Maintenance Mode: Desensitizing Your Dog to General Care
I discovered this trick by accident. Kimber, my now three-year-old springer spaniel, was one of the silliest puppies I had ever seen. She had high energy and a matching personality. As Kimber is a hunting breed, and she would be out in the sticks quite frequently, I had to find a way to be able to perform daily maintenance on my dog that was fear, stress, and anxiety free. For both of us.
Kimber at About Eight Weeks Old
I needed to be able to trim her nails, trim the hair between her toes, pick hound’s tongue, cockleburs and weed seeds out of her fur and skin, shave her entire body at home, trim mats, clean her ears and brush her teeth. When we first got Kimber, she had a urinary tract infection and one of the many things that predisposed her was the extra long hairs that grew around her vulva, I would need trim those regularly as well. It was important that Kimber be still during all these tasks. Grooming injuries are commonly caused by owners and 100% avoidable.
Kimber Sleeping on My Lap at About Ten Weeks Old
We brought Kimber home when she was only eight weeks old and I knew that I would be working with and handling her paws quite frequently. So, I started desensitizing her paws while she was small enough to lie on her back on my lap and she was asleep. I would (not aggressively, but boldly) rub her paws between the toes and pads; I would play with her toenails as well. I kind of started giving her a puppy massage after a while. I tried to desensitize her armpits (axillary regions) and panty line areas (inguinal spaces) by making sure that she got a rub down in these areas routinely.
The More Advanced: Reverse Maintenance Mode
After a few weeks of doing this with Kimber, she was totally desensitized. I could handle her paws, trim her hair and check between her toes for weed seeds. The only thing was when I would get home from work, Kimber was so small that I would sit on the kitchen floor and greet her. She would walk up between my legs, lie down and roll over onto her back. Her head would be in my lap and we would do our “desensitization stuff”. This is how "maintenance mode" was born.
Whenever I need to perform any maintenance on Kimber, I sit in the same spot on the kitchen floor, she lies down between my legs, I gently flip her onto her back and support her with my legs on either of her sides. This positioning isn’t for everyone, I’m working on the floor with my dog, bent over her the entire time. If your pet is already reactive to you handling these sensitive areas, putting them onto their back and doing something super weird that you’ve never done before can be stressful for the dog and you. I recommend practicing desensitization training just to having their feet handled, not necessarily on their backs. Once your dog’s feet and sensitive areas can be worked with, you can start trimming nails and other mild maintenance tasks while they are relaxing on the floor anywhere.
Beginning desensitization training with a puppy, as I did with Kimber, can save you and your dog a lot of time, energy and frustration in the future. Your pet's veterinary and grooming teams will also be very thankful.
At some animal grooming facilities, there are extra charges for aggression or extra time that the team has to spend with your animal in order to desensitize them in a short period of time (which also never sticks, we're talking like a few minutes just so the dog can get groomed). In another scenario, if you bring your dog to the veterinarian for a nail trim, whether they are able to trim your dog's nails or not due to their cooperation, you are going to be charged for a nail trim. This "minor" visit is going to cost you upwards of $20 and as I said, you are going to pay for a professional's time no matter what, so you could be down $20 and still have an animal with untrimmed nails, not to mention the gas it took to go to the vet hospital, and the cost of the time that you could have been doing something else.
You can save yourself a bit of money by owning a dog that is comfortable with maintenance and minor procedures being performed on them. The last thing anyone wants is for an animal to be so scared, stressed and anxious that they feel they have to resort to biting. This can lead to staff being injured and your dog getting into trouble. It's not all about the money, but that's going to cost you as well.
I do not recommend maintenance mode for animals with high anxiety, fearfulness or stress already. I also do not recommend maintenance mode for animals with any sort of osteoarthritis, lying on their back can be uncomfortable. If you can morph maintenance mode into your own version of the pet lying on their side or calmly sitting up, then go for it! That may be what is easiest and best for you.
Because I desensitized Kimber so that I could handle any part of her body in order to take care of her, she tolerates almost any procedure without fear, anxiety or stress. Not only is Kimber calm, but so am I. Performing maintenance on Kimber isn’t a fiasco, a huge event and she’s not scared of me or any of the tools that I use on her such as nail trimmers, grooming tools or hand scalers.
We covered a lot of scenarios here but I've seen all of them. Whether you just purchased a new puppy or adopted a senior dog from the shelter (good for you by the way!) every dog can be taught new tricks and this is one of the easy ones.
I recommend desensitization training (at least for nail trims) to all dogs. It is easy to do when your dog is young so it’s just another reason to play with your puppy! If you dedicate time to taking care of your dog’s maintenance daily, you and your dog will be thankful.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.