Q I believe people should adopt because there are so many babies that would love a good home. When you adopt, you get a wonderful family member, but sometimes you also get problems created by previous owners. I have rescued four boxers. When our girl Zoey died last October at 19 years old, my husband and other little girl boxer were so sad that we decided to see what the humane society had to offer. We adopted the saddest American bulldog I had ever seen. Whoever dropped her at the shelter was very mean to her. They even pierced her front elbows; you can still see the holes. I am writing to you because she gets really scared when we try to clean her backside (she gets poop stuck there) and won't let us trim her nails. She gets very upset and tries to bite me. How can we help her understand we mean her no harm? We want her to know we love her.
— Hilary, South Jordan, Utah
A I am sure she knows you love her and mean her no harm. But if she had been traumatized before coming to live with you, it is going to take time for her to learn to trust again. Dogs don't understand intentions; they understand experiences. The only way to address her fears is to make sure her positive experiences outweigh her past negative experiences. You can do this by desensitizing her negative experiences one step at a time.
To begin, start with the first trigger that upsets her. With the nails, it will likely be seeing the nail clipper. She probably freaks out almost immediately. So, pull out the nail clipper and sit it on a chair, table or floor where she can see it. Talk to her sweetly and give her a few treats or a little peanut butter on her paw to lick off as a distraction. When she relaxes, sit with her for a few minutes and then put the nail clipper away. Repeat this over and over again until she doesn't react to seeing it anymore.
Once that happens, move on to the next trigger, which might be you holding the nail clipper in your hands. Repeat the process above. Then touch her paw with the nail clipper on the side or top of her paw. Repeat the process above. Then touch her toe with the nail clipper. Repeat the process above. Then touch her toe like you are going to cut the nail, but don't. Repeat the process.
When you feel she is ready, cut one nail, then give her a treat and walk away. When she's ready, cut the nails on just one paw, and so forth. I think you get the idea. This can take weeks to accomplish, so be patient.
Use this technique with any negative experience to rebuild a dog's trust. Because you will likely need to trim her nails before you get all the way through this desensitization process, take her to the vet for that so she doesn't lose all her learning and trust with you.
As for the caked fecal matter on her bottom, you don't have much time for baby steps here. Put a little peanut butter on the roof of her mouth (to distract her) and have someone hold her still while you hold a wash cloth soaked in warm water on her bottom. If you soak the area, the fecal matter should loosen from the fur, which will make it easier to remove.
Q Other than goldfish won at the church bazaar, which rarely survived the walk home, I have never owned a pet due to housing restrictions. I had a career in counseling people, but I am fascinated to read the various techniques you offer for pet training and "communicating" with your pet. A great column even for a non-pet owner.
— Anthony, Westbury
A Thank you for the compliment. I am glad you find the column interesting. I hate that you have never been able to have a pet though, because of housing restrictions. Everyone should be able to have an animal companion at some point in their lives. I think responsible pet owners make the best tenants.
I hope you don't mind me using your letter to send a quick message to church and school bazaars. Please don't give fish as prizes. They deserve our care, too.
Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal.