Not too long ago, I was doing a session with a client and the conversation was revolving around the idea of his dog willingly consenting to having his nails trimmed. He asked if I would write something on the topic for him to refer to later. Realizing this is a terrific topic for many, I’m sharing it now.
At the dog house where I board and train I get many dogs who don’t seem to like specific handling: leashing, moving from one location to another, eye washing, nail trimming and similar animal husbandry chores.
With these dogs, I like to focus heavily on teaching them that they can consent to less comfortable handling by giving them a way to say “No Thank you.” We do this specifically with a training game we call “May I?”
I know you’re wondering how this ever gets the job done. How would a dog ever consent to the unpleasantness of what comes next? Great question!
It turns out that if you teach dogs a way to say “No thank you” (not involving teeth) they realize they have a say about the timing, the rhythm, or the approach. This decompresses them which leads to consent.
Here’s real-life example from my own parenting experiences. When she was 3, my daughter was impossible to get in the car for any reason. It didn’t matter if we were going to get ice cream or going to a doctor’s appointment. She would not get in the car without a huge fit of screaming, kicking, and sometimes even biting. Emotionally exhausted and worried I had given birth to the newest member of the underworld, I reached out to a parenting resource center. In one phone conversation a social worker solved the problem. She told me to just give my beloved child a choice by asking “Which side of the car would you like to get in?” I was shocked when it worked the first time. I never again had trouble popping her in the car.
Knowing full well that dogs are cognitively similar to 3-year-old humans, I decided to invent an application of this theory just for dogs. It became the game I mentioned above called “May I?” In the beginning stages it doesn’t look like much, but it grows into an amazing success.
To describe it simply, I’ll use the example of nail trimming since it’s such a common issue. I start with presenting the nail trimmer to the dog and asking “May I?”. When the dog gives me a body signal of discomfort (this list is huge, but some basics are a lip lick, stiffening, looking away from me, a growl). I toss a treat away from me and say “get it.” When the dog eats the treat off the floor I say “yes”, and wait until the dog comes back which happens mostly because they now know treats are involved and I don’t actually trim a nail. This gets repeated no more than 3 times and then I move onto something else in the dog’s training repertoire. As the days progress, I take tiny steps in the direction of trimming the nails. The progression might look something like this: say “May I?” touch nail trimmer to paw, toss treat away. Say “May I?” move the trimmers handles in the air away from the paw, toss treat away. Say “May I?” move the trimmers handles while close to the paw, toss a treat away. Repeat this no more than 3 times in a 7-minute training session
Simply break it down into the minutia leading up to an actual nail trim and never progress to the next step before the dog has become comfortable with the last step. With patience, practice and always heeding the dogs signals to take a break, or slow down, most dogs will consent to short durations of the unwanted handling by about day 7. In my experience, the primary mistake owners make with this game is moving too far too fast.
Of course, if your dog has already resorted to teeth, it’s best to let a force-free games based professional trainer guide you through the process. We are here to help.