Hank's Nail Trimming journey

Hank's Nail Trimming journey

January 29, 2024

Hank hated Nail Trimming


See a video of Hank getting his nails trimmed nowadays below

I adopted my boy Hank at 13 months of age and when I presented the nail clipper to him the first time, he air snapped at it and remained in a defensive position until I removed it. He was on edge for the rest of the day. Obviously I was prepared to take it easy with the nail trimming process as I didn’t know what he was like with it, but I simply had not anticipated that he would have such negative prior associations with a nail clipper that its sight on 2 metres distance would elicit such an intense fear response. Hank's nails were quite long, to the extent that they were pushing up the knuckles on his paws when walking, so I really needed to get to the point of being able to clip them as quickly as possible.

I utilised what's called systematic desensitisation. We started with creating a grooming station which was a specific blanket on a specific spot in the house. Hank learned to settle on that blanket and we worked on handling paws and nails without nail clippers present. Hank was fine having the top of his paw touched, but not having his paw grabbed, so over the course of a few sessions through desensitisation and counter conditioning we worked our way up from touching the top of his paw to touching the bottom to grabbing and lifting. Once I could do that with one hand I started introducing the second hand and started gradually working on separating his toes, touching the nails and what interestingly required a lot of small approximations: staring at the toes. The added attention was initially triggering for him.

Parallel to these exercises taking place I would a few times a day get a helper to help work on the presentation of the nail clipper. Initially they would present it all the way across the room and when Hank would notice it I would mark and reward. We continued this counter conditioning process with a helper gradually reducing distance until we were at the 2 metre mark from which I was able to continue working by myself.

Once I was able to have the nail clipper near Hank (including while squeezing the handle and making that cutting sound), I started leaving it laying on the ground next to us while we were doing our paw handling exercises on the grooming station. I was now using a metal teaspoon to approach his nails with and eventually touch as well. Once I was satisfied with the extent of duration and handling intensity that Hank was happy with I started to work on picking up the nail clipper during our sessions; initially just by 1cm and for a second and then gradually for longer and higher.

I actually also got some pasta and started cutting the pasta to recreate the actual cutting sound which I was eventually able to do right next to his nails. Now I started to work my way towards touching his nails with the nail clipper, recreating the cutting sound and also gently closing the clipper on his nails without cutting. We would go through lots of fake nail trims before eventually doing one little trim which was clearly a slightly uncomfortable experience for Hank, so we finished with a massive jackpot treat scatter straight after.

Over the course of a few more sessions of plenty of fake trims before one tiny real one followed by a treat scatter to finish the session, Hank became more comfortable with the physical sensation he experienced when the actual trim happened. It is important to point out that from not trimming to trimming, there weren’t any more approximations to keep the experience entirely below threshold, so that part wasn’t perfect systematic desensitisation, but the counter conditioning angle helped overcome this.

After about a month, once Hank was physically comfortable having a nail trimmed, we were able to work our way up to bigger trims and also eventually more per session. Because Hank always got a treat after every trim, he actually started to treat the sound of the nail clipping as a reward marker and will perk up and look for a treat every time he hears it.

After a few months, Hank got to the point of running enthusiastically to the grooming station as soon as the nail clipper is presented and at least for his front paws presenting them voluntarily into my hand rather than having me pick them up. The grooming station has changed over the years and we can do it on any couch or blanket.