Happy Feet: counter conditioning for sensitive paws
Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, COEDITOR, ALONG WITH LESLIE SINN, DVM, DACVB, OF THE “AAHA GUIDE TO ANIMAL BEHAVIOR FOR VETERINARY PROFESSIONALS”
For counterconditioning to change a negative response to a positive one, the conditioned stimulus (which has a negative association) is presented first, followed by the unconditioned stimulus (often food) to change the conditioned fear response to a new, happier response. In order to be successful, start with the aversive stimulus just below the animal’s threshold-where the animal is aware of it but not stressed or reacting. Present the aversive stimulus, then feed the pet a high-value treat and remove the stimulus. Repeat this until every time you present the stimulus, the pet happily looks toward your other hand in anticipation of the treat. This “Yay, where’s my treat?” response is the physical manifestation of the conditioned emotional response, of CER. We can’t see the internal emotional change, just the outward expression of it. Now you can present the stimulus an inch closer to the pet and continue the process until they have a new, positive association with the stimulus.
Here’s a complete, step-by-step counterconditioning and desensitization process for a dog who is sensitive to paw touching, restraint, and nail clipping.
- Select a high-value treat to use in your training. For dogs, the easiest way to elicit a positive association is with high-value treats. I like to use chicken in my dog training-baked, boiled, or thawed out frozen strips-most dogs love chicken, and it’s a healthy, low-fat, low-calorie treat. **Make sure any meat used is cooked for safety reasons. Gamble Pet Clinic added this statement.
- Determine the location of the touch the dog can handle without reacting fearfully or aggressively. Perhaps it’s their shoulder, elbow, or knee. The dog should be a little worried, but not growl or try to move away, which indicates that the touch is below her threshold.
- With the dog on a leash, touch them briefly and gently just below their threshold. The instant the dog notices the touch, start continuously feeding her bits of chicken.
- After a second or two, remove the touch and stop providing chicken.
- Keep repeating steps 1-3 until touching at that location for one or two seconds consistently causes the dog to look at you with a happy smile and a “Yay! Where’s my chicken?” expression. This is the CER that indicates the dog’s association with the brief touch at that location is now positive instead of negative. ***CER=Conditioned Emotional Response. Gamble Pet clinic added this explanation.
- Now you need to increase the intensity of the stimulus by increasing the length of time you touch at that same location, a few seconds at a time, obtaining a new CER at each new time interval before increasing the time again. For example, do several repetitions at two seconds until you get consistent “yay!” looks, followed by several repetitions at four seconds, then several at eight seconds. Work for consistent CER at each new duration of your touch.
- When you can touch the dog at that spot for any length of time in “yay” mode, begin to increase the intensity of the stimulus again, this time by moving your hand to a new location one or two inches lower than your initial threshold. I suggest starting at your initial touch location and sliding your hand to the new spot. Continue with repetitions until you get consistent CERs at the new location.
- Continue gradually working your way down to the dog’s paw, an inch or two at a time, getting solid CERs at each spot before you move closer to the paw.
- When you get below the knee, also add a gentle grasp and a little pressure to the procedure-each of which is a separate step in the counterconditioning and desensitization process. Be sure to get the “yay!” response withtouch before you add the grasp, with the grasp, and before you add pressure. Continue working down the leg, all the way to the paw.
- When you can touch, grasp, and put pressure on the paw, begin to add lifting the paw.
- If your goal is happy nail trimming, start the process over, this time with the nail clipper in your hand. Show the dog the clippers and feed her a treat, until the appearance of the clippers elicits a “yay!” response. Then do counterconditioning and desensitization with the clipper action by squeezing the clippers to make the sound a motion they would make if you were clipping nails. Go through the whole touch sequence again, this time with the clippers in your hand, also touching the dog with the clippers, then again while you squeeze the clippers. Remember that you are still feeding her yummy treats and obtaining CERs throughout the whole process.
- When you can hold the dog’s paw and make the clipper action right next to their nail with a happy response, clip one nail, feed her lots of treats, and stop. Do one nail per day until the dog is happy with the process, then advance to two nails at a time, then three, until you can clip all their nails in one sitting.
These kinds of behavior changes take time and patience. During your training, if you feel that you are going too slow, you likely need to slow down even further. I often use a phrase I’ve borrowed from trainer Laura Glaser-Harrington of Pets in Motion in Wayne, Pennsylvania: “Think crockpot, not microwave.”