Now Switch! Prompting the Dog to Change Feet When Scratching a Nail Board

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.

Brown dog Summer getting ready to scratch a nail board with her right foot
My cue for right foot scratching at the top of the board: I’m tapping with the fingers of my right hand. She reaches across the board with her right paw towards that hand.
Brown dog Summer scratching a nail board with her left foot
My cue for left foot scratching at the bottom of the board: blocking the top by folding my arms. She has to scratch at the bottom and she automatically uses her left foot. 

Zani: Ummmmm

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.

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

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.

Brown dog Summer on her hind legs scratching the nail board
Summer is so intense about the nail board!

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson


6 thoughts on “Now Switch! Prompting the Dog to Change Feet When Scratching a Nail Board

    1. Oh yes, thanks for the reminder about Dr. Shoemaker. This is the closest thing I’ve found of hers that talks about it. She talks about cutting parallel to the quick rather than across it. The photos aren’t too great though.

      I’m still pondering the steps with Zani. Thanks for the info! I have a hunch the antecedent for getting different feet isn’t the hard part. It’s getting her to scratch harder in any circumstances. We shall see!

  1. After getting each foot up and running (no pun intended) I’d simply re-present the board with the cue for the individual foot you want. The dog learns to continue with that foot. It would be like training any behavior, the dog keeps on with that behavior until they are cued to perform another. There are likely all kinds of discriminations they could learn, if the board is a rectangle, when it’s held horizontally they scratch with one foot, when it’s held vertically, the other. You could put a clip on he board, e.g., top right or top left to act as the Sd.

    This is an example of how establishing very clear criteria for a dog can be challenging. There’s where they start the scratch, how long the scratch is, how many times they scratch, the angle of the paw when they scratch. We know we “could” train the dog for very precise types of scratches if we needed to, but we don’t usually need to, so we tend to reinforce all qualities of “scratch”. There are ways we could set up for each individually but of course we can’t separate where they scratch from how hard they scratch when we are reinforcing the location.

    As for getting the harder scratches for Zani you could let her scratch and reinforce for a tad longer and better, any scratch that is “harder” and as those increase in frequency put the lighter scratches on a thinner reinforcement schedule until the harder scratches become the new norm (and you keep a good rate of reinforcement up) and the light scratches are not reinforced, but not until the harder scratches can pick up the reinforcement slack (so to speak). And if you need even harder, you just keep watching for them and as they occur reinforce them really well, and repeat the process.

    Have fun!

    1. As for getting the harder scratches for Zani you could let her scratch and reinforce for a tad longer and better, any scratch that is “harder” and as those increase in frequency put the lighter scratches on a thinner reinforcement schedule until the harder scratches become the new norm

      Thank you! This addresses my biggest concern, which is keeping her in the game as I try for the harder scratches. She shuts down easily. So instead of cutting off the lighter scratches cold turkey (risking hurting her feelings **and** a getting reversion to switching), the thinner schedule makes sense.

      Regarding quality of scratches: Zani is the only one of my dogs who scratches a long portion of the board. I like that, but I don’t know if perhaps that is part of the lack of force on her part. I will be finding out, I guess.

      Thanks for the suggestions and thoughts! This is going to be a challenge in the counting and calculation department.

  2. Oh, and if the problem is that the dog is switching feet, the same process would apply as to the quality of the scratch. Put the “wrong” foot on a thinner reinforcement schedule if it’s still a significant part of the dog’s behavior, until the higher rate of the “right” foot does it’s matching law magic. I might consider if fatigue plays a role as far as foot switching. Or balance. I’ve had a dog get a nail filed down so much that they’ve reached the quick. That foot was finished for the day.

    1. Dang! That matching law can help in so many ways. (Nicer than the hindrance I usually allow it to be!).

      Even with using quite coarse paper, I think I’ve only gotten a dog close to the quick once. I don’t know if my sample is big enough for this theory, but I do think that for some dogs the mechanics don’t work out well. Cricket, my rat terrier, was 12 lbs but had these nails that were like thick concrete chunks coming out of her feet. It seemed like the ratio of her small size and thick hard nails made the scratch board suboptimal (and I don’t think I ever tried it). Summer is the one who comes the closest to quicking herself (but she is experienced enough at this point that she just starts scratching really lightly until I get the hint). Summer is 30 lbs with small feet for her size and delicate nails. Perfect candidate for the board.

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