Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Taking the Pressure Off


Eight years ago, we got our first puppy, Tristan. At the time I was working as veterinary assistant. Part of my job involved trimming clients' pets' nails. Consequently, I spent a lot of time rolling around on the floor with thrashing, stressed out dogs who hated nothing more than the nail clippers. I was actually quite good at it. I never had a dog come in that I couldn't trim along with the help of another canine wrangler, and I knew how to give close trims without hitting the quick. I never ever made the dogs bleed.

Still, I disliked the whole wrestling match scene and the stress it caused on the dogs, so I was determined to raise my puppy right. I handled and restrained Tristan from the time he came home. I played with his toes while rewarding him, and gave his little puppy nails mini-trims at least weekly. By the time he was a few months old, he would stand still as I lifted each paw and trimmed his nails. He was perfect.

Until he was about a year old.

One day he just took one look at the clippers and basically said, "You know what? Not without a fight." And the wrestling matches began.

Granted, it is easier emotionally to subdue somebody else's dog than it is your own, but I had tangled with the worst of them. Yet nail trims with Tristan were like endurance events and strength competitions rolled into one. Both Lowell and I would struggle with him and ultimately would be lucky to get two paws done. We tried a Dremel tool to see if that was better, but with Tristan's sensitivity to sound, it was much worse. We dragged out the tastiest treats, but he would refuse food. It was ugly and discouraging, and T's nails progressively got longer and longer. (I must add that Tristan is fine with handling and restraint in other situations, like vet exams, but toe nail trimming is particularly horrifying for him for some reason).

I felt like a puppy training failure. Meanwhile during this time, I brought an adult street dog, Django, into the house who we have no idea of his background, training, idiosyncracies, fears, etc. The first time I went to cut his nails, he obligingly lied on his back, feet up, and happily watched as I peacefully cut each nail. Where had I gone wrong with T that I had such a trimming nightmare with him?

Tristan's long-standing physical and structural problems also made the nail trimming sessions worse. I hated the mental stress the wrestling put on Tristan, but even more I was afraid of hurting him during the struggle. I knew I could pay groomers or vets to trim him, but I worried they too might use too much force with him. I pretty much gave up, and decided that his nails would just get worn down as much as possible by our frequent walks, and hoped that would be enough.

The other night I was cuddling on the couch with a very sleepy T, and was playing with his paws and noticed a couple offensively long nails that were driving me nuts. I asked Lowell to sneakily get me the trimmers, and hoped I could get one clipped before T noticed what was happening. I succeeded, and let a now-slightly-disturbed T get up and scurry away. We commented that maybe that is what we should do - sneak up on him and do a nail a day. But then T walked back up to me. I petted him, and because I couldn't resist the opportunity, picked his paw up and clipped a second one. Then I let go again, let him scurry around the living room again, and got an idea.

A few months ago, I went to a seminar with a highly-regarded positive trainer, who discussed the use of negative reinforcement in training. Basically, this means removing something in order to reinforce a behavior continuing. The most commonly used example of this is the famous ear-pinch method of retreive training, where the handler stops pinching the dog's ear if the dog picks up the dumbbell. Which is certainly not a method I, or the people I have learned from, would ever condone. But, her point was negative reinforcement does not have to be aversive and painful or cruel. Her description of it was "pressure on/pressure off."

Shortly afterwards, I read a great article agreeing with this. It is true that punishment temporarily may alter a behavior, but reinforcement, both positive and negative, builds it. The article suggested training new agility dogs the teeter by having them put a paw on, then immediately allowing them to get off. Then build to putting two paws on, getting off, three paws on, getting off, etc. She found with dogs that were nervous about the teeter that this worked much faster than even luring with yummy treats. The dog was in control of the situation, and if they offered the behavior that was wanted, they got the reward of having the pressure released.

I tried this concept first with my puppy, Cadence. One of our favorite walks around our neighborhood involves a pedestrian crossing over a dam on the river. The dam has metal grating and the rushing of the water is rather loud underneath. Cade wasn't sure what to think the first time we encountered it, so I lured him across with cookies at his nose. Still, the second time we took the route, he was wary. So, if he stepped a paw on, I praised, turned around, and ran back off the dam with him. The next time he took a couple steps, and we turned around and celebrated off of the dam. With about four repititions over a few seconds, he marched across the whole dam like it was no big deal. Pressure on/pressure off: When he offered the behavior I wanted (stepping on the dam) it caused a small bit of stress due to his uncertainty. He was rewarded for his behavior though by having that stress relieved (getting off the dam). He figured out he was in control of the situation, and quickly overcame his hesitation after that.

So, yesterday I attempted a toe nail trimming session with Tristan in a new way. We weren't going to power through, hold him down and just get it over with. Instead, I took his paw, trimmed a nail, let go immediately while praising him and let him run his victory lap of the living room. He came right back to me and allowed another nail clip. I let go, and repeated the process. After finishing the first paw, I went about my business and let him be for a while. Later on, we did the second paw. I rapidly was able to build up doing multiple toes before he needed his "de-stress run" until the last paw where he stood calmly and let me trim each nail with no fuss whatsoever. Using the pressure on/pressure off method, I was able for the first time in seven years to trim his nails by myself, with no cursing or fighting whatsoever.

The whole experience made me think about being flexible in our training and paying attention to what the dog is telling you. I knew Tristan hated these wrestling matches, but it didn't occur to me that I possibly could have done it without restraint. It turned out the solution just involved me to re-think the problem and be creative in how I approached it. I wish I could claim that I had made a big training breakthrough, but once again I think it is a better example of Tristan shaping me. He has us all seriously outranked.

1 comment:

Kim said...

Great post, Angela. Congratulations on another example of the ever-deepening trust and respect between you and your T. And thank you for the reminder that our dogs have so much to teach us - if only we're open to the lessons.