A popular question on the Better Pets and Gardens Facebook page last month was how to deal with dogs that don’t like having their nails trimmed. This is a perfect example of dogs forming a negative association with something after having an unpleasant experience. How you deal with things that your dog doesn’t like can make or break your success in overcoming the problem.
There can be different reasons why dogs form these negative associations. It may be caused by a bad experience that the dog has had where it has been hurt or perhaps doesn’t like the feeling that it causes such as the sensation when the toe nail is squeezed. It may also have been created by your own anxieties where you are worried about trimming our dog’s nails and he picks up on your nervousness causing him to become anxious as well. Some dogs dislike their feet being handled, something which ideally you should practice doing when your dog is still a puppy. No matter what the cause, this issue can be overcome by changing the association the dog has with the nail clippers from a negative to a positive one.
Throughout their lives dogs create associations with day to day things they are exposed to. Just think of your dog’s reaction when you go and get their lead before taking them for a walk. The dog learns very quickly that when you go and get the lead they get to do something which is fun, thus creating a positive association. For those of you who regularly take your dog out in the car what happens when he hears you pick up the car keys? What about when it’s dinner time and you go to the pantry to get his meal ready? These are all learned response created by a history of wonderful things happening that immediately follow something you do.
Just as positive associations are created when an action is followed by something your dog enjoys, negative associations are created when an action is followed by something your dog doesn’t like. My young puppy Cassie is a perfect example of this. When I go to work she spends the day in her puppy pen. Cassie really doesn’t want to go in the puppy pen, she’d much rather stay in the house (or come to work with me!) however she is a little too young for that just yet. She has learnt through association the pattern I follow which is once I’ve finished getting ready for work I put the other dogs in their spots including putting her into her pen. In anticipation of this happening she suddenly makes herself very scarce, often disappearing under the bed or kitchen table. My other dogs love it when I go to work as they get plied with peanut butter filled toys, chewie treats and treat balls so much so that they barely even notice that I’m leaving. Unfortunately Cassie does not find those things reinforcing enough to overcome the fact that she has to go into her pen.
My training goal is to get Cassie to a point where she no longer associates this as a negative event and looks forward to going to her pen. Firstly I have identified things that Cassie not just enjoys but LOVES. I already know that Cassie loves the training sessions I have with her in a special part of the house. I know she loves them because she constantly runs to the gate in the hope of going in there to do some training. So I’m going to move those training sessions from that room in the house to her puppy pen with the intention of creating that same positive association so she begins to want to go there.
Next month I’ll continue with some different ways to change your dogs association with something it currently does not like, including the dreaded nail clippers. You can also go to the Better Pets and Gardens Facebook page to see questions and answers from my weekly training tips sessions and perhaps to ask some of your own.