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Put a positive spin on anxiety – Karen Phillips

Last month’s article was about how dogs can form both negative and positive associations with something, or even someone, based on a good or bad experience that they have had.  Bad experiences can create anxiety in your dog which may escalate if you don’t recognise it and work with him to alleviate what he is worried about.

If your dog has developed a fear or dislike of something such as having his nails trimmed, it is relatively easy to build his confidence back up by using positive reinforcement methods.  When a dog is worried about something it is easy to lose your temper and get cross however this can cause increased anxiety which will make the problem escalate even further.

Imagine if you were nervous about going to the dentist and as you tentatively approached the dentist’s room someone started yelling at you and dragging you into the chair.  How would that make you feel?  It is possible that after an experience like that you would never go to the dentist again.  So, when your dog is worried about something, forcing him to do it will not make it easier next time.  In fact, it is more likely his fears will become far worse.

On the other hand what if you were offered $10,000 for going to the dentist?  You may still be nervous as you arrived however I bet you would be willing to work through your fears and give it a try for that end reward.  Even if you didn’t enjoy being there, the fact that there was something that you valued in return for getting through it would be enough.  The same can be said for your dog.  If you start to provide a high value reward to your dog such as roast beef, his equivalent of $10,000, it will go a long way to change his mind set about doing something.

A training plan is needed to get a dog comfortable with having his nails clipped but this same technique can be altered for any other situation as well.

Start by putting the nail clippers on the floor next to you and then call your dog over.  When your dog comes to you give him his favourite food (and lots of it).  You can then progress to picking the clippers up while continuously rewarding him.  If you did this over the course of a couple of weeks, doing nothing more than holding the clippers and feeding your dog, you will find that he will start to anticipate a reward any time that you pick the clippers up and will probably get quite excited.  This is the first stage of developing your dog’s positive association with the clippers.

Once you are at this point you can try picking up one of your dog’s paws while holding the clippers and once again reward him lavishly.  It would be worthwhile doing this until you start to get a similar reaction as when you just pick the clippers up.  Then move onto holding the clippers against your dog’s paw, again aiming for the same level of excitement before progressing.  Finally you can attempt to clip just one nail and then back to the lavish rewarding for success.  On reaching this stage you can work your way through clipping all of your dog’s nails, making sure you continue to reward after every couple of toes.

Following this process will take time and you must be patient as your dog’s change in attitude won’t happen overnight.  If at any time he becomes anxious and fearful move back a step to the point at which he was last successful.  If you take the time to do this properly you will be unlikely to have any further problems.  This method can be used for anything that your dog shows fear or anxiety for.  Don’t forget, just because you don’t think something is scary doesn’t mean that your dog feels the same way!


Karen Phillips is the owner and trainer of Riot, the beautiful border collie that is the Better Pets and Gardens mascot.  Karen has had immense experience and success with her border collies as well as little Cassie, the very fast papillon, and is currently involved as a trainer with the Agility Club of WA.  Karen is also a regular expert on our Facebook page every Monday night.


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