By Jennifer Lueck
Something wonderful happened at the Lueck house a few weeks ago and it made me realize how much Gabe has changed since we got him nine years ago. Gabe came to us at a year old and already had issues, one of which was having a fear of having his front nails clipped. At first I tried wrestling him to the ground to force him to submit to nail clipping (before I knew about positive methods), but he was the better wrestler and I succeeded only in making his fear worse. After that, the only way to clip his nails was to bring him to the vet, where they would muzzle him and the vet techs would hold him down while the vet clipped his nails.
Things changed when we went to Loving Paws for Casey’s puppy classes and I learned about positive reinforcement dog training. I read a bunch of books on the subject and decided that all it would take to trim Gabe’s nails was some simple desensitizing to the nail clippers. (Yeah, right!) I spent hours touching his paw with the nail clippers and then giving him a treat. Paw, treat. Paw, treat. Then I moved on to touching his nail, treat. Nail, treat. I did this over and over, always working on getting closer to clipping his nail. But each time I’d get to the point of actually clipping, he’d panic. So we’d start over. Paw, treat. Nail, treat. But I just couldn’t clip his nails. I was frustrated and his nails were getting longer and longer, but I wanted to make it work because I never wanted him to be muzzled and held down for nail trimming again.
I told Laura about it and she offered to show me a better way. She came over the following weekend, armed with steak and her nail clippers. She positioned Gabe in a corner of the kitchen, with my mom blocking one side of his body, me feeding him the steak in the front and she worked on his other side. She did all of his nails in about five minutes. No muzzle, no force, just positive reinforcement, confidence, and a lot of skill. She came over the next weekend and we did it again. She clipped three paws and had me do the fourth while she fed him. The weekend after that, my mom and I did it alone; she fed him and I clipped. This has been our strategy for the past five years. We have switched from nail clippers to a Dremel, but the game plan is otherwise the same.
But then one day, I had some juice left in the Dremel’s battery after trimming Casey’s nails and it seemed a waste not to use it, so I lifted Gabe’s front paw and touched the Dremel very lightly to a nail. He didn’t panic and pull his foot away! Gabe got a big woo-hoo and a jackpot of cookies. I lifted his paw again and touched his nail very lightly with the Dremel. He didn’t pull away again, so he got more treats and praise. We did this several more times, with celebrations each time. I began to wonder how far he’d let me go, so the next time I actually ground his nail a little… and he still didn’t pull away! I woo-hoo’ed again and gave him tons of cookies. We did this several more times. That’s when the amazing happened. Just as I touched the Dremel to Gabe’s nail, he wagged his tail. Breakthrough! That tail wagging meant Gabe had made a positive association with the Dremel touching his nail!
So here’s my message to all of you: there’s no magic age that your dog has to be finished by. You have your dog’s whole life to turn him into the dog you want him to be, or pretty darn close. If there’s something you want your dog to learn or something you want to change about your dog – pulling on leash, difficulty nail trimming, barking, whatever it is, it’s never too late to do start working on it. Challenge your dog. Don’t underestimate him. Don’t give upon him. Set him up for success, but don’t limit him for fear of failing. It might be hard and it will probably take time, but take it from me, the payoff will be worth it.
Gabe is steadily transforming into a really great dog. If you hadtold me two years ago that he’d be able to walk calmly with a group of people and dogs, go to a dog Halloween Party, have a birthday party with his dog friends or enjoy having his nails trimmed I would tell you it was absolutely impossible. But it’s not. He’s done these things and more. It’s taken a while and it’s been rough at times, but it’s been worth it and I’m proud of him.