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Give Dogs Choice

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

Confession time; I used to hold my dog down to clip his nails while he struggled to get free thinking it was life or death.

It never made sense to me why he would freak out so much over something so simple. But I've learnt that it doesn't matter how I perceive the situation; to him, it's terrifying. To him he is in danger and so he freaks out and fights to get free.

Without realising it those temporary struggles between us was making the matter worse, not helping him understand there is actually nothing to fear.

Imagine you're so scared of something and instead of understanding and care you're met with force and flooding.

It broke my heart to see him so upset but in my mind I was doing the right thing. I was doing it for his own good, for the health of his nails, his overall physical health.

What I didn't consider was his mental health. Imagine how he felt not knowing when the next time I would pin him down to do his nails would be ...could he trust me...did he have a choice?

Not really? But I did.

I made the choice to change how he saw the nail clipping process. I made the choice to use force free methods. To use positive reinforcement. I made the choice to give him choice. And what a game changer it is. By allowing him to say "no" when things get too much, I've actually ended up with a pretty tolerant and resilient boy. He still doesn't like his nails being cut but we're working on that, slowly, at his pace. By doing so I take away his need to fight and struggle with me. I take away his fear of losing control. I take away his fear of not knowing.

And most importantly I take away his fear of me.

Giving back his choice meant that we now complete his regular care needs co-operatively. If he doesn’t want to participate that’s fine, we try again another time. But when you make it fun and easier for them to succeed at what you are asking, well they want to participate. He wants to participate in his nail care, on his terms.

What about for situations where he doesn’t get a choice, there’s an emergency and he needs medical care. Then choice is not offered in this situation. Afterall, he doesn’t have the choice to say no. It has to be yes, so we can’t offer him to say no and then not listen. That would break the trust we’ve built through our system of communication.

If you can’t respect your dog’s choice to say no and not proceed with the situation, then make sure they know this task is non-negotiable. We can still reduce our dogs’ discomfort and stress during the situation as much as possible by providing breaks (if possible) and treats as distraction to the unpleasantness and getting through the task as quickly and calmly as possible.

How can you begin to ask your dog whether they want to participate?

First and foremost, if you are committed to making it the dog’s choice I would remove all collars, harnesses and equipment from your dog (as long as it’s safe). This is to remove your ability to hold your dog by force.

Then we teach a start behaviour. If you’re familiar with Chirag Patel he has an amazing video on the bucket game which can be used as a start behaviour.

Chriag Patel’s video about introducing the bucket game to your dog. For my own dog, I use a chin rest, nose touch or the play dead position (laying flat on his side with head down) as our start positions. He has different ones depending on what procedure and position we need him in.

With nail trims I also ask for his paw, if he gives it to me, great! I can proceed, if he doesn’t then I know he isn’t ready to accept his paws being handled.

From there, as long as he is consenting, I continue to work my way through the process of cutting his nails, making sure to counter condition and desensitise him to each step of the process at a pace he can handle. If he removes his paw from my hand, I stop. I have done too much or gone too fast.

It’s important to note that I didn’t actually start cutting his nails until we were months into our training plan. We did many short sweet sessions of me asking for his paw then holding it for varied amounts of times before letting go and giving him his payment for being such a good boy. Once we got the clippers involved it was maybe only one nail at a time. The pace entirely depended on him and how he was feeling about nail clipping that day.

Remember that I made the mistake of forcing him as a young dog. He had many negative experiences of nail clipping in his history when we started working co-operatively. I had to undo the damage and earn back his trust in regards to nail clipping. I had to establish and convince him that if he said “no” I would listen this time, even though I didn’t previously.

If, unlike me, you establish trust and consent in your care procedures with your dog from the beginning the training journey of teaching them that you will listen when they say “no” and that things like baths and nail clips are actually not that bad, maybe even good fun because your dog gets treats and love and fun afterwards, then the process will likely be quicker and easier.

I love my dog, just like any dog owner does. They give us so much, sometimes we need to give something back too. Give back your dog's choice. If you don't know how I'd be happy to help you on the journey.

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