Husbandry-Training Classes for Dog Owners

This is the last of a three-article series about training dogs to perform husbandry behaviors (i.e., any actions that facilitate grooming and veterinary procedures). I’ll assume that the previous articles have convinced you that real benefits accrue from investing time in this type of training. The practical training tips offered in the second article might even have spurred you to attempt a bit of this training with your own clipper-phobic dog. For us class instructors, though, the harder challenge is figuring out how to disseminate this information to our students.

Face it: few of our students are interested in teaching their dogs behaviors intended to prevent unanticipated future problems. These folks are already at their wit’s end dealing with here-and-now problems such as jumping, leash-pulling and house-training. Their anxiety over how to “make Spot stop doing X, Y and Z” overshadows less urgent concerns regarding the dog’s future healthcare procedures.

To compound the problem, it’s nearly impossible to devote adequate time to teaching basic husbandry behaviors in a beginners’ pet dog class, despite our best intentions. Two possible solutions are:

  1. a) Bite the bullet. Make time in your regular “household manners” classes even if it means scrapping another topic. You could remove another section of your class lecture by providing a well written (read “interesting and practical”) handout instead. I’ve found that students aren’t likely to practice husbandry exercises unless you provide a live demo in class; handouts just aren’t sufficient in this case.
    b) Conduct a separate seminar designed to teach a dozen dogs and their people 3 or 4 basic husbandry behaviors. If feasible, advertise this seminar at your local veterinary clinics. Ideally, this course would last no more than a few hours, possibly divided into 2 sessions of about 90 minutes each. Briefly describe operant conditioning theory, then quickly proceed to your demos. Teach the necessary theory by doing rather than lecturing.Group seminars conducted at your training school or the vet’s office are ideal for naïve, untrained dogs. These dogs are apt to exhibit moderate resistance to handling and may have developed some unpleasant associations with vet visits and grooming. But for dogs with intense fears or for those who panic or bite when handled, private lessons are more appropriate (at least for the initial training).

It can be tough to convince students of the wisdom of investing time and effort in training husbandry behaviors. This is a classic example of delayed gratification. The actual pay-off for the owner is hassle-free grooming and vet visits months or years down the road. Therefore, it’s difficult for folks to get motivated to start the training. When reinforcement is delivered on a very thin schedule, a phenomenon called the “delayed start of long-duration behavior” sets in. People (and other animals) procrastinate. As Karen Pryor points out in Don’t Shoot the Dog, in situations like this it helps to provide some reinforcement just for getting started. Be creative. You could give students who complete your mini-course a coupon for 10% off their next veterinary bill (a benefit you’ve pre-arranged with local doctors). The vets get nearly free advertising at your seminar and calmer dogs at their clinics.

Remember that money is a supreme human motivator. Survey the cost of a nail trim at various groomers and clinics in your area. Let’s say the average cost is $8.00. Now calculate how much that will cost over the life of the dog. At a frequency of once every two weeks, this adds up to more than $2000 in 10 years! (And this figure doesn’t even include the cost of transporting the dog to and from the groomer or vet.) Tell your students that each time they trim their dog’s nails themselves, they could use the money they saved to rent a movie, buy a latte, or fill a vase with fresh flowers. Immediate gratification.

You could also use an aversive stimulus to motivate your human students. At the beginning of your class, consider showing a brief video of an untrained, stressed dog getting a nail trim or a vet exam. If you don’t know any dogs like this…I want your job! No, instead, ask your vet or groomer to suggest an appropriate dog to videotape. Of course, first get the owner’s permission and offer him/her a free training lesson as thanks.

After showing this video, it’s ideal to follow up with an in-class demonstration of the procedure performed with a relaxed, trained dog. If that’s not practical, show a video of this. A really powerful teaching tool would be a video of the initial untrained dog after training, now calmly accepting manipulation.

If you’re conducting a stand-alone husbandry seminar, consider letting your students decide which 3 or 4 behaviors to focus on. Provide them with a list of possibilities from which to choose. My list includes:

  • getting in the tub and standing for a bath
  • presenting paws for nail trims
  • allowing teeth-cleaning/holding mouth open
  • swallowing “naked” pills (i.e., not wrapped in food)
  • tolerating brushing and de-matting
  • holding still for injections and blood draws
  • permitting insertion of a thermometer
  • accepting ear cleaning
  • urinating on cue
  • lying on side while body is massaged and manipulated

Discuss the definition of each chosen behavior in some detail, showing a live demo or video of the completed behavior whenever possible. Before any training, assess where each of the dogs is on the shaping “ladder” for each goal behavior. For example, Spot may clench his teeth and pull away when his owner tries to give him a pill, run into the closet when he hears bath water running, and snarl when his owner reaches to touch any of his paws.

Next, ask your students to design shaping progressions for their own dog using each dog’s individual starting behavior. Provide handouts that illustrate diagrams of blank shaping ladders with at least 10 – 12 rungs. Take time to help each student fill in the bottom rung (= how the dog behaves now) and the top rung (=the ultimate behavioral goal). Then, for homework or during class if time permits, have your students fill in the other rungs, splitting the behavior into successive approximations. You can give suggestions, but allow your students’ to create novel ways “up the mountain.” Besides, they’ll be more invested in the process if they help create the shaping programs. Some examples:

I) Brushing

a) dog runs away when she sees owner holding brush
b) dog will eat treats from owner’s hand while brush is on floor nearby
c) dog will eat treats placed on brush
d) dog will nose-touch brush lying on the floor
e) dog will allow gentle petting anywhere on body
f) dog remains relaxed when hair is gently tugged or rubbed in wrong direction
g) dog remains relaxed when body is touched with brush for 1 second
h) dog remains relaxed when body is touched with brush for 3 seconds
i) dog targets nose on owner’s fist while standing for 1 second
j) dog targets nose on owner’s fist while standing for 3 seconds
k) dog targets owner’s fist for 3 seconds while being touched with brush for 1 second
l) dog targets owner’s fist for 3 seconds while being touched with brush for 3 second

z) dog is relaxed for full-strength brushing for 3 minutes at a time

II) Swallowing pills

I once helped care for a walrus who’d had major abdominal surgery. Her recovery included taking nearly 300 pills three times a day! Stuffing all those slippery pills into the gills of Georgie’s food-fish took a long time, tried my patience, and was futile if she wasn’t feeling well enough to eat. So, the other zookeepers and I decided to teach her to swallow “naked” pills. Within about two weeks, we were able to pour all 300 pills into her wide-open mouth and ask her to swallow. As a reward she got a handful of fish (if she was hungry) or a couple of Tums (if she was refusing food). No kidding – she ate Tums like they were candy. Go figure.

Let your students know that their dogs’ pills can’t always be wrapped in cheese or some other yummy treat. Some medications need to be taken on an empty stomach, and a food-covered pill won’t tempt a really sick dog.

a) dog clenches teeth shut when owner approaches her with a pill
b) dog can catch and eat a kernel of popcorn lobbed to her (Note: dog is prevented from eating any food that falls on the floor throughout this training progression.)
c) dog can catch and eat a piece of hotdog lobbed to her
d) dog can catch and eat a piece of hotdog in which half of a small empty gelatin capsule is imbedded [Note: gelatin capsules are available at pharmacies and health food stores.]
e) dog can catch and eat a piece of hotdog in which a whole gelatin capsule is imbedded
f) dog can catch and swallow half of a gelatin capsule filled with hotdog
g) dog can catch and swallow a whole gelatin capsule filled with hotdog
h) dog can catch and swallow a small empty gelatin capsule – no hotdog
i) dog can catch and swallow a small real pill
j) dog can catch and swallow a medium-sized real pill
k) dog can catch and swallow any pill

III) Cleaning teeth

a) dog clenches teeth shut when owner handles his mouth
b) dog allows owner to briefly touch the underside of his muzzle with one hand while owner uses other hand to feed treats to the dog
c) dog allows owner to touch the underside of his muzzle for 5 seconds while owner feeds treats to the dog
d0 dog allows owner to cup her hand under his “chin” for 5 seconds, then gets a food treat
e) dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand for 5 seconds (this is a form of targeting; dolphin trainers call it “stationing”)
f) dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand for 2 seconds while she gently touches his lips with her other hand
g) dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand for 5 seconds while she gently touches his lips with her other hand
h) dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand for 2 seconds while she briefly lifts his lip with her other hand
i) dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand for 5 seconds while she lifts his lip with her other hand
j) dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand while she runs her finger over a few of his front teeth
k) dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand and offers minimal resistance when his owner gently opens his mouth for 2 seconds
l) dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand and offers minimal resistance when his owner gently opens his mouth far enough to touch his tongue
m) dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand and voluntarily opens his mouth a tiny bit when the owner reaches toward his lips
n) dog keeps mouth slightly agape while owner runs her finger back and forth over his upper incisors and canine teeth

z) …dog rests muzzle in owner’s cupped hand with mouth open for 15 seconds while teeth are gently rubbed with a toothbrush, gauze or a metal scraper

  1. IV) Trimming nails

I’ll let you create your own shaping plans for this behavior. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from my attempts to teach nail-trimming to pet owners:

  • Begin by giving each student a handout with a clear drawing of the parts of a dog’s nail, indicating the location of the quick and the best angle to cut the nail
  • Discuss and show your students the different tools available (i.e., scissors-type clippers, guillotine clippers, Dremels). Don’t forget the styptic powder.
  • Warn folks that a Dremel can get wrapped in fluffy dog hair or dangling human hair. (I once got an instant dreadlock while trimming nails.) For dogs with hairy paws, try pulling a panty hose over the paw. The dog’s nails can poke through the nylon while the hair is held away from the nails.
  • Discuss and demonstrate various positions for nail trims (e.g., on a raised surface for a toy dog; standing – like a horse for a farrier – for large dogs; dog lying on her side on the floor; dog lying on her back supported between the outstretched legs of her owner; etc)
  • Demonstrate with a live dog to review where to clip. Be conservative – trim just a tiny bit. Blood is awfully discouraging at this point.
  • Have your students clearly define their goal behavior. I encourage my students to set their first major goal at being able to trim just one nail per day. The whole process should take no more than 10 seconds, ideally just prior to the dog’s mealtime. After a couple of weeks at this level, owners can progress to trimming the nails on one entire paw before dinner. For most dogs, it should take at least a month of training before they are totally relaxed throughout a complete pedicure.
  • Typically, the most salient reward in this training procedure is the release of the dog’s paw (or turning off Dremel). That moment of release is a huge negative reinforcer for the dog. Be sure that your students are releasing their hold on the dog’s paw only when he’s relaxed. No releases for struggling, squirming, whining, or other assorted hissy fits.