From Teeth to Toes
The Foundation for Low Stress Handling
By Caitlin Morrow, BS, CPDT-KA, RVT
“If you want to be able to trim your dog’s nails……Just play with his (feet, ears, legs, etc…) when he’s relaxed. You know, when you’re sitting on the couch watching a movie just sit there and touch and play with his feet while he is resting.”
Owners tell me all the time how they spent weeks following the above advice. Then one day when the dog no longer seemed to care about his feet being touched, the owner tried to trim the nails while the dog was sleeping and Sleeping Beauty became a snarling beast! That scenario never ends well. It usually makes the handling issue worse and the accidental damage to the trust causes huge problems within the owner/dog relationship that require time and work to repair.
What went wrong?
Can you imagine being pet sweetly by your spouse night after night watching TV? Then one day he pulls out a pair of scissors and cuts your hair? You’d feel very confused, tricked, and defensive.
This one seemingly innocent piece of advice has caught on as a popular myth to such extents, we could just go ahead and name the source of the advice at this point as “them.” This reminds me of similar myths like “never play tug-of-war with the dog” or “always go through doors first.” These ideas have become so widespread and we don’t even know where they came from. This advice regarding touching feet has been something that I’ve spent months undoing in countless pets. The giver of this advice is missing some key information.
1. The goal of desensitization and counter conditioning is to teach the dog to associate positive experiences with his feet being touched, which means that you need to have something positive occurring throughout the experience so that he learns that feet being handled is something wonderful, not just something to be tolerated. This also means he needs to be aware of what is going on. So something as simple as a nail trim would need to be approached in progressive steps, including feet being touched, seeing nail clippers, clippers coming near feet, the noise clippers make when clipping nails and the feeling of the clippers on their nails. Each aspect of the procedure will need to be addressed in most cases.
2. “They” usually forget to educate the owners about the importance of observing the dog’s reaction at each step (Is he anxious or interested, fearful or relaxed, staying close or pulling away?). This information helps determine when to move ahead and when to go back a few steps or change a few steps. Systematic desensitization and counter conditioning is a multi step process and is different for every dog. There are lots of subtleties throughout the process that could change day to day.
3. “They” also forget to mention that the context of the handling matters greatly, and it can be helpful to have a specific place and time in which handling activities occur. For example, the dog sleeping comfortably on the couch and not anticipating a nail trim is likely to feel threatened or “tricked” if the owner suddenly grabs his foot and starts cutting. But, if he has been conditioned to having his nails trimmed on a special mat he will actually get excited to see the mat come out of the cupboard.
Handling Issues can include everything from grooming issues, medication administration, daily body handling (i.e. wiping muddy paws) and veterinary procedures to maintaining basic health, including brushing teeth, cleaning ears, trimming nails and everything in between. In the last handful of years there has been a much needed movement in the veterinary field towards making visits to the vet as low stress and free of fear as possible. This movement includes how to get your pet to the hospital, how to arrange the hospital, new ways to restrain and handle the animals, working on behavior modification procedures to help animals that may already have issues with veterinary procedures and so much more. Dr. Sophia Yin has written what many consider to be THE textbook on the subject. In fact, AB TECH's vet tech program adopted the book: Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats, as their textbook for students a few years ago and completely eliminated the outdated methods that the field has been using for decades. I was very lucky to go through the program the 1st year they switched to her book and have never looked back. The book covers in great detail the science behind low stress handling, restraint and behavior modification so that anyone can understand what to look for and how to achieve results. I wish more people (including owners) would read it cover to cover, study it and the practice how to appropriately apply it.