The Trouble with Tips
This blog originally appeared on Your Pit Bull & You, a nonprofit I ran from 2013-2018. It was written to complement an online course I created in 2017 and ran until the end of 2020.
I admit it: I am obsessed with dogs’ nails. I have a strong personal reason for feeling this way and it’s one that I think many dog owners share: I lived with a dog for 13 and a half years who was terrified of having his nails maintained.
I read every article I could get my hands on to learn tricks and tips to get Rocco comfortable with it. I tried different types of clippers, I tried the grinding tool made specifically for dogs, I tried using food along with the process. All I got was a dog who was more afraid. My confidence was dashed and he was subjected to traumatic trims at the vet for his entire life. It’s one of my biggest regrets. Because I was never able to make things right with Rocco and I had learned in dog training school about things like desensitization and counterconditioning and why dogs don’t like having their legs and feet held (It’s evolutionary. You lose a leg, you die. Better to be safe than sorry about what having one held might mean.), I vowed to not make the same mistakes with Hazel. And from our initial nail work, I wrote a blog in the hopes that I could help some people and dogs. I recently switched to a Dremel and decided that this was a topic that deserved more than the information that could be provided in another short blog post. And so I am creating a whole course that will help people understand the why, how and what of all of this. It’s important on so many levels- most people don’t want their dogs to suffer and many don’t know that it’s actually avoidable! Because I am creating this course, I pay attention to every single piece of information I come across regarding nail maintenance. Some of it is good, but most of it falls into the “tips” category and personally, given my own experience, I can’t even put them into the “can’t hurt, could help” category. I actually think some of them could hurt: by sensitizing the dog to the whole deal. Here’s a few bits of well-intentioned, but potentially harmful tips that I recently came across: “XXXX also had a phobia about nail trims, but we’ve worked on desensitizing his paws, and as you can see, now he’ll even hold hands with me. Whenever your dog is nervous or afraid about something you need to do to him, you should incorporate positive rewards. I use food, which works for almost any dog.” Here’s the problem with these tips: He may be okay with having his paw held, but taking an implement to his nails is another thing completely. Can you incorporate the 2? Absolutely. But, people reading this will think they can go directly from holding a paw to clipping a nail and unfortunately, it’s just not that easy for most dogs. Especially the dogs of people who are likely to click on an article like this. Additionally, rewarding and desensitizing are 2 different things. Rewarding a behavior means that we are placing a contingency on something- in this case, “You put your paw in my hand, I’ll give you a treat.” Desensitizing means, “I will not touch your leg/paw/nail beyond a level at which you are comfortable. I’ll know you are comfortable because you are taking food, your body language is relaxed, you are not pulling away and you willingly show up for nail care. I will only move past that level when it’s clear you continue to be comfortable.” The dog is not required to do anything, he only needs to be visibly comfortable and willingly showing up and sticking around. Hopefully, this difference is clear. Dogs who are afraid often will not take food and so in the scenario of nail care, many will not take it. The fear is too strong. And even if they do take it, sometimes we may truly be pushing them and missing signs of discomfort. “If you create a painful experience for your pet during nail trimming, your dog will forever link the clipper with “Ouch!” In fact, right now XXXX’s little heart is beating really fast because he knows what’s coming.” This should be a giant red flag. And people should be aware that one painful experience can create a lifetime of fear and anxiety- for both you and your dog! We can help dogs feel comfortable with nail care, so that their hearts aren’t racing and they aren’t worried about what’s coming next. This morning I read this great blog by Eileen Anderson that really drove the point home for me. And it reaffirmed something I already knew: those of us who care about our dogs emotions are actually pretty tough: we are fully committed to carrying out procedures that take patience, careful planning, good observation skills and thoughtful execution. We get closer to completing the course every day. Our target date for release is mid-October. My biggest hope is that more people will be able to maintain their own dog's nails at home and do so comfortably and feel really good about the process. It’s rewarding for the human and better for the dog in so many ways.
If I could turn back time, I’d do every single thing differently with Rocco. I can’t though. The best I can do is to try to help other dogs have better experiences. So, Roccobella, this one’s for you. ❤️