Thursday, February 19, 2009

Old Dog, New Trick

When we adopted Lexi at four months, she had only two bad habits: she liked to dig holes, and she disliked having her feet touched. She got over the first habit in short order. The second turned into a decade-long saga.

Determined that Lexi would become the perfect dog, I worked hard and long to get her to let me cut her nails, and eventually she did. This golden era lasted about three minutes, until I nicked the quick of one nail. There was much bleeding and yowling on her part and apologizing and propitiating with treats on mine.

After that, she didn't even want to see the clippers, much less let me near her with them. But long nails can lead to foot deformities, not to mention deformed floors, so I had to train her all over again. It took me weeks, but one day she let me clip her nails. And yes, I nicked her again. This time there was blood everywhere—me, the walls, the floor. I had to put her in her crate to contain the flood. When the bleeding finally stopped, Lexi and I were still shaking.

After that I couldn't stand the sight of the clippers any more than she could. I went to the hardware store and bought a wall scraper—a flat contraption with a handle onto which you snap a piece of sandpaper. And that is what I used to file Lexi's nails for the next ten years.

The process was fraught with anxiety for her and irritation for me. It was slow and tedious, and left me covered in nail dust and sand. She wiggled and squirmed and complained and I praised and scolded and offered treats. We both hated it, so it didn't get done as often as it should have.

When Wolfie came along I realized that life is too short to file 36 dog nails every couple of weeks, so from earliest puppyhood I clipped a tiny bit off his nails every week. As a result, he is quite mellow about the process, and his attitude has helped Lexi loosen up about the filing.

A couple of weeks ago, I had finished clipping Wolfie's nails and had Lexi in filing position. I was thinking about something else, and before I knew it I had clipped one of her nails! When she realized what I had done she let out an ex post facto yelp, and I had to use the file on the other 17 toes, but the germ of an idea had formed in my mind.

Today was nail day again. I did Wolfie first, then Lexi rolled over for me and I gave her a treat and while she was munching I clipped one nail. She protested, but I clipped another one, and gave her another treat. I had meant to end things on a high note and almost reached for the file, but something made me continue. Two more nails and one paw was done. Another treat. Did I dare do the other paw? Clip, clip, clip, clip, and it was finished. But I knew she would never let me do her delicate, her sensitive, her impossible back feet. I handed her a biscuit and grabbed a back foot. Clip, clip, clip...could this be happening? I grabbed the other foot--clip, clip—and then there were no more nails to clip. It had all taken less than two minutes!

Now I'm wondering, has she been putting me on all these years, exploiting my guilt and my nervousness? Or was she truly terrified of the clippers, and if so, what happened to change her mind? Was it the brand of biscuits I gave her today? They weren't anything special, but I had just opened a new box....

Who can fathom Lexi's mind? This is not the only trick she has “learned” in her old age. For years I thought she couldn't retrieve, wasn't of a retrieving breed, shouldn't be expected to retrieve. And then we got Wolfie, who loves to retrieve, and suddenly Lexi is a perfectly competent retriever. Does this mean that if I brought home a Border Collie Lexi would learn to herd sheep? If she was in competition with a Pointer, would she point? If she was jealous of a coon hound would she tree coons? I have no idea. But I won't be surprised if she still has a few tricks up her hairy old sleeve.


9 comments :

  1. I did that to Dara's nails early on, too. Now I let the vet do it (I can bring her in for free anytime for a nail clipping). I'm terrified.

    Maybe it's all about being part of a pack. Do as the romans (or the retrievers) do...

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  2. Gosh, you have such a generous vet. I didn't know anybody clipped nails for free. Around here they charge $15-20. I was told by a vet once that they (accidentally) nip the quick all the time, and that some dogs have to be sedated. So thank your lucky stars!

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  3. One of the first things I bought in my new puppy nesting stage was a little jar of styptic powder. I've never had to use it (Mika's nails are translucent) but I always keep it close by at nail time. It's a talisman: fate can not harm me as long as I have styptic powder.

    I've been doing Mika's nails since she was a puppy and though I've never nicked the quick she hates having her nails clipped and wriggles and fusses and has to be stuffed with carrots by Tom while I do the deed...

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  4. No dogs here, but our cats are pretty good about getting their nails clipped. My mom's cat, on the other hand, will rip your fingers off if you come near her with a clipper. I'm not sure how she cuts that cat's nails.

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  5. Tasha was terrified of thunderstorms. Every boom of thunder made her quivering heap of jelly. We had to sedate her every 4th of July (lots of people shooting off fireworks and firecrackers in the neighborhood).

    Then we dog-sat a neighbor's dog, who was like Tasha but in a black coat. A male named Chip. That evening we had a thunderstorm, and Chip was utterly unperturbed. Tasha kept looking at him in amazement, then her shivers abated, and while you couldn't call her completely comfortable, she was certainly very calm, even as the thunder rolled on.

    And she kept that calm for the next few storms, even in Chip's absence. So I guess dogs can say, "Hey, you don't need to be all upset by this [thunder][nail-clipping] business. It's easy, watch me!"

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  6. Elizabeth, I too have the styptic talisman--but it's in the goat house, for when I clip the goats' hooves. What a sweetie Mika is, to let you feed her carrots as treats!

    Dona, clipping a cat's nails has got to be the ultimate groomer's art! Did you start on your cats when they were very young? I've heard that clipping their nails is the only way to keep them from tearing up the furniture.

    Craig, that thunderstorm story is amazing. What does it tell us about dogs' self-concept, and the ability to empathize? From now on I'll make sure Lexi is watching while I do Wolfie's nails.

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  7. hmmmm. i have never trimmed the boys' nails. they wear down pretty well walking on the sidewalks, i think. we tried to trim riley's once, but you can well imagine he wouldn't have any part of it. but their nails don't seem to be all that long.

    i love the thunderstorm story, but in our household of course it worked the opposite way. riley is terrified of storms, boscoe never has been, but seeing riley panic has transmitted over to bosoce and now they both have fears.

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  8. Indigo Bunting sent me to this post!

    I did some of my cat Alfie's nails yesterday. She didn't put up too much of a fuss. 22 nails and I've only done four so far!

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  9. Laurie, sidewalks do wonders for dog nails--by far the easiest and most pleasant way to keep them short.

    Hi Deloney, I think that doing just a few nails at a time and quitting before the animal freaks out is a good idea. But I've never tried clipping a cat!

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