Tough tasks can build trust

The pill you’re trying to give your outraged cat. The overdue hoof or nail trim. The drop-off at the boarding kennel.

The struggling, crying, kicking, flattened ears, and pleading eyes can leave us feeling incompetent. Or cruel.

My animal Reiki and animal communication practice is all about letting the animal choose, and of course that applies to the animals under my roof.

Yet there’s no escaping that some tasks aren’t optional.

“I’ve tried adding ‘because I said so’ to every command,” said Linda Lipp. “It works about as well on the dog as when my parents used it on me.”

Difficult tasks and events are opportunities to build our animals’ trust in us, our trust in the animals to learn and cope, and our trust in ourselves. From my experience and that of friends and clients, here are a few ways to do that.

Put your own leash on first

That’s a variation on the flight attendant’s instructions to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child with theirs. Get any help you need to give injections, clean ears, handle hooves, etc. with confidence. If you are calm and clear, your animal is much more likely to be.

Allison Wheaton, director of Summit Equestrian Center, tends a crew of some 20 horses, many of them rescues; along with barn cats, her canine assistants, and more. “Honestly, it seems everyone does better when I am calm and deliberate while being sensitive to their needs,” she said.

I would add: leave enough time to trim the nails, get the cat into the carrier, get to the clinic, or whatever else with time to spare. If you are rushed, they will feel it.

Keep the good in mind

While you’re calm and unrushed, tell the animal what’s happening and what’s in it for them. You can speak out loud or silently. In either case, hold an image or feeling of what will be better once it’s done. Shorter nails mean less chance of painful snags and infections. The dog will feel cooler and more comfortable after being groomed. The cat will be able to urinate without pain, and everyone in the household will feel less anxious, if she swallows that pill. The horse can comfortably stand and move about with his herdmates if he cooperates with the farrier.

If you are about to travel, picture your dog having fun with the sitter who loves him, or at the boarding kennel you’ve carefully chosen. Show him a picture of how happy and relaxed you all will be when you’re together again. If your grandchildren are visiting, reassure your cat that you’ll provide her a safe space away from the kids and daily one-on-one time with you. (Then follow through.)

Treat ’em right

Positive reinforcement helps the animal associate good things with what we want him or her to do.

Demi Thomas has found it helpful to integrate new and potentially challenging tasks such as nail trims into the animal’s routine until it’s not a big deal. Then she immediately rewards with high-value treats, toys, and “favorite itchy-spot pets.”

For example, her dog Tucker didn’t like having his feet touched when he was a pup. “So, if he wanted on the couch, I played with his feet. He’s 3 now and it’s no issue!”

Rebecca and Jeff Cameron’s dog, Stella, is even less of a fan.

“Out of sheer desperation one day, I held a paper plate smeared with peanut butter in front of her while Jeff clipped nails,” Rebecca said. “I feel like we took the low road with straight-up bribery, but we’re working on actual training so she’ll allow the trimming sans PB distraction.” Stella will still get a tasty treat once it’s done, she added.

Think partnership

As with the Let Animals Lead® animal Reiki method I practice, things can go much better when the animal is allowed some agency.

Duke, a rescued draft horse at Summit Equestrian, lives with post-traumatic stress. Having his feet worked on or handled in any way is a potentially dangerous trigger. Allison has worked with him extensively on this.

“Duke is willing to let me wash his legs as long as I use minimal restraints, when he has more participation and things are not being done to him,” she said. “Otherwise he can get nervous and tries to get away or squish me.”

Squishing — not good. Building trust and confidence — excellent.

Watch for a follow-up to all of this. Because of my pro bono work and the generosity of Fear Free®, I am getting certified through the Fear Free Shelter Program. Fear Free educates veterinary professionals, trainers, groomers, and others in animal care methods that reduce fear, anxiety, and stress. In the meantime, here — from the Fear Free Happy Homes Program — is a four-minute video on nail trims.

(Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay)

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