being a humane, pet-centric culture, but in reality, we have a lot of work to do.
Some people may not even realize that it isn’t humane to hurt, force, scare, or emotionally disturb a dog in order to achieve a grooming goal.
But it isn’t, since we have other options.
Restraint and the speed that it provides helps humans, but can also do emotional harm to the animal.
COOPERATIVE CARE & HANDLING (CC&H)
This article will provide step-by-step instructions for one of those options, implementing the best practices known as a group as “cooperative care & handling.”
CC&H is crucial for the well-being of our animals, for the well-being of our relationship with them, and for our own well-being.
After all, most of us will feel terrible if we physically or emotionally harm our pets. That can lead to guilt, self-shame, and other forms of personal distress as well.
Indeed, it is my belief that the more we allow our pets to suffer even small discomforts, the more it harms the human psyche as well.
The cognitive dissonance of saying we love our pets on one hand, yet on the other hand allowing them to needlessly suffer uncomfortable experiences, is undeniable. Of course no one is perfect, but we can learn more and do better.
Keep in mind that nothing in this article is meant to replace direct, professional guidance for your particular situation.
Please contact your anti-aversives, certified behavior consultant, canine, to help you ensure the best possible experience and outcome.
A few important principles guide our practice:
1: Behavior that is positively reinforced—that is, immediately followed with a high value, novel food item— is likely to increase in strength and/or frequency.
Food is a primary reinforcer and is generally considered more powerful and effective, when properly chosen and presented, than secondary reinforcers like praise, pets, etc. Secondaries can be conditioned to be more powerful, but that’s not what we need to do for something like nail trimming.
2: Dogs, like humans and other animals, can quickly develop associations as a result of their experiences; these associations inform what the animal predicts will happen the next time a similar situation arises.
If a dog predicts unpleasantness, he will seek to avoid, or possibly self-defend if avoidance isn’t possible.
If my sitting down next to my dog with nail trimmers is followed by forcing, hurting, or scaring my dog (force, restraint, and pain are scary), a negative association likely is made, and the dog may now anticipate that when Mom sits near me with that nail thing, something bad will happen next if I don’t get away.
In other words, the dog in this example predicts that an unpleasant experience is about to be delivered, because a person near dog with nail trimmers in the past led to unpleasantness.
The trimmers now represent the aversive experiences of force, fear, and possibly pain.
3: In this way, an unpleasant experience can lead to future avoidance of stimuli associated with that previous experience.
If I were to continue delivery unpleasant experiences related to sitting next to my dog with nail trimmers, the fear, avoidance, or more obvious self-defense behaviors may get worse.
At first it might be just the trimmers that the dog finds harbingers of unpleasantness, but over time, the dog might also associate me with unpleasantness if I continue to insist on delivering it.
Ignoring the dog’s concerns and continuing to deliver aversives tends to make avoidance or other negative reactions worse over time, both in strength and in scope.
Sensitization to the aversive stimuli and generalization of the animal’s response to other stimuli present at the time of the original aversive experience are very real possibilities.
4: Pleasant experiences build positive associations.
However, it can take myriad pleasant experiences of a previously unpleasant stimulus before a dog will no longer seek to avoid that stimulus.
Positive associations can counter, but don’t erase, the negative ones. The memory of negative experience, even just one, tends to be tenacious and symptoms may return if other aversive experiences occur.
5: The lesson for us: To have a happy, cooperative, behaviorally stable animal, we must drastically reduce unpleasant experiences for them while generously increasing their pleasant experiences.
In terms of nail trimming and other necessary procedures, most dogs will need plenty of slow, careful, small, and incremental pleasant experiences associated with the process before they are ready to cooperate with—or, in some cases, before they begin to seek out—nail trimming.
The reason my dogs swarm when one is getting nails trimmed is that they know it signals opportunity for pleasant experience in the form of high value primary reinforcement.
Systematic Desensitization & Counterconditioning (D/CC)
We systematically “desensitize” a dog to a previously aversive situation by breaking down the exposure into very small pieces—think hair-splitting rather than step-taking—ensuring that the dog is happy and comfortable the entire time.
If the dog shows even small signs of concern or hesitation, we’ve gone ahead too quickly, or for too long, or too intensely— somehow we didn’t split enough hairs along the way.
We “countercondition” a dog to a previously aversive situation by working to change their associations to positive ones.
We can change associations with nail trimming by starting at the easiest possible level and duration of exposure, immediately following each exposure with a novel, high value primary reinforcer (treat item), and/or by pairing the nail trimming process with a continuous flow of high value treats once the process begins and until just after it ends.
Eventually, the D/CC process results in the previously aversive situation becoming a predictor of something great, such as turkey, for example.
The anticipation & receiving of the pleasant experience of the novel, high value food results in more positive associations and predictions regarding nail trimming.
Once the dog expects that the nail trimmer means a feast of yummy, novel food treats is about to ensue, and that expectation is continuously fulfilled without pain or force, nail trimming can become a cooperative, pleasant experience.
Think of desensitization and counterconditioning as conjoined twins. They are delivered together.
Exposure to a previously aversive stimulus that is not immediately followed by a something of primary high value (the turkey, e.g.) is not good counterconditioning because the lack of a quickly following primary reinforcer means there is nothing special and wonderful for the dog to associate with the exposure.
And the delivery of a primary reinforcer without the systematic desensitization process of ensuring tiny increments, short durations, and low intensity during exposure will not itself suffice because a yummy piece of the best food in the world won’t make a dog feel better when he is already in pain or emotional discomfort.
The food won’t matter as much if the dog is already experiencing unpleasantness. Generally, unpleasantness trumps. Certainly, for something as delicate as nail trimming it does.
Equipment for Nail Clipping
Cooperative Care & Handling (CC&H) is designed to make previously aversive experiences pleasant for the animal.
The dog and the handler cooperate to achieve the goal and there are positive payoffs for both.
If the dog isn’t voluntarily, and without discomfort, participating, it isn’t proper CC&H; if the dog does not want to cooperate, this suggests he’s afraid or otherwise discomforted.
That makes the experience aversive, not cooperative, and it means more preparation is needed first.
This implies also that we must reject equipment that contradicts true cooperation.
It's a sad commentary on a culture that items continue to be designed and used that make it easier for us to force our pets, regardless of how the pets feel, regardless of how their behavior—and therefore sometimes also their homes and even lives—are at risk.
The following are examples of items that we recommend avoiding.
Hanging sling (or any other immobilizing equipment, which is essentially equipment of force).
The hanging sling is not an appropriate tool for those seeking to avoid aversive experiences or to have their animal’s behavior improve.
While it might make it easier to restrain a dog, the fact is that the dog is still being forced, not voluntarily cooperating.
Therefore, the dog is likely experiencing fear, discomfort, or other unpleasantness.
Some dogs may only appear to be comfortable because some will shut down when distressed; this shutting down can look like calmness, but in reality is a passive form of coping—after all, what choice does a restrained dog have?
It's an interesting fact to be aware of that the sling type devices now marketed for restraining and forcing dogs are modeled after the Pavlovian Hammock of Seligman’s psychology experiments in the 1960s, to restrain dogs so they could be shocked without ability to escape.
These experiments led to the naming of Learned Helplessness—a malady also recognizable in some contemporary dogs such as those who spend much of their lives in cages, and/or in other conditions where they are not allowed to escape or to refuse unpleasant experiences.
Learned helplessness, by the way, is associated with a variety of medical and behavior risks.
Unfortunately there isn’t much awareness of it, and people sometimes believe they have an extremely “easy” or tolerant dog whom “you can do anything to,” not realizing the dog might be suffering a devastating disorder.
Other similarly functioning restraints, whether by slip lead or leash attached to collar and a hook.
Again, restraint is a type of force that can usually be replaced with CC&H by the humane handler.
Furthermore, tightening or pressure on the throat / neck area also pose physical risks as well as emotional ones.
Corrections for the dog squirming or otherwise attempting to avoid.
Squirming and avoidance attempts mean the dog is having an unpleasant experience and the handler should be working to help the dog feel comfortable.
Adding scolding, flicking, or any other ‘correction’ on top of the unpleasant experience will only make the dog’s associations, fears, and future behavior worse.
AVOID / QUESTION:
I have no problem with the proper use of muzzles, if needed for a dog with a bite history, for example, after proper D/CC is completed so that the dog enjoys wearing it and doesn’t have to be forced or tricked into it.
The problem with muzzling for nail trimming and other procedures is that in most cases its use suggests the dog is probably not comfortable with the type of handling being implemented.
A muzzle for grooming functions to make the delivery of aversives such as restraint, force, discomfort, et cetera, easier for the handler as it reduces the human’s fear of being bitten in self-defense.
Protection from self-defense responses is better accomplished by a D/CC plan to achieve cooperation and therefore avoid the undesired consequences of aversive experiences and associations.
Further, even in cases where a muzzle is appropriate, it is often an unsuitable type of muzzle being used; those that hold the mouth closed put the dog at risk because the dog cannot pant with a closed mouth, and distress can increase quickly.
The type of muzzle used as well as the function of its use should both be reconsidered.
Of course there are tools needed and appropriate for nail trimming.
I prefer non-guillotine style clippers because of the importance of controlling the angle and amount of nail cut.
A guillotine style clipper doesn’t provide the ability to be as cautious as needed to best avoid quicking or other accidents.
My preferred clipper is the JW Pet Gripsoft Deluxe Dog Nail Trimmer. It should be new and sharp. I also have styptic within reach just in case of an accident.
Some dogs may prefer a grinder, though they usually require preparation via D/CC to the noise as well as to the physical sensation first.
Also, friction can heat the nail quickly, causing pain, so extreme caution and very short bursts are important.
Those who prefer grinding/sanding options to clipping might want to begin D/CC with an emery board first.
Some people might even prefer to use only an emery board, which can be much less stressful.
Vibration to some degree will result regardless of the chosen method, so to reduce that, I try to hold my dog’s nail between my fingers when I trim.
Another option for dogs extremely afraid of having their nails trimmed is to teach them to do their own nails on a scratchboard.
This, too, requires some time to train via positive reinforcement, and the option isn’t perfect.
Dewclaws aren’t touched by a scratchboard, some dogs’ foot shapes tend to only allow for the center nails to be filed on a scratchboard, and the back feet may be more challenging to train.
Running on asphalt can sometimes keep back nails short, and that can be trained as well.
It’s important to ensure the paw pad isn’t accidentally scraped, whatever you decide to do.
Dog Nail Anatomy
I recommend you have your veterinarian explain the anatomy of a dog’s nails to you and show you the key parts, including the outer shell, the soft tissue warns you are getting very close to the quick, and the little pinpoint spot that sometimes can be seen to alert that the quick is now exposed.
Then ask your vet to go over your particular dog’s nails and any special cautions you need to enact.
To be safe and less likely to upset your dog, which would result in less willingness to cooperate next time, trim only the outer shell of the nail.
Try to avoid the chalky looking soft tissue area, sometimes called the “pulp,” just beneath that, as it may be sensitive, so it’s wise to avoid that area.
Never cut the quick and don’t cut too close to it either.
I recommend not trying to cut the entire nail tip at once as this is more risky in terms of accidents and pain.
Long nails tend to have longer quicks, closer to the nail tips, so incremental trimming is important.
The quick recedes over time as the nails get shorter, even if you trim only tiny slivers of outer nail, so long as you do so regularly.
Therefore, instead of hoping to get the nails short in one session, it is safer to take just a sliver of nail each session and do such a session no less than once a week.
For some, twice a week might be more appropriate, depending on the nail.
For some, adding an alternative angle of cutting may be a good option as it can help to trim in edges around the quick.
Before you begin your nail care journey, I suggest trimming fur that rests on, over, or around the nail if your dog allows it.
This will help you better see the nail and better place the trimmer, and it will help ensure that fur isn’t accidentally pulled by the trimming process, which can also hurt and upset the dog.
Just as pain to the nail itself can cause the dog to avoid future nail care, pain from pulling fur can as well.
How To Safely Trim Your Shiba Inu's Nails - A Comprehensive Guide
Preparations / Supplies:
Before you begin, make sure you have everything you need with you:
-A scissor-action type clipper such as the JW Pet Soft Grip I mentioned previously (or a grinder or an emery board if you prefer one of those instead).
-Novel, high value food items, cut into pea-sized or smaller pieces, that your dog only gets for special training.
-Styptic gel pads or powder for pain relief and bleeding in case you accidentally hit a quick.
-A quiet, private place away from other animals and distractions.
-A comfortable, non-slip, non-fall surface for your dog
-Excellent light to enable clear views of nails.
1. Do not try to cut the entire end of your dog's nail at one time. It is not in your dog's best interest as it risks accidents and pain, which means fear and difficulty for future trimmings.
Instead, trim around the edges of the nail a little bit at time, at a slight angle.
Watch carefully for the soft tissue, a horseshoe shape, and/or a tiny pinhole on the underside of the nail; all of these signal that you are near the quick; it is best to stop there.
Trimming only the outer edges around the shell of the nail helps avoid the quick.
Never cut where you can see pink color (blood) through the nail, but if your dog has dark nails, then you won't see that guideline, so extreme caution and watching for the pre-quick signs are crucial.
2. Pay attention to signals from your dog; if s/he indicates distress or discomfort before or during a clip, that may mean you are too close to the quick.
Some dogs will pull back slightly just before you clip after placing the equipment on the nail when you place the equipment on the nail if you are too close—always stop if that happens!—it could mean they feel pressure on or near a sensitive area, or that you are too close to the quick.
3. Know and respect your dog’s signals. Stop the process if any sign* of hesitance, avoidance, discomfort, or concern appears.
*Signs of stress may include: tail down/tucked, head down, whale eye, wide eye, dilated pupils, lip licking/nose licking, squinting, ears flattened and/or pinned, turning head or body away, leaning head or body away, cowering, trying to move away, pulling away or jerking foot or otherwise attempting to avoid the process. Trembling, panting, hypersalivation, increased shedding, and hiding, are other notable signs. Each dog is different; get to know your dog’s stress signs before beginning this process.
4. If your dog's nails are long, the quicks will be very close to the tips of the nails, so you'll have to trim only small slivers of nail very often, once or twice a week or more at first, to give the quicks time to recede.
5. Never corner, hold your dog down, or otherwise force the dog to allow a nail trim. Instead, use a force-free method such as the one outlined below.
If you have a second adult in your home, try to enlist that person as a helper to handle the food delivery. (Procedure would adjust slightly in that case.)
Depending on your dog and your own timing, it may be best to have a helper perform the feeding process while you work on the nails.
6. Don’t expect to do all four feet, or even all of one foot, or even all of one nail. Work at the dog’s pace and comfort level.
It’s a learning process; your dog needs plenty of positive experiences associated with this process and zero negative experiences.
That means you stop before the dog gets stressed. Take preventative breaks.
Keep each session very short—no more than 10 minutes at a time, but often 1 to 3 minutes at a time is best, especially at the beginning.
7. If the dog becomes stressed, go back to an easier step in the process and ensure that the dog is completely comfortable with that before moving ahead.
8. Every new session should begin with preparatory steps, from which your dog has already ‘graduated’ previously, as a warm up.
9. Remember that it may take weeks or longer to achieve comfortable cooperation. Be patient.
The following instructions are geared toward those using a trimmer, but you can implement the same principles with whatever tools you are using.
Remember that you should enlist a professional, anti-aversives, certified canine behavior consultant/trainer to help you.
PLEASE NOTE: Even though many details are outlined below, it's often impossible to fully, safely learn how to perform these procedures via written words alone. Furthermore, the order, timing, and/or instructions themselves may need to be adjusted for each individual dog's preferences. And of course, misunderstanding the written instructions may set you up for an accident. Please consider hiring an anti-aversives behavior professional to help you.
DAY 1 – 3 (adjust as your dog needs):
If your dog does not allow paw handling or touching already, then you will begin where the dog does allow touch, slowly working toward the paw while providing novel, high value food items, until the dog allows paw touching without hesitation.
Once you are allowed to touch the paw, spend at least a day or two of sessions doing only that, as follows:
a) Begin touching a paw, then immediately begin feeding high value food pieces to the dog.
Continue touching that paw for up to one minute while continuous feeding until one second after touching stops.
Repeat this process several times or more as needed for each paw. Increase duration slowly over time if the dog shows no fear / discomfort signals.
b) Begin handling one paw, then start and continue to feed until 1 second after paw-handling
ceases. Repeat for each paw, individually.
Once you can easily handle each paw for several days in a row, it may be time to move to the next phase.
DAY 4-6 (or as long as your dog needs):
a) Repeat the steps outlined above, but now very gently begin lightly squeezing the paw pads within your fingers, as you would if you were holding them to care for the nails.
Use just one hand for the first day or two. Then use two hands. (When you move to two hands, it is best to have a helper to ensure a timely / constant flow of treats.)
b) Once the dog is 100% comfortable with your two handed paw handling, being touching and handling the nails, one at a time, with your non-dominant hand.
Add the second hand to this process once your dog is cooperative with one hand paw handling.
DAY 7-14 (or as long as your dog needs):
A. Show the trimmer to the dog for just a second, then provide a treat and put the trimmer behind you. Repeat this process until the dog comfortably views the trimmer every time you show it.
B. Show the trimmer then set it down in front of your dog, then begin feeding and continue feeding while the trimmer is visible to the dog. Cease feeding 1 second after hiding the trimmer.
C. With trimmer in your hand but not too close to the dog, squeeze trimmer to make the trimmer sound, then immediately feed the dog. Repeat until dog does shows no sign of concern.
D. Take a piece of uncooked penne style pasta in one hand, and trim a sliver of the pasta with your other hand, then immediately deliver a treat to the dog. Repeat until dog does shows no sign of concern.
E. Handle a paw with one hand while clicking the trimmer (not too close to the dog) with the other, then immediately treat. Repeat until dog shows no fear/stress signs. Do not attempt to trim nails yet.
F. Lightly touch the trimmer to a nail (or on the paw top first if the dog doesn’t allow touch to a nail), then provide a treat to the dog. Repeat this process until the dog is comfortable. Do not squeeze the trimmer nor trim nails yet.
G. Repeat (f) above on each nail, individually. Do not squeeze the trimmer or trim nails yet.
If you have a helper, the next steps are:
Using both your hands, begin brief touches of trimmer to nails, stopping to deliver a treat after each touch. Do not squeeze the trimmer or trim nails yet.
Next, hold a paw in one hand and touch trimmer to a nail with the other hand briefly, then stop and provide a treat to the dog.
Do not squeeze the trimmer or trim nails yet.
If you do NOT have a helper, the next steps are:
Repeat (f)and (g) above. Do not squeeze the trimmer or trim nails yet.
Using both your hands, begin touches of trimmer near and to nails, delivering a treat after each touch. Do not squeeze the trimmer or trim nails yet.
Next, hold a paw in one hand and touch trimmer to one nail with the other hand, then provide a treat to the dog.
Repeat this process until the dog is comfortable no matter which nail. Do not squeeze the trimmer or trim nails yet.
H. Hold a paw in one hand, hold the trimmer nearby but not on the nail, and squeeze the trimmer IN THE AIR ONLY to cause the trimmer noise, then provide a treat to the dog. Repeat with every paw until dog is completely comfortable. Do not trim nails yet.
I. Next, hold a paw in one hand and place trimmer around the very tip of a nail with the other hand briefly (BUT DO NOT SQUEEZE TRIMMER OR TRIM NAIL YET), then provide a treat to the dog. Repeat this with all paws/nails until the dog is comfortable the entire time.
Once the above steps are achieved with the dog showing zero signs of avoidance, hesitance, fear, distress, or discomfort, slowly, with the help of an anti-aversives canine behavior and training professional, begin the trimming procedure:
J. One clip at a time: For the foreseeable future, do only do one clip (not one nail but one clip), then provide a treat to the dog after every clip.
Repeat one clip at a time until dog is comfortable and shows absolutely no avoidance or stress. Once a single nail is done with happy cooperation of the dog, continue to
K. Repeat (j) for each individual nail
If at any point in the above steps the dog shows any sign of hesitance, avoidance, discomfort, or concern, then you must stop and move backward at least two steps. Indeed, any time this happens, you may need to stop for the day and start again another day, at least two steps back. That is, a new day should begin with preparatory steps, not right into clipping.
It's important to understand that any painful or other upsetting experience associated with any of this process will result less willingness from the dog; unpleasant experiences create negative associations, which then effect the dog’s future behavior and willingness.
This is why a dog who has had a nail ‘quicked’ during trimming is very resistant to have nails trimmed again.
Save your dog and yourself from extra stress by going slowly in order to achieve lasting success.
Rain Jordan is a Certified Behavior Consultant, Canine (CBCC-KA), a Fearful Dogs Expert, a CPDT-KA, a Certified Training Partner - Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior (KA CTP), and the author of several books about dogs, rescue, dog behavior, and animal welfare. Learn more at www.ExpertCanine.com, www.CanineFearSolutions.com and www.FearfulDogsProject.org
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