Welcome to Day 64 of #100daysofenrichment and thank you for joining us on this journey!
Although our challenges are directed mainly at dogs, we want all species to enjoy and benefit from #100daysofenrichment so, please join in, adjust and adapt to help your pet or companion live a more enriched life.
DIY Nail Care
At a glance:
- build a nail file and teach your dog to file their nails themselves
- most suitable for the front nails, which often are the ones that need most care
- many, many dogs find having their feet handled or touched very unpleasant
- improve your pet’s comfort with having feet handled and with the presence of nail clipping equipment
- social and cognitive based enrichment
- although children can make great dog trainers with the right guidance, these exercises are best established by the adults in the household
Children might help by preparing treats for practicing this exercise.
- these exercises can be practiced in individual sessions of no more than 30 seconds-1 minute at a time; have as many sessions as you can!
What do you need?
- food rewards – you can use your dog’s regular food, a training mix, commercial treats, home prepared treats such as cut up meats, cheese, vegetables or homemade treats such as liver or tuna cake
- a lappable stuffable (see ideas from Day 1)
- DIY nail file stuff: board, such as a chopping board, duct tape, sand paper (of different types)
- a cloth such as a face cloth, tea towel or similar
- stairs, steps, a stool or chair that your dog can get their front feet up on
- nail clipping tools such as clippers, files, grinders
Many many pet dogs find having their feet handled and their nail clips strongly aversive. This might manifest in the dog moving away, aggressing, licking and struggling when handling is attempted.
This strong response may have come about because of some bad experience, such as a nail being cut too short, resulting in bleeding and pain. And is very likely to be associated with the awkward and often uncomfortable restraint used when clipping nails or carrying out other foot care. Lots of dogs find the noise of clippers or grinders frightening or startling too.
We have made everything about the whole scenario scary!
Most pet owners will overestimate their pets’ comfort levels in lots of situations and are very likely to presume that their pet is “fine”, even when the dog is showing mere tolerance…most dogs do a wonderful job of merely tolerating human behaviour. Our goal is to achieve more than just tolerance, we want joy!
But, even where fear or discomfort isn’t at the root of the dog’s behaviour, these exercises are helpful in teaching dogs about choice and in teaching appropriate alternative behaviour during handling and nail care.
Just like Day 3 and Day 17 we are going to ask you to really observe your dog’s behaviour and think about consent.
It’s not our pets’ obligation to consent to handling or physical manipulation; our pets are individuals who have likes and dislikes, and good and bad days. They are allowed to say “STOP!” and “WAIT!” if they need to.
And what’s more, teaching them that they can consent, or not, is confidence boosting and bond boosting. You become a beacon of trust, you become predictable and reliable.
I have included these exercises in our project because enrichment is about giving animals skills that help them cope better with their day to day lives (in captivity), along with establishing predictability and controlability.
- to teach dogs to use a self-nail-file
- to improve the dog’s comfort with the handling and procedures involved in nail care
- to teach the dog that they can consent to, delay or refuse handling and manipulation
- reduce stress associated with loss of predictability and controlability
- to encourage a dance of communication, consent, and connection between dog and human
- to build that bond between dog and human
- to have a fun and rewarding experience in social situations, between dogs and humans
While training exercises certainly fall into the cognitive enrichment category, they can provide so much more.
This process highlights the complex social relationships forged between humans and companion animals. It’s a level of social enrichment that’s tricky to replicate.
By helping the dog learn that they have control over what happens them, in interactions with humans, the world becomes a safer place for them.
When we talk about enrichment being enriching, this is never more clear than when we start to teach behaviours intentionally. It’s the human’s job to set the dog up for success by making sure the behaviour is doable and that rewards are fast-flowing.
There’s no test at the end of this and you and your pet are not under any pressure. Learn to enjoy the time together, whether you achieve the goal behaviour or not. That’s what’s enriching here…the social and cognitive outlets such exercises provide (for both species).
What goals can you add to this list for your pets?
How can we achieve these goals?
- work with toys or other rewards that your dog enjoys – associate each handling interaction with a reward and after many pairings, handling becomes just as enjoyable
- make it very easy for your dog by gradually adding handling or pressure
- watch your dog closely for any signs of reluctance; they might go still, or duck or lean away, they may lick at or mouth your hand or tool, they might pull away
- if the animal shows the slightest reluctance, stop immediately
- review your approach and don’t go quite so far next time
- working like this teaches the dog that, to object, they only need show minor discomfort because you are listening; to gain relief, they don’t need to growl, snarl or snap
- keep it simple and split behaviour – reward approximations toward the final behaviour, rather than hoping that your dog will offer the goal behaviour quickly
- take your time and work in many short sessions
- try for 30 seconds at a time, 5-10 rewards each session, and then take a break
- plan each session – what behaviours are you looking for and rewarding?
- watch the clips and try out the exercise
- portion out your dog’s daily food and allot some for training exercises
- make a training mix by adding in something yummier and leaving it all to ‘cook’ together in the fridge; the smells will mingle, harder foods will soften a little, and everything will become more valuable and rewarding
- remember to adjust your pet’s diet accordingly to accommodate the extra calories from treats added, where relevant
- split your food rewards into little bowls with just the right number of rewards in each bowl so that you are ready to go; stick bowls of rewards in places where you may need to teach and reward behaviours so that you have rewards ready to go
If you are feeding wet or fresh foods, cut up small or mash to a paste and present on a wooden spoon or spatula. Alternatively you can freeze in small ice cube trays or a pyramid baking tray so that you can use small portions and individual treats.
- for some of these exercises, I love to use a lappable stuffable (see Day 1) – reward the dog by allowing them to have a few licks and then withdraw the toy
What adjustments will you make for your pets?
Applications of foot-handling comfort:
These exercises continue to build your dog’s comfort in all sorts of situations and interactions with humans. This means that these interactions become safer and more pleasant for everyone.
Pretty much every dog will require some sort of handling and foot care, often regularly, and sometimes in an emergency.
Dogs, when super stressed, either go very still and quiet, or move about, struggle and aggress (or somewhere in between). When they are still and quiet, they are presumed to be ‘well behaved’ and tolerant. When they struggle and aggress, we label them ‘difficult’, ‘vicious’ or ‘dominant’, none of which is accurate.
Either way, this isn’t pleasant for our dogs and as the humans (with the big primate brains), we know that our dogs will need to endure such handling throughout their lives. It’s our job to prepare them for this so it’s a little easier all round.
Helping the dog feel predictability and controlability has wider positive implications, with some research suggesting that these effects generalise to other areas of the animals’ lives. Reducing stress is a good thing!
When we work on handling and husbandry procedures, we establish comfort at different levels that range from management and distraction, to building comfort, to teaching cooperative behaviours.
Throughout our 100 day project, we will introduce exercises from these categories.
We are going to start off really easy and get the dog doing all the work…well after you do some crafting…
Making a DIY Nail File & Training the Dog to Use it
Start by making your nail file board by securing a coarse sheet of sand paper to get started with. Finer sand paper can be used to maintain nails length and shape.
This clip outlines how to make the board and introduce the basics to the dog. Work on this over several short sessions to establish these behaviours.
This works really well for the front nails and is now the only nail clipping Decker does. I have always kept his nails pretty short with clippers and files but this is much more comfortable for both him and I!
Here’s Darla, a complete novice, just minutes after the first presentation of the DIY nail board. With clear teaching, a dog will pick this up quickly and with lots of enthusiasm:
Most dogs will drive off their back legs so will often not require too much clipping or filing of the nails on the back feet. But this depends on the conformation of the dog and the shape of their foot. Setting up a back nail file is a little trickier and I haven’t really worked on this with Deck, so I found this clip with a search, giving a nice outline and set up for rear nail filing.
Building comfort with nail husbandry
The covering here on #100days is pretty basic, plus we just have one day to get going on this and, for the most part, creating the most positive, joyous response to foot handling and related procedures requires months of work (usually).
For more on this and tons of support, check out the Nail Maintenance Facebook group for lots of excellent resources, ideas, tips and tricks in a study group format, so will be easier to track your progress.
Or you might like to sign up for a full course that will help you help your dog become more comfortable with nail clipping: Lori Nanan’s Nailed It course.
Creating a CER
Throughout these exercises we are attempting to establish a CER or Conditioned Emotional Response. This means that our dogs learn that one stimulus makes another very reliably happen; reaching toward the dog’s foot, for example, makes yummy treats happen.
A CER helps the dog feel differently about a particular situation. A dog may already have developed a negative CER toward having his foot reached toward due to pain or discomfort during nail clipping. To help form a positive CER, we must undo the negative one (by not exposing the dog to that situation) while building a new, positive association.
This requires lots and lots and lots of practice. In the case of an established negative CER, it might take many tens of thousands of repetitions over many months to turn it around.
We are always following the rules that we have laid out for our dogs:
- building progress gradually
- allowing the dog decide how comfortable they are, or not
- always pairing any move with something yummy, no matter what
- listening to the dog
For a CER to be established, we must also get the sequence right:
- reach toward the dog and then reach toward the treat
- reaching toward the dog makes you produce a treat
- if you reach toward the treat at the same time as you reach toward the dog, or if you have the treat out and visible while you reach toward the dog, the dog might not even notice you reaching toward them so no association will be formed
Decker recently suffered a very serious injury to his toe that required regular dressing and bandage chances, sometimes daily.
From the beginning, I made bandage change time a big chicken party! Me preparing his bandages and setting up at our bandage station made a lot of chicken tossing happen. That’s right, I established a CER to bandage prep so that even if dressing changing itself was uncomfortable he always looks forward to the process.
Note that when he jumps up he nudges the laid out dressings and not the lunchbox of chicken…bandages make chicken happen!
Even now, months later, if I take out cotton wool, he’s up and super excited, such is the power of a well established CER!
The key to improvement with nail comfort exercises is to practice in lots of short sessions everyday.
Where a negative CER has already been established, it can be a little trickier to get going but you’ve come to the right place to get started!
Right now, when you indicate that the part of the nail care procedure, to which your dog has developed a negative CER, is about to be revealed will kick off an internal emotional and stress response in your dog’s brain and body. This cascades into the behavioural response that you observe. Every time this happens, the scenario is further confirmed as being negative, scary, choice-less and unpleasant to the brain and it will do its best to help the body avoid exposure. In other words, every exposure is probably making it worse.
To turn that around, there are some essentials:
- stop the rehearsal of the scary situation
This might mean forgoing nail clipping for the foreseeable future or, where this may affect the dog’s health, having the dog’s nail clipped while sedated by the vet.
Your dog is anticipating when the scary stuff is about to happen so their negative response is starting earlier and earlier on in the process. With more exposure to stress, the brain becomes more sensitive to stress and gets better at anticipating stressful scenarios to allow the body to avoid them.
- use new nail clipping stuff
- work in a new scenario than before – make it all different
- start with the new equipment more gradually so that it never leads to scaring or stressing your dog
- use HIGH value food rewards
- as above, get your timing right
- create a positive CER to each of the stages involved in nail care
For example, this might include:
- the sight of nail clipping equipment, such as nail clippers, files or grinders
- you holding nail clipping equipment
- the sound of nail clipping equipment
In that clip, we are clipping matchsticks with the nail clippers – each clip = a treat.
If using a nail grinder, such as a Dremel, you can begin to associate the sound of an electric toothbrush with a treat.
- holding your dog’s foot
- manipulating their foot
- nail clipping equipment approaching and touching the foot
- clipping or filing the nail and building the duration
Each of these stages must be worked on individually and carefully paired with high value rewards to create that important CER.
Start at the point at which your dog is comfortable; that might mean the nail clippers on the other side of the room and each time the dog looks, you make a treat happen.
You might have several different exercises happening at the same time, but in separate sessions.
For some dogs, you might be able to give them a yummy lappable to work on while you file their nails, rather than clip them.
Be very clear here, this may only be appropriate for some dogs who are largely comfortable with foot handling and nail manipulation. This just keeps the rewards flowing during the procedure in a more efficient manner because you are using both hands already.
- use a spatula, dipped in something irresistible like pate, cable tied to the leg of a chair or table so it’s easy to fit and remove for regular use
Stick a dipped wooden spoon into the plug hole of the bath or shower for your dog to work on while you groom them there:
- line or stuff a Kong toy or other stuffable and wedge in between the sofa cushions; this will be at head height for a lot of medium and large sized dogs
Use a stuffed or line stuffable between your knees to carry out husbandry procedures, such as eye cleaning:
- smear the sides of the bath or the walls around a grooming table so that your dog can lap, while you groom and bathe
I found this vegetable cleaner, with a little suction cup, in a home wares store for €1.50 and it’s been really effective for keeping dogs occupied and happy for grooming and bathing. I jam in some pate and freeze it; there are two sides to keep them interested:
You can also buy stuffable toys with suction cups for dogs like the Chase n’ Chomp Sticky Bone or Licky Mats, and there are lots of other types and designs. The suction cup is handy for in the bath and most will connect readily to slick walls or doors.
A Snuffle Mat or similar feeder can be placed on a stool or chair for the dog to work on while you groom them too.
With distraction, the dog may not be as comfortable during the procedure as we would like. I believe it to be safer to file the dog’s nails with a stronger nail file such as those made for filing acrylic nails or similar.
Filing is less likely to cause injury, such as cutting the dog’s quick, so is safer when using a distraction approach to rewarding the dog.
Now it’s your turn. Show us what you and your pets, of any species, can do with these challenges!
Post to your social media accounts, using the #100daysofenrichment so that we can find you and join our Facebook group to share your experiences, ideas and fun!
You can comment right here too 🙂
We look forward to hearing from you and your pets – have fun & brain games!