I took Cholula to Vermont for two days to work with natural dog training founder Kevin Behan. It was a tremendous experience, and I hope to put up several posts about it, but instead of describing the work Kevin did with us chronologically, I thought I’d start with something that happened right towards the end of our second day’s session—because it was so dramatic, because it so beautifully illustrates Kevin’s brilliance at using a dog’s energy to produce incredibly positive behavioral changes, and also because it’s the one thing I captured on video.
Cholula has extremely long nails that sit up high on her paws. When Kevin was working with Cholula, he noticed that she was very sensitive about her nails, and he asked me how she was about getting her nails trimmed. As I told him, the two times I’d had her nails trimmed rank among the worst experiences of our year together—only behind her attack of a little dog.
The first time, I took her to a Petco. The 300-pound groomer that day confidently got Cholula up on the table, slipped a collar over her neck to hold her there, got her in something of a headlock, and, joking about her lion paws, clipped one of her nails. He clipped too high, the nail bled, and Cholula went nuts, yanking her paw from his hands, whipping her head back and forth, and wrestling herself away from him so that it was impossible to hold her still. He called a young woman over to help and as the two of them attempted to hold her down, he tried to continue clipping. Cholula writhed like a wild beast, so violently that that the blood from her nails was flying across the table and over the floor, and the groomer was sweating and swearing and repeating, “This dog is strong, man this dog is strong.” She fought him like a wild animal. I was terrified that she was going to bite him or that all of the work I’d done to get her to trust me was going to be erased by the horror, and called it off before all of her nails had been trimmed.
After that, I basically decided to just never trim her nails again—they ride so high on her paws that even though they are startlingly long—in truth, they do look like a lion’s nails—they don’t tend to scratch against or even touch the floor when she walks. But when I took her to the vet, the vet recommended trimming them because she said that sometimes when a dog’s nails are that long, one will rip while she’s out running, and that can cause serious problems. I said okay. This time two young women techs were there, as well as me. They asked me to hold her head and another one of them held her head too, while the third worked at clipping her nails. They were comparatively gentle and skilled—none of the nails that were clipped bled. This time, however, Cholula sank way into her passivity panic mode until she couldn’t take it any more and suddenly whipped her head around so fast it flew out of my hands and she nipped one of the techs. The tech pulled back, unhurt, but still—Cholula is not a dog who is ever aggressive to people, that is not her problem—but the panic over nail clipping caused her to attack. Again, I left hoping that I would never have to have her nails trimmed again.
Once Kevin had affirmed with me that Cholula was very sensitive with her nails, he purposefully aggravated her at times by pulling and squeezing on her feet. While he wasn’t doing anything rough enough to actually hurt her, she often squealed when he did that, as if he was hurting her. I didn’t know what to make of it; Kevin’s interpretation was that when he squeezed her nails she was actually feeling the painful clipping again, the one that drew blood.
At the end of our second session, Kevin asked me if I wanted him to tackle the nail trimming. I said yes, of course. So Kevin took Cholula over to a high rock wall, and with her head in a high collar—a choke collar pulled forward on her head so that it tightens just behind her ears and around her jaw, he pulled her up as if trying to pull her up the wall. Although it was a wall that she should be able to jump up if she wanted, she struggled mightily, pushing and clawing at it with her paws, at one point, swinging all the way around as she hung by her collar so that her back was momentarily to the wall and then, when her paws swung back against it, she struggled even harder to claw her way to the top.
Later, Kevin explained that he was simultaneously pulling her up along the wall so that she saw reaching the top of the wall as her salvation, but at the same time he was holding her back so that she couldn’t easily climb the wall and had to fight with all of her might to get up there. Of course, as with all of natural dog training’s corrections, he said nothing as he manipulated her against the wall so that she didn’t attribute any of the difficulty to him—it was just a situation she was in—a wall she had to climb, that she couldn’t climb, that she fought to climb against an unknown resistance, and eventually succeeded. When finally, after, I don’t know, 20, 30, 40 seconds? Of struggle, he let her get onto the wall, she stood there triumphant, and he stroked and praised her, increasing the thrill of her triumph.
And then, this was the amazing part—he picked up one of her forepaws and started to clip her nails. And she sat there, panting from the climb, and let him clip them. I swear, there was a smile on her face. No one else was touching her, no one was holding her head still—in fact, no part of her body was being touched, except the paw that Kevin was holding in order to trim the nails. Not only was Cholula not panicking, not fighting, not biting, she actively looked happy as he clipped away. I would not have believed that this could possibly be her experience of nail clipping if I wasn’t seeing it unfold.
Unfortunately, the first time Kevin did this, he hadn’t fully explained to me how the process was going to work, and I didn’t understand that the fight to get up the wall was the fight, was the intense part of the process—I was waiting to see what he did with the nail clipping to begin filming, and since all he did was clip her nails as she calmly sat there, that part was completely anti-climactic. But as he clipped, he noticed a slight panic start to build, and so he did it a second time—more briefly and not as intense, but the same process—before continuing with the nail clipping. I did film most of that, and I’m posting it below.
Why, why don’t more vets and Petco dog nail trimmers use this method? Cholula can’t be the only dog that panics over the trimming of the nails, and while the experience was certainly infinitely preferable to me and Cholula than our other two nail trimming experiences, I really believe such an experience would also be preferable to the 300 pound guy at Petco and the women techs in the vet’s office.
Cholula was empowered by Kevin’s nail trimming—he suggested that she now associates the trimming of her nails with the triumph of scaling the walls and that he has replaced an extremely negative association with an extremely positive one. I don’t know if it will hold forever, but I do know that when I bug her paws like he did during our training sessions, she no longer flinches—her paws just do not seem sensitive like they used to. Since I don’t think I’ll be back in Vermont any time soon, I’m planning to get a nail trimmer and trim her nails myself next time—near a wall for her to scale, in case she needs it.
Here is the link to the video: Kevin Behan trims Cholula\’s nails