Spike loves the water, like most labs do. He loves swimming. He loves lying in puddles. And he really loves swimming around in super muddy puddles. And for the first year of his life, he didn’t really mind taking baths.
But in the last few months, things have started to change. Now when I try to clean him, he aggressively backs away from the shower or garden hose.
Similarly, he now has no interest in getting his nails clipped. This used to also be easy — I'd lay him on his back in my lap in a “cradling” position and use a Dremel, or a small hand-held rotary tool that painlessly files off the end of the nail. (Yes, Dremel makes power tools for humans as well as a pet-friendly version.) Now, however, he sees the Dremel come out and backs away in fear.
This started happening late last fall when he went through a trying period of time. Within a couple of weeks, he was neutered, caught pneumonia, and had an ear infection. After all that poking and prodding by the veterinarian — and then me with all his medications and ear swabbings — he seems to have decided that he was done with further prodding.
While this is less than ideal for a normal pet, it’s not acceptable for a Canine Companions for Independence service dog, and it could be cause for him to be released from the program. As a future service dog, he will have to willingly let his partner do all these things with him. He can never back away or be fearful of his partner, even when they bring out whirling nail clippers. Spike's eventual owner has to be able to do all the grooming himself or herself, to avoid the financial burden of being forced to pay for professional grooming services.
We went to a Canine Companion training class this week and instructor Liz Vacchiano met with us to discuss Spike’s issues. She started handling, and trying to pick up Spike's feet wit the Dremel in-hand, and he started backing away from her like he did with me. So she got out her secret weapon: an all natural squeeze-pouch of chicken-flavored (human) baby food, or some other flavor of fruit or veggie baby food that now conveniently come in a squeezy bag.
She suggested we use this extra tasty treat to entice him when grooming. (And if his favorite food doesn’t already come in a squeezy pouch, she suggested be put some in a travel squeeze bottle.) This way, Spike can continuously lick it and (ideally) continuously be distracted from the nail clippings or dog washing or ear cleaning that is otherwise going on. And we’ll only use this secret weapon while grooming, so he'll have a positive association with grooming and yummy chicken.
She also suggested that we put the nail clippers or Dremel next to his greatest source of joy — a bowl of food — so he associates the grooming devices with a good thing.
So now I have a plan. Spike and I will need to start over with nail clipping. She suggested not cradling him at first, since he has a bad association with that. Every day, I’ll touch his paws while squeezing out the yummy baby food. After a few days, I apply pressure to each of his toes, and hold them for longer periods of time. Once he’s comfortable enough with me holding his paws and toes for a long time while he's eating his tasty chicken baby food, we’ll start slowly filing his nails. And if at any point he’s resistant, we’ll back up a step until he’s completely comfortable with the whole process.
We’ll do the same with bathing, by luring him into the bath with the delicious secret weapon, until he’s practically jumping into the bathtub at just the sight of that chicken baby food.
Wish us luck!
To learn more about Canine Companions for Independence, visit CCI.org.