August 4, 2019 | Tips and Training
By Penelope Milne, CPDT-KSA, CBCC-KA.
Why do otherwise good dogs bite the people they love? Fear and pain are common triggers. For today, we’re going to focus on one very preventable aspect of that: discomfort with restraint and body handling.
Some estimates are that as many as 60% of dog bites may be triggered by restraint or body handling that the dog is uncomfortable with or scared by, such as nail trimming or applying medication. So how do we help our good boys and girls be more comfortable with these things?
The Behavior Modification tools most commonly used by trainers are systematic desensitization and counterconditioning — or, as we often refer to it, ‘baby steps, with snacks’! Let’s look at how that might work for a specific task like tooth brushing.
Begin by simply having the dog lick a delicious smeary treat off your fingers. Chicken baby food is a good choice! Once your dog looks forward to this routine, begin to lift your dog’s lip
just a tiny bit, and wipe the baby food onto his gums. He should lick it off and look delighted. Repeat a couple of times. Work a short training session in before your dog’s breakfast and dinner for a few days. Then, raise the bar. Begin to lift the lip a little bit further and wipe the chicken baby food along a longer section of gum line. Practice that for a few sessions, and then raise the bar again – wiping the baby food along the whole upper and lower gum line.
Now it’s time to introduce a toothbrush. I suggest beginning with a fingertip toothbrush– it slips over your finger, like a thimble. It’s only a tiny change from wiping your dog’s gum line with your uncovered finger, so your dog is likely to continue to enjoy your generous delivery of yumminess right into his mouth!
Once you can wipe baby food onto his teeth and gums using the toothbrush, start to blend the baby food into a doggy toothpaste. Dog toothpaste come in flavors like beef, chicken, fish, malt and so on. (Note, do not use human toothpaste for dogs. Dogs decline to rinse and spit. They will swallow all of the people toothpaste — not good for them! Dog toothpaste is made to be swallowed.) Over time, reduce the amount of baby food until you are using only dog toothpaste.
Now you can brush the entire outside surface of your dog’s teeth, but you may still find it challenging to get to the inside surfaces. My solution to that is to upgrade from the fingertip toothbrush (that was a great intro toothbrush),to a triple headed toothbrush. Place the yummy dog toothpaste on the central head, and as you brush the central head will clean the flat surface of the teeth while the other two heads will simultaneously brush the inner and outer surfaces of the dog’s teeth. At each stage of this transition make sure that your dog is relaxed and enjoying himself. He should be volunteering not suffering!
A similar systematic desensitization and counterconditioning plan can help your dog become more comfortable with nail trims. It may take a little bit longer, though; many dogs are very, very worried about having their feet handled.
Your dog may be so uncomfortable with you touching his feet, that you will start by touching his elbow! Touch briefly, then deliver several yummy treats. Repeat several times per session for as many sessions as it takes until as soon as you touch the dog’s elbow he looks at you in deight, anticipating yummy treats. Now slide your hand an inch or so lower, and repeat the procedure until, again, you get that ‘yippee’ response. Gradually, over many sessions, work your hand lower until you can hold the dog’s foot and get the ‘yippee’ response.
Add duration a few seconds at a time, until you can hold the foot for 20 or 30 seconds. Be guided by your dog’s response.Make sure to move ahead at a pace that allows your dog to be successful and comfortable. If he wants to quit, release his foot immediately and cover up his food treats. The message to the dog is, ‘Of course you don’t have to play if you don’t want to. But, the snacks are only available to players’.
Once your dog is comfortable with you holding his foot, begin to add details like briefly touching a nail. Then touching it for a little bit longer, and moving it slightly. Always food reward his successes.
You may find that your dog tolerates a nail grinder much better than nail clippers. It’s hard to quick a dog (accidentally cut the nail too short and make the dog bleed) with a nail grinder, too! Make sure to do a counter conditioning procedure with the nail grinder, though. Holding the nail grinder away from the dog, and immediately delivered treats. Turn it off and stop the treats. Repeat, repeat, until, as soon as you turn it on, the dog looks happy and anticipates snacks.
Then, with the nail grinder off, briefly touch the grinder to the dog’s body and immediately deliver a treat. Repeat, until touching the dog with the nail grinder makes him look happy and waggy. Now with the nail grinder on, briefly touch the body of the grinder to your dog’s body and feed several treats. (Don’t touch him with the grinding wheel and make sure that no hair gets wrapped around the grinding wheel.) Remove the grinder and stop feeding. Touch briefly with the grinder and treat again. Remove it and stop feeding. We want him to recognize that when he feels the vibration of the grinder, good things will happen,
Now we are ready to combine picking up and holding the dog’s foot with one hand and touching the nails with the grinder with the other. If your dog wants to pull away, let him. But as before, make it clear to him that the game has rules. He can quit, but that will make you remove the treats. If he seems worried, break the game down into smaller baby steps.
Initially, you may only be able to grind one nail per session. Over time and with your help his confidence and comfort level will grow and you will be able to do all his nails in a session.
With thoughtful and compassionate work, you and your dog can work through his fears, and have an even better relationship!
Note, if your dog has already bitten because of his discomfort with body handling, have a professional help you with setting up your training plan, and walk you through the first steps, to make sure that you and your dog will be safe and successful.