|Ahh... the wind in my ears...|
Once upon a time, Elli was fine with her nails being clipped. Then I ruined it. Ever since then, she's had a fear the size of Texas. And I spent 2 months trying to condition her out of it. It didn't work. And I couldn't understand why. I would progress some, and then she'd turn into a puddle: a trembling little puddle of fear and avoidance. I would dial it back a bit, continuing where there had been progress before, even if it was only a paw lift as my criterion. But even that caused the shaking, look-aways, constant tongue flicks and licks, and the half-moon whites in her eyes. So I'd move to reaching for her paw. I utilized everything I was taught about splitting behaviors by a hair... but I forgot the most important part: ABC.
Elli is a marvelous dog, but she is unforgiving of slow training. This showed up in heaps during KPA. Other in-training trainers would work with her and be surprised at how after a click, she would demand speed in the delivery of her earned treat. Most of the people liked to dispense food out of their bait bags. Elli hated this. It took too long. I dispensed food directly out of my hand. I didn't hold the food in my clicker hand and deliver with the opposite hand, either. That, too, would take far too long for her.
Elli never showed any lack of stimulus control of any of her behaviors after a click (she wouldn't spin, get a click, then spin, and spin, and bark, for instance, until she received her food). She would, however, jump on a lap if someone was taking too long (digging in their bait bag) to deliver the food. I was the only one who managed to adapt to this style. I was complimented on my mechanics a million times over. And Elli was revered. The reason we succeeded as a team was because I was quick to mark her behavior, and I was quick to deliver her reward. We were the ABC dream team.
During all this counter conditioning with the nail clipping, I would clip a nail, and retrieve food from a bowl or other container (which took one or two seconds) then she'd receive it. For most dogs, there is a three second safety because of the clicker. I wasn't using a clicker, per say, but used the sound the clippers made when the nail was cut. Either way, one or two seconds was too slow for Elli. She didn't bridge the clipping (disliked) with the food (liked). No learning could occur. No positive relationship between the two was established in her mind. In order for counter-conditioning to succeed, the disliked thing must be paired with something pleasant. She was getting food, I figured that was enough. She even knew she'd get food, I never hid it from her; that wasn't the problem. It became so bad that I could reach for the clippers, pull her into my lap, and she'd erupt into a shaking, panting mess. Even worse was that if something gave a snapping noise similar to the sound a guillotine clipper makes when cutting through a nail, she'd jump off the bed and cower in the corner. Giving up on counter conditioning wasn't the answer. I knew that it had to work. But I was despondent.
About a month ago, I decided to nix the lay-on-your-back, let-me-touch-your-paws thing. I abandoned clipping on the bed. I abandoned the use of canned food, one of her higher value rewards. I considered using her ball, but shuddered to think that I might poison that reward fairly quickly. I allowed Elli to stand on the ground. I presented a bowl of peanut butter in front of her. She was released to eat it. I retrieved the clippers, lifted one of her paws. She'd stop eating: she knew what was coming. I'd clip the nail (a "Get It" cue was also given at the exact moment the clip happened), immediately (within half a second), she'd be back to eating. Again. Lift paw, stop eating, clip/get it, eat. Lift paw, stop eating, clip/get it, eat.
Over the weekend, I went through the process again. We had successfully done this new process twice now. I hadn't ever clipped every single one of her nails before - it was no longer my goal to clip as many as possible because it needed to be done and it'll be over in a few minutes. The most amazing thing happened...
I retrieved the clippers and presented Elli with some leftover stir fry of mine. She was released to eat. I lifted a paw, she stopped eating, clip, eat. Then I picked up a different paw... and Elli kept eating. Clip, continued eating. It only happened once, but damn me if I didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. I only clipped one paw that night, but I was absolutely reeling.
Timing is so crucial to training, but even more so to counter-conditioning and behavior modification.
Elli is a stellar learner. Her human, however, was dumb as a box of rocks for forgetting her roots.
No matter what kind of training you do, never forget your ABCs.