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Leash Skills Series #2: Defining Leash Training

Behavior science has shown us how dogs learn.  When we use positive reinforcement to teach leash skills, we get a dog who curiously looks for what to do to gain rewards, paying attention to the human at the end of the leash. When we use equipment that limits their ability to move, tightens up or zaps them when they pull on the leash, we get a dog who makes decisions based on avoiding pain or fear, and sometimes a dog who simply gives in to the drag on the leash in a situation termed “learned helplessness.”  Why should he think or try, when he doesn’t even know what it might feel like to have a loose leash?  If the leash is always tight and pulling, why would the dog ever pay attention to his handler?  He can just lean on the leash and move in the direction with the least resistance; he can even have some control over the direction.  If the handler pulls harder than the dog, the dog will give in to the pressure – but the handler might need an ice pack for his arm when they get home!

“Begin with the end in mind.” – Stephen Covey

You need a vision of what you want. Define it. Training begins inside your brain. One of the procedures Olympic athletes and other high-level performers use is visualization. They actually “practice” their routines and techniques in their minds before starting to do anything physical. Try it, and then practice walking as though you’re with your dog, holding the end of a loose leash, when it’s just you. Create your own habits first, before bringing the dog into the picture. Let the vision of what you want guide you. Create the training plan you need to teach the dog the individual behaviors that lead to that result.

Dogs don’t “come with” leash skills.  It’s not innate, and in fact, it’s quite foreign to them.  Consider what it might be like to have a line attached to you and someone pulling you around with it when you have your own ideas of where you’d like to go.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be invited to come along, instead? Training is required, for humans and dogs.    

“You can’t expect an animal to reliably perform a behavior you haven’t gone through a teaching process to train the animal to do.”                                                                                                     –  Alexandra Kurland

Training a dog to walk with you as a partner involves learning to communicate effectively with your dog, teaching him to do his part to keep the leash between you loose, and doing your part to scope out a pathway for the two of you that works for both. Start training indoors, somewhere you and the dog can focus solely on the skills you’re working on, with these goals in mind. Our next installment in the leash skills series will help you get started on turning your walks into joyful experiences for you and your dog.

Watch for the next installment in our series on Leash Skills!

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Teach Your Dog to Beg for a Nail Trim!

(The Process Works for Cats, Too!)

As I write this, my mentor, Dr. Bob Bailey, is teaching keepers at the Copenhagen Zoo how behavior science can help provide better husbandry for the animals there. Husbandry refers to the management and control of domestic and kept wild animals, most commonly to their medical care and grooming.

Zoos, aquariums, and other places where animals are kept throughout their lives are well-versed in training their wards to cooperate in nail trimming, dental care, and routine veterinary procedures. The training process makes these husbandry tasks tolerable and even pleasant for the animals, keeps stress levels at a minimum, and ensures a safe experience for both animals and their keepers.

Dogs are so often held down for these tasks; it seems a bit backward. Let’s look at how behavior science and the same techniques used for trimming an elephant’s toenails can help your dogs have a nice experience during a required husbandry task.

One person feeding and one person doing the husbandry task is ideal.
Communicate to ensure the process is “present stimulus, then give the treat.”

Short training sessions to start

We are not always fortunate enough to get a dog that is young with a fresh, unencumbered view of husbandry tasks; however, every short training session in which dogs volunteer to participate even in the tiniest way contributes to their openness to cooperating in the next session.

Help your dog have a good experience by using lots of the best treats. Allow her to walk away from the experience as soon as she’s ready. You see, behavior science shows that every experience affects your dog’s next similar experience. Here are steps to follow:

1. Teach the required behaviors before you’re going to need them. Teach your dog to lie down and relax in a variety of situations. Teach him to be comfortable with having all his body parts handled. Help him learn to love all the tools involved in the husbandry process because they guarantee the tastiest treats.

2. Practice specific tasks in very small doses. Ear cleaning and nail trimming and brushing or combing are necessary for most dogs. It’s likely some scissoring or trimming with clippers will be needed for some dogs, maybe tooth brushing. One daily training session in husbandry tasks will help get you ready for your next vet or groomer visit.

3. Classical conditioning, a.k.a. Pavlovian conditioning, will help you create a positive emotional response to each tiny part of the process. Give your dog a small but really tasty treat after:

  • Holding her foot calmly (for nail trimming)
  • Showing, but not touching her with, nail clippers (for nail trimming)
  • Gently lifting her ear flap (for ear cleaning)
  • Opening the bottle of ear cleaner for her to sniff (for ear cleaning)
  • Gently lifting her lip (for tooth brushing)
  • Getting her to rest her chin on your shoulder (for applying eye drops)
  • Stroking one time with a brush or comb (for body hair care)
  • Placing running clippers or grinder two feet from her (for grooming tasks)

If your dog even flinches when you turn on the clippers or grinder, start again with it further away. Your goal is complete comfort with the process at each level so you can gradually bring the device closer. If you get a reaction, you’re too close.

Treats are a must

Giving the dog one small treat after another, as we do in so many training situations. These are some other ideas for keeping the treats coming during grooming conditioning! Chewing a long-lasting item, licking gooey stuff off a lid, plate, or Frisbee (or even off a tile wall during a bath!) Spraying cheese directly into a dog’s mouth requires conditioning for some dogs, but others just revel in the joy.

Yes, you need treats. The conditioning process is:

Present stimulus, then give the treat— in that order.

The dog doesn’t have to do a thing other than experience the process and eat the treat. You’re working to create a positive association, and very small, very yummy bits of meat speak very loudly to dogs!

Using treats offers other advantages. Whether your dog takes treats is a good gauge of his comfort level. If your dog won’t take the best treats you have, the stimulus level is too high.

Trigger-stacking means multiple stimuli are affecting your dog at one time and can raise his stress level over threshold, meaning past the point at which the dog can make a clear decision about how to respond. When over threshold, dogs respond from instinct and emotion, making choices like fight, flight, or freeze in order to save themselves. Past the threshold point, all you can do is stop the process, give your dog a break, and begin again later when your dog is comfortable again.

We have a saying in training: Slow is fast. It’s true because when you move so slowly that the dog never reacts negatively, you’ll reach your goal sooner than if you push the dog, causing a negative emotional response.

You can track your progress in how much closer the dog is to the “scary item” while still comfortable or in the number of seconds he tolerates the process. Good training should be a bit boring to watch. When you can gently and quietly clean your dog’s ears or trim his nails, you’ll be impressed with your results. Imagine having to wake your dog up after his nail trim or grooming session!

A full bottle of ear cleaner allows you to condition the dog to the smell; an empty bottle makes it easy to isolate the process of putting the tip into the ear without adding the extra stimulus of liquid running down the ear canal. Cotton balls need to be conditioned too.

Ear Cleaning

Here’s an older, rescued Springer Spaniel, Ranger,, from some years back who previously had to be sedated to have his ears cleaned. He learned from some helpful trainers that ear cleaning was something he was allowed to choose to participate in.  This video shows an advanced stage of training – they began with just touching an ear and giving a treat.

Nail Trimming

I don’t need to give you a step-by-step protocol for conditioning your dogs to husbandry tasks because there’s a fantastic Facebook group, Nail Maintenance for Dogs,, dedicated to helping owners teach dogs to volunteer to have their nails done. They run a tight ship: They provide the resources and guidance you need as a self-study course in how to get the emotional response you want—comfort, happiness, security—associated with your dog’s nail trimming.

All procedures are solidly based in behavior science, which is important because the techniques will work for your dog and every dog, and you can be sure you will be keeping your dog’s stress level low. Join the group and learn the techniques of conditioning so you can apply them to all your husbandry tasks.

Videos of Husbandry Training for Other Species

Get Inspired! If a Capybara can volunteer for an injection, your dog can request a nail trim!

  • Gari the Capybara training to receive an injection:
  • Hippo dentistry:
  • Dolphin husbandry training:
  • Target training for elephant foot care:

As you can see, just like with any behavior we want to train an animal to do when we want them to do it, we must begin with the tiniest bit of behavior we can think of. A lifted foot, an open mouth, or just a quietly sitting dog or cat is the first step toward a smoothly swallowed pill or a voluntary nail trim. I encourage you to get out some tasty treats and give it a try with your own pet! Why should our pet dogs and cats miss out on cooperating in their own care?