Every moment our dog's eyes are open, they are learning and communicating...
In puppy class the other day, one of the clients shared a story of her puppy's first grooming experience. We were practicing "start button behaviors", allowing our dogs to tell us when they are comfortable, and when they are not, in this case, for handling experiences like nail clipping and ear cleaning. Systemically desensitizing and counterconditioning to touching and handling was the exercise in class.
The story told was sad but unfortunately, very typical.
This puppy, like any puppy experiencing something new, was fearful of nail clipping. When the puppy exhibited any hesitation, the groomer held her in place until she "submitted"... This was fear, not to be confused with "acceptance"…
Let's break this down:
First, some still have a misguided notion that anthropomorphizing (attributing human characteristics to our dogs) is a shameful and weak way to bridge our understanding between our emotions and those of our dogs. Science has finally proven what many of us have known all along. Our dogs share our same emotions, often to a much higher level of intensity.
Here's a short story to draw a parallel that may help to bridge that understanding.
When I was a child, maybe 5 years old, I had an extremely traumatizing visit to the dentist. I was fearful and while I was half the size of most kids my age, I put up a fight that would rival any Tasmanian devil.... Or so the story goes...
This was 52 years ago.
Instead of helping me through my fear, I was sent to a child specialist in dentistry. This experience only solidified my fear. When I started to show my fear, I was held down, my nose was plugged so that I would open my mouth (to enable the insertion if a block to hold it open). While I screamed and cried, the procedure was completed. Even though they tried to reason with me, my adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, kept me in flight mode... the adults decided that the job had to be done and so my path was set. Every, single dental appointment, well into my forties, was nothing shy of terrifying.
To this day, I can picture the dental office, the feelings I have are visceral and the anger I still feel towards the adults, palpable.
We now know the damage that can be done when fear is ignored. Associations and neural pathways are set and the road back can be a tough one.
I have since had many "happy visits" to the dentist.
Thankfully! And finally, dentists today make the 'experience' as important as the actual procedure. I can finally walk into a dentist's office, sit in the chair and get through a procedure without having to be sedated. I don't love it... and truth be told, I'd rather be doing something else, but I can get through it without coercion or debilitating anxiety.
What can we do to ensure that neural pathways and associations for our dogs and puppies, are positive?
We can watch their body language and allow them to tell us when they need us to slow down. We can teach them through proper, below threshold associations, that allow them to feel they are safe and that we are listening.
It is our job as owners, guardians, handlers and teachers, to desensitize our dogs to procedures and experiences that must occur during their lifetime.
Instead of bringing nail clippers home, holding a puppy down and getting the job done… or taking them to a groomer when they're not desensitized, we can slow things down. We have the opportunity and really, the responsibility, to help our dogs feel better.
Why not spend a week, teaching a puppy to feel comfortable around any grooming or handling equipment? Would it be so terrible to clip one nail per night? Even if they must see a groomer for these procedures, why not make it easier for both the puppy and the groomer by teaching the puppy to feel safe, heard and willing?
It's easier, and actually more fun than you might think.
Diamond in the Ruff includes systematic desensitization and counterconditioning in every, single class and private training session.