I’m always amazed by how quickly my dog’s nails grow. Mira has a habit of jumping up and hooking her toes around my belt and hanging on. When her nails need to be clipped, I sure know it! I end up clipping all their nails around once a week.
For the most part they are pretty good about it. Hannah will sit, stand or lie perfectly still while I lift each paw and trim each nail. It takes me less than a minute to do all four paws, even with rewarding her every couple of nails.
Mira and Ross, on the other hand, both tend to fidget quite a bit and therefore take a little longer. When I first adopted Ross he was a nightmare to groom or clip. To try and counter this I make a point of “paying” for each nail I trim with one treat: clip – feed – clip – feed and so on. This has done wonders and he will now sit still for as long as I need him to. Nevertheless, both he and Mira still pull and twist their feet constantly throughout the whole process, making it lengthier and more of a big deal than necessary.
Yesterday it hit me what the problem is. While I have made the experience somewhat rewarding, my timing has not been focused on the response that I most wanted, i.e. the still foot. By feeding each clip I’ve trained my dogs to stay in place and accept the treatment in general, but not to hold their feet still. I had thought that by rewarding each clip they would eventually associate the feeling with something good, but that has just not happened. This is because each time I clipped, they would flinch, and then I would feed. In effect, I was shaping the flinch!
So I tried a new tactic. Since they will already stay in place, I am now rewarding for the still paw. I take a paw in my hand and hold on until it is still, even for a second. Then I click and feed. I went through the whole process of clipping their nails, but instead of rewarding the clip, I rewarded whenever the foot was still. This didn’t have to happen at the same time as the nail was clipped. Sure enough, by the third and fourth paw, each dog was being much, much stiller.
I used the old method for ages now, with varying degrees of – but not consistent – success. Now why didn’t I think to make this change of pattern sooner? When training isn’t producing the results I want, I need to remind myself: if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. Hopefully in a few more weeks, I’ll have three dogs who hold perfectly still for their pedicures.