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.

  1. 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.
  1.  When you can touch, grasp, and put pressure on the paw, begin to add lifting the paw.
  1.  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.
  1.  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.”