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The nail trim power struggle
Dr. Lisa Radosta puts to rest a persistent myth surrounding an often-tricky veterinary task.
Q: I'm a technician with a new job. Recently when I asked the practice manager about the Fear-Free approach of giving treats before and during a nail trim, she emphatically said, “Oh no. We don't let the dog win.” She said technicians will reward the dog with a treat after a nail trim, but they don't ever give treats during the activity. Does the dog “win” the power struggle if we give him treats during a nail trim instead of after?
A: A nail trim is not a power struggle anymore than giving an infant a vaccine is a power struggle. You are delivering healthcare to an individual who can't understand you and who may perceive what you are doing as frightening and painful. Framing this interaction as a power struggle shows a basic misunderstanding of the stress/fight-or-flight response and learning theory.
When an animal is fearful, the body mounts a stress response, which tells the brain, in short, to shut down all critical thinking activity and tap into the reptilian part of the brain. That's the region that makes an animal (or a human, for that matter) fight for its life or run as fast as possible away from the scary situation. It takes something powerful to change that animal's mind, to take it from paralyzed to calm. For most animals, that “something” is food.
Now, the stress response is neurochemical and involuntary. In order to beat it, to make it stop and keep the animal calm, you should try to get ahead of it.
Take this example: My husband and I discuss all large purchases. My husband likes to purchase bikes, which I think are outrageously expensive. When he wants a new bike, he makes sure that I am very happy. Then, he springs it on me. By doing this, he has a much better chance of getting a “yes” to his bike purchase.
How does this apply to animals in the clinic? Before you cut the nails, take a lesson from my husband and set the mood. Make the animal nice and relaxed with treats, toys and gentle handling. Then, when you trim the nails, you're starting with a calm pet and not a fearful pet. You're not swimming against the neurochemical tide of the stress response. Because the fear-producing stimulus continues throughout the procedure, continue the food in an attempt to perpetuate the calm and relaxed state of mind.
Finally, if a veterinary team member must feel that she is “winning” when trimming the nails of the dog, let her feel that way. When you control an animal, keep your staff safe, make your clients happy and reduce worker's compensation claims by using food as it should be used for nail trims, you are winning. Everyone, in fact, is winning.
Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, is the owner of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, Florida. She has written a number of textbook chapters on veterinary behavior; she also writes a column for the Palm Beach Post and contributes continuing education podcasts to VetGirl.