I’ve been using a nail board (custom-made by Bob Rogers–thanks Bob and Marge!) with all three of my dogs for a few years now. I use it as an adjunct to trimming and Dremeling, and the dogs enjoy getting part of the kibble in exchange for scratching.
This isn’t a how-to post; it’s mostly another “Do as I say, not as I do,” post. In other words, I’m going to tell you about a mistake I made. But I’m also going to work to rectify it. I’ll post about that later. (Here’s a good video by Kevin Duggan if you want to know how to get started using a nail board.)
I’ll tell you about a couple of things that worked, too.
The Board and Techniques
I use a staple gun to attach 60-grade sandpaper (very coarse) to the board because all my dogs have hard nails and have become experienced scratchers. They all learned early on to extend their nails to protect their pads. I started them on a finer grit though, and that’s what I would recommend when starting out. You can move them gradually to the coarsest grade necessary. I replace the sandpaper whenever it starts to wear down, usually every couple of months.
My final goal is to have very short nails on all my dogs. I follow the “alternate cut line” technique demonstrated and promoted by Susan Garrett, Dr. Leslie Woodcock, and others. (Check out the Facebook group “Nail Maintenance for Dogs” for more info.) The board itself doesn’t take off the part of the nail that needs to come off with the “alternate cut,” but it’s a great adjunct. For Clara, I use a Dremel to do the “alternate cut line” (take more off the top of the nail). That leaves a bit of a point at the bottom of the nail. She can scratch off the point and some more of the middle of the nail using the board the next day or so. Progress! The other dogs are next in line for this Dremel + nail board system. I find I do better if I work with one dog at a time on slow-moving processes like this.
Training the Dogs To Use the Board
When I first started my dogs with the nail board, I went about training them in a sloppy way. I didn’t know if I was going to use it seriously so I just messed around with it. And I was not thinking at all about one crucial item: how to get them to switch feet. I just assumed it would “work out.” Even though it seemed to at first, Zani showed that assumption to be erroneous. (Not her fault. I’m the one who didn’t make a plan…)
Think about the challenge. If you just stop reinforcing one foot, how long will it take for the dog to try the other? Do you need two different cues? What happens if they prefer using one over the other? How do you make things come out even? Would there be an easy way to be systematic about it?
My sloppy training and lack of planning were “good enough” for two of my dogs. But not for Zani. She finally forced me to grow up and think like a real trainer.
I’ll describe the two methods that worked out for Clara and Summer, then tell what happened with Zani.
Clara: Switching Feet as a Result of Treat Placement
Marge taught me this trick. If you toss the treat laterally after the dog scratches, the dog will usually come back and scratch with the foot that is leading as they turn back towards the board. (It will make more sense when you watch it in the movie.) So you can get the dog to switch feet with treat placement. It’s a tendency, not a rule, but it turns out that Clara is almost 100% consistent. So my reinforcement placement is an antecedent arrangement that lets me affect which foot she will use next.
Summer: An Idiosyncratic Solution
Leave it to Summer. Summer and I have actually worked out strange, separate cues for her left and right foot. This is because she scratches differently with each one. When she scratches with her left foot, she does it the normal way. She stands on the ground and scratches on the bottom part of the board. But sometime along the way, she started standing on her hind legs and scratching with her right foot at the top of the board. I think she may have been trying to get closer to my treat cache. But I realized a stroke of luck when I saw it. I have reinforced these different behaviors and created cues.
If I want her to scratch with her right foot, I tap the top of the board to get her started and I treat her in position. When I want her to scratch with her left foot, I fold my arms over the top of the board. She can’t scratch at the top so she scratches at the bottom with her left foot. I toss the treat to reset. Yay, Summer! My friend Judith Beam pointed out to me once that scratching a propped up nail board takes some core strength. I think Summer’s version for her right foot may take some strength for sure, so I’m careful not to ask her to do it too long.
When Zani first started scratching the nail board, I was thrilled because she switched her feet back and forth right from the start. Rather than going left, left, left, left, she went left, right, left, right.
This sounds great, right? (It was also super cute.) But there is a problem. Zani has hard nails and doesn’t scratch firmly. Bad combination. I needed to reinforce harder scratches. But when trying to selectively reinforce harder scratches, I utterly confused her. Soft left, soft left, soft left (no reinforcements for any of those), hard right TREAT! So….did I reinforce the harder scratch or the right foot scratch? Since she is continuing after all this time to switch, and not scratching any harder in general, I think we can deduce what has been reinforced: switching.
She doesn’t respond in a consistent way to the treat-throwing trick. Trying different board positions doesn’t get me a firmer scratch. So I think to fix it I’ll have to start over. More on that below.
The “Digging” Method
Some dogs go after the board as if they are digging a hole and use both feet in flurries of scratching. This could probably work for getting the nails done evenly but none of my dogs has been inclined to do it that way. I think it may work better with the board flat on the ground and finer sandpaper than I use.
So Not a Pro
This lack of foresight on my part is one of the things that marks me as an amateur trainer. Between being serious about their profession and working with lots of dogs, professionals learn to foresee these types of problems. “Where is this behavior pattern going to lead us?” They have a better sense of what order in which to do things.
But maybe by putting this out there I’ll save another lazy trainer like me from this particular problem. And perhaps writing it down will help generalize my own lesson and help me think through the next training challenge better.
I do know that I am motivated to fix a problem when I make a plan in public. So here goes. I’m going to tackle this and will be sharing more. Stay tuned.
What about you? Any nail board users out there? How do you get your dogs to switch feet? Anybody teach their dogs to scratch with their hind feet? I have seen some elegant methods for that but I haven’t tried them with my dogs.
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- If You’re Loving It, Why Leave? (nail trims)
- See My Successes, See My Failures (picking dog up)
- Let Rats Decide (handling)
- How to Give Your Dog a Pill: Several Methods
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson