Nailed It – The Art of (not) Cutting Your Dog’s Nails

Photo: Ruby Schmank @rubyschmank

Photo: Ruby Schmank
@rubyschmank

Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment.

- Lao Tzu

Nail cutting time.  My favorite. If given the choice between cutting Sparta’s nails and skipping voting on mid-terms this year…I’m going to still fucking vote!!! Are you crazy?! Register!

Seriously, though, there’s nothing I hate more than cutting Sparta’s nails.  Her nails are black.

 

 

I’ll admit, I was even terrified to cut my kids’ nails when they were little.  Unfortunately, I had a bad experience with my first dog, Darwin.  He had black nails as well, and the first time I tried to cut his nails, I cut a little too deeply.

 

It was awful, and it scarred me forever.  Looking back, I barely nicked him, and literally a drop of blood came out, but still, I was traumatized for life.  So for the rest of Darwin’s life, he went to get his nails trimmed at a groomer. Same thing with Orion and Sparta.  Now here’s the problem, though.  I have plenty of clients who would tell me that their dog was terrible about getting their nails trimmed, getting all Cujo on them.  They would ask while I was there if I could show them how to do it safely.  Sure thing!

I would Pilot  the dog, moving slowly, but confidently. I would take the clippers in my hand, continuing to maintain calm.  I take the dog’s paw in my hand, position the clippers on the dog’s nail…

“And then you cut”, I would say.  But here’s the rub. I never would actually cut the nail myself because I was terrified.  In my mind, my rationale was that my clients weren’t having problems cutting the nail, it was cutting the nail without being shredded by their dog that was the issue. I didn’t want to project my on neurosis onto them, so I faked it.  My clients would always take the clippers from me, Pilot their dogs as I had just shown them, and then actually cut the dog’s nails.  Voila!  Mission accomplished.

However, something about it didn’t sit right with me.  Yes, technically I solved their problem, and they were happily cutting away at their dog’s nails, but I felt awful that I couldn’t make that leap myself.  So a few months ago, I became determined to do it.

I grabbed my clippers and had Sparta in a down position on my floor.  I grabbed my clippers and headed towards her holding her paw out.

Yeah…she kinda sensed there was a slight problem.

 

Now here’s the thing: I have Piloted Sparta through some pretty terrible things.  For example, when she was 11 months old,she tore her ACL.  The examination by her vet was pretty rough and painful.  Her vet took her leg, and gently moved it, causing Sparta to jump up in pain, swing around, and pretty much ask if she could bite the vet.

My answer was “no”.

Remember, Sparta was in pain, and she was asking if she could hurt the vet to make him stop hurting her.  I obviously knew that the exam was indeed necessary to help her heal.  Yes, it hurt my heart to tell her that the vet was allowed to hurt her, but she accepted my answer.  Because I accepted my answer. I had complete faith and trust in my answer, and was able to convey that to her.  She calmed down, accepted the exam, and was set on the road to recovery.

But this was different.  I was still terrified of hurting her.  And she knew it.  I was acting differently.

We’ve secretly replaced your regular Pilot with Nervous, Shaking, Train-Wreck Pilot.  Le’ts see if Sparta notices.

Oh, yes, she figured it out right quickly, but I kept pushing on, ignoring the body language she was giving me. I had neglected to adhere to my own training rules:

1) Control yourself; and

2) Control the situation.

But I was plodding along like a dolt, ignoring the fact that Sparta was absolutely terrified.  Suddenly I realized what was happening.  Sparta was actually going to bite me, and I had been ignoring all of her body language that was absolutely screaming at me to stop what I was doing.  She wasn’t being willful nor disobedient; she was simply scared.  She was telling me with her body the equivalent of, “Don’t make me shoot, ’cause I will”.

I’ve written before about knowing your physical limitations when it comes to Piloting your dog, but mental limitations are a real thing, too.  And I suddenly realized that I was forcing a situation without having control of myself, let alone the situation.  That I had come *this close* to Sparta biting me, all because I kept pushing through a situation without taking the temperature of the situation.

So I stopped.  I put down Sparta’s paw and dropped the clippers.  Instead, we played a game.  The “I’m Not Clipping Your Nails” game, meaning she started to get positives for being calm (learn about positive reinforcement here).  It started with me taking Sparta’s paw, with the clippers on the ground. I would pinch her nail gently between my fingers, and then immediately give her a treat (frozen green beans – her favorite).  Pretty soon when I started to grab her paw, she would immediately look to the green beans, anticipating the Good Thing that was to come.

Next, I would take her paw in my hand, gently tap her paw with the clippers, and then give her a treat.  Sometimes I would just pick up the clippers, put them back down again, and give her a treat.  Soon, all things regarding the clipper were a Good Thing.  Finally, after a few days of this, I was ready.  I picked up her paw, did our usual game, but at this point both of us were condition to the clippers being No Big Deal.  I wasn’t a nervous wreck anymore. I was ready to cut.  Not trim her nail to where it should be, but just cut.  Such a small cut, that it really made no difference in the scheme of things except that I had just cut her nail.

And nobody died.  Nobody got bit.  Nobody was terrified.  And Sparta was looking immediately at the bowl of green beans, waiting for her treat for playing the I”m Not Cutting Your Nails Game. It had actually happened, though.  There was a little teeny-tiny piece of nail on the ground, proving we had done.  I didn’t stop there, but, more importantly, I didn’t push forward.  In other words, I continued our usual game of tapping her nails with my fingers, and generally messing around with her, but that day I only cut that tiny little piece of nail.  But I had done it.

Each day, we would do one more nail.  Sometimes two.  Just a little bit.  Now when I grab the nail trimmers, I usually feel comfortable enough to do all of her nails.  If I spend a little too long holding her paw while trying to determine how short I can cut the nail, I stop, put her paw down, give her a treat, and then resume the examination.  Things were going beautifully.

Until this past week when I realized that yes, I could cut her nails without drama now, but I was still being ineffectual.  They were growing faster than I could safely (in my mind) cut them.  I felt like a failure.  What was the point of this exercise, anyway?!

The point is twofold.

1) I re-learned how to control myself in a scary situation.  Piloting does indeed require a uniform.  Confidence. By making Sparta feel I had control, she felt safe enough to continue with The Scary Thing.  And the by-product was that the more I wore my Piloting uniform, the more confident I became.

 

 

2) I prepared Sparta for the groomer.  She will be getting her nails cut by a groomer, just like my other dogs, only this won’t be a new sensation for her. I’m sure she will look for a treat as her nails are getting done rather than for an escape route (or even worse, making her own escape route!).  But the difference now is that I know I can do it. Yes, I will be trusting a better Nail Pilot to cut her nails, but remember: Piloting is a contest,however, we all want who ever is best to win.  Mariah at Pet’s General is a much better Nail Pilot/Grooming Pilot than I could ever be. I will give it up to the professionals, but knowing full well that if it ever came to it, I could do it.

 

 

With a little more time…and green beans.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Nail Cutting Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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