Updated: Apr 28
When I was a kid, I had a friend that would push my head underwater and hold me there, flailing, for a few seconds until allowing me to resurface. This happened virtually every time we went swimming together. They always got a big kick out of it, laughing at my panic. Naturally, I learned to keep some distance between us in the water.
It's one of those memories that sticks with me, as it is one of the few times I have experienced true fear. Like many people, I have a fear of drowning, whether or not it's because of my friend's juvenile antics, I don't know. Whenever I think about those moments, I can't help but imagine my lungs filling up with water, trying to take a breath and being unable to. Helpless is the best word I have for it.
It may seem far fetched, but this is exactly how most dogs feel when we restrain them. It doesn't matter if it's for a blood draw, a bath, or a simple toe nail clip. All of our dogs carry traits that helped their ancestors to survive and reproduce. One of those traits is a strong aversion to restraint.
Think about it, in what situation does being restrained benefit any animal in the wild? Restraint means you have been caught and that injury or death are soon to follow. Avoiding restraint, on the other hand, means living another day, and getting the chance to pass on your genes.
Sadly we cannot reason with our dogs. What we're doing is good for you, so suck it up. There is no override switch for us to hit in the middle of our dog's frightened thrashing. There are, luckily, two ways to address this problem.
The first is to get your puppy accustomed to being handled. From an early age, be sure to pair that handling with positive things - like treats, toys and attention.
Most of us are not in that boat, however. Many of us have fearful, adult dogs who have been repeatedly traumatized by having basic husbandry performed at the veterinary office. Our dogs are regularly subjected to being held down against their will, while something is done to their bodies without their consent.
Our dogs are not "being stubborn" when they put the brakes on as we approach the clinic. They have every right to avoid going through that door. To them, their survival may depend on it. Could you imagine thinking that your doctor was literally going to kill you every time you went to see them?
So what are we to do? The answer is training. Make a fresh start with a new implement. Since I'm mostly talking about clipping nails here, we'll use a dremel for this example. Get yourself a shiny new dremel. Take it out, let your dog see it, and then make delicious treats rain from the sky. This is the first step of many.
At the same time, you would be slowly and incrementally helping your dog feel better about being touched. Start off somewhere non-stressful, such as her shoulder. Each touch will be paired with her favorite goodie.
Though it is beyond the scope of this particular blog post, if you're interested in learning the entire process of changing your dog's emotional reaction to having her nail's trimmed, please visit Nailed it!.
The point is, all this restraint business is damn scary for our dogs. It is unfair to put them through this on a semi-regular basis, especially when we can improve things through training.
For years of her life, my dog had to be carted off to the vet to have her nails trimmed. Naturally, I would wait as long as possible between appointments, allowing her nails to grow much longer than I would have otherwise.
Once we got to the clinic, her pupils would dilate and she would begin to salivate excessively. Multiple techs would hold her down as she screamed. Her attempts to escape often meant that she would be quicked in the process, adding pain to her fear. I would tear up watching all of this unfold.
Happily, that is no longer our reality. Nail trims are now a ho-hum part of our weekly schedule. All I need are 5 minutes and some tripe. From there, we have moved onto ear cleaning, tooth brushing and plenty of other things that have thankfully become routine.
It may sound impossible, but this is a gift we can all give our dogs. All it takes is treats, time and patience.
PS. If you're worried about giving your dog too much food in the name of training, take steps to avoid any concerns you may have - use small treats, let them replace part or all of a meal and make sure they're healthy!