(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.
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.
Let your dog choose to participate.
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. Every experience affects your dog’s next similar experience, so start out with your dog happily volunteering at whatever level she can manage. In the next session, she’ll be happy to play your silly games again because she felt secure and comfortable and the rewards were great!
Make a training plan
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, 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 or association, 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 hair care)
- Placing running clippers or grinder two feet from her (for grooming tasks)
These are just examples. Focus on exposing your dog to one small part of the process at a time – the visual part, the sound, the smell – and do it at a level she can be happy about!
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
Yes, you need treats. We’re not just “waiting for the dog to get used to it.” We want to drive the process so it happens as quickly and effectively as possible. Remember, the goal is for your dog to hold up a paw and “ask” you to trim his nails because it’s become such a positive experience for him.
How to get started
Present the stimulus, then give the treat— in that order. (Show the nail clippers – give the dog a treat – take away the nail clippers. Repeat.)
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 and thresholds
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.
You can’t move too slowly.
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.
Track your progress.
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!
Here’s an older, rescued Springer Spaniel, Ranger, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtWeXBbpIOs, 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.
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, https://www.facebook.com/groups/nail.maintenance.for.dogs/learning_content/, 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 the 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, 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! If we can train an elephant to cooperate in having his nails done, we should give our dogs and cats a chance, too.