Training Dogs to Accept Grooming

For some dogs, grooming can be a nightmare. Nail trimming is one of the many procedures that may elicit fearful and aggressive behaviors from dogs, especially if they haven’t been handled and socialized to nail clippers during their first months of age. Clipping the nails can be painful if done incorrectly but, sometimes, it’s almost impossible not make a mistake. If the dog has black, over-grown nails and won’t stop moving his paw, it is possible to cut a bit too much and, as a consequence, hit the quick (the pink area seen inside the nail); this leads to bleeding and will also cause pain. Brushing can also be a painful procedure for some dogs! Imagine a Shih Tzu that hasn’t been to a groomer in five years, hasn’t had a bath in two years and is rarely brushed. Trying to do something with this dog’s coat will be very unpleasant for him, to say the least! As a consequence, it would be perfectly understandable if he tries to defend himself during the procedure. And what about teeth brushing? Some dogs won’t tolerate it, despite the fact that this procedure doesn’t cause pain. So what should we do?

Option A) Give up and pretend the dog doesn’t need this kind of care.

Option B) Do it anyway, even though we may lose a few fingers during the process.

Option C) Teach the dog to tolerate (or even enjoy) these procedures.

The right answer is option C. We can teach dogs that having their coat and teeth brushed and their nails trimmed can be a fabulous thing! How can we do this? By using desensitization and counter-conditioning. These techniques allow us to change the emotional state (and, as a consequence, the response) the dog has towards these procedures. We start by presenting the menacing stimulus (for example, the nail clipper) at some distance and then we offer the dog a treat. We repeat this step, while slowly and gradually decreasing the distance between the dog and the stimulus. The next step will be to grab the dog’s paw and reward him. Grab and reward, grab and reward. Next, we can briefly touch the dog’s nails with the clipper. Then, we can place a nail inside the clipper and remove it, without actually cutting the nail. Remember that you must give your dog a treat immediately after each step. When the dog feels comfortable about having the nail clipper touching his nails, we may cut the first one. This step should be followed by lots of treats! In the end, we should be able to trim all of the dog’s nails without him getting stressed or reactive about it. This whole process can also be applied to brushing the dog’s coat and teeth. Remember: we should slowly increase the intensity of the stimulus. How slowly? It depends on each dog; we need to be patient and respect every dog’s own learning rhythm. If the dog is already biting during these procedures, we should contact a positive dog trainer or a certified behaviorist so we can work on the problem more effectively.