Is it possible to train a dog to pick a delicious treat to instigate an undesirable task (do nails)

Dog owners often have to do things to their dogs that they may not like, such as baths, nail trims, brushing, etc. We often give dogs treats during and after the task so that they don’t mind them so much. What I’m wondering is if it would be possible to train a dog to take the initiative of deciding when those tasks get done by allowing them to decide to ask for the treat first, after which the undesirable task would be done.

For example, train your dog to be able to ask for bacon whenever they like. That will be very easy. He can be trained to ring a bell hung from something and then you’ll give him a piece of bacon. Once he learns that, then do some undesirable task like trim his nails after giving him the bacon. After a while, he’ll learn that ringing the bell means he’ll get bacon, but that he’ll also get his nails done. So once he learns ring bell->get bacon->nail trim, will he later ring the bell on his own?

Can he understand that he can get something desirable whenever he wants (bacon), but it will come with a downside (nail trim)?

I don’t know if it’s possible or if possible, easy to train the dog to endure the task after the reward, but it can certainly be done the other way, where the dog asks for the treat, knowing there is an undesirable task to endure before they get it.

That would work too. Was the dog able to ask for the treat whenever they wanted? What task was it?

It probably would make more sense to give the treats after (or during) the undesirable task. So when the dog asks for bacon, you start the nail trim and give him bacon during and after the task.

I often use treats during these undesirable tasks, but it is at my instigation. So when I decide he needs a bath, I take the box of treats to the bathroom and my dog reluctantly follows along. He knows a bath is coming, but his reluctance is tempered by the box of treats. I’m wondering if I gave him the ability to ask for a treat whenever he wanted, how often he would ask if he knew taking a bath would be part of the deal.

Depending on the level of food drive (Labradors are #1), you could probably get a dog to endure actual pain for a treat.

I still doubt they’d be willing and able to do your nails, even for a piece of juicy steak.

I don’t recall exactly, but some non-enjoyable grooming task such as claw trimming or hair clipping - it was my mother’s dog, which was trained to an absurd level of obedience - she could literally leave a piece of meat thawing within reach of the dog and just say "Don’t touch that’ and the dog would obey, but on the topic at hand, the dog would paw at the drawer containing the clippers, asking to be groomed, but knowing it was for an eventual reward.

If you think about it, any training task (“sit up and beg”, “gimme a paw”) is a slight chore for the dog, with a reward at the end - it’s only a question of how far you can incrementally extend the ‘chore’ part whilst still having the dog’s attention - and the answer to that question is: really far - dogs will (literally and figuratively) jump through hoops for a tiny treat or a tiny bit of attention, and they will engage with the task quite obsessively.

I’m not sure it’s possible to discern whether the dog is just asking for the treat, or asking for it knowing that it comes with the undesirable task.

Either way, the whole concept feels icky and makes me nauseous. Far better that you should work on how you approach/do the task itself such that it’s no longer unpleasant.

My dog growing up hated baths, until I figured out it was the slipperiness of the bathtub bottom that freaked her out. Once I figured that out, getting a suction cupped bathmat so she could stand firmly made all the difference.

CeltDog hated having his nails clipped until I got one of those rotary files instead. The sharp “pop!” of the old style clippers frightened him. The buffing them down was just comfy time in my lap with lots of attention.

Fix the problem, don’t teach the dog to ask for pain. ������

I think it’s quite common to use the technique of saving the best treats for only the things that are really a problem to get done, like he only ever gets bacon for nail trims and not for easier things.

That’s better than having to cut his nails because he told you to. :slight_smile:

Sometimes, they really need it though.

^ :smiley:

Also, cause-and-effect, not effect-and-cause; starting with the nails and then discovering that at least you get bacon after, is probably more effective than learning “if you smell bacon, run”.

I’m going through reactive dog training with my dog right now. From all I’ve read and been told, you need to replace the bad/uncomfortable feelings with happy/relaxed feelings. With Grady’s training I need to give him his hot dogs while we’re in the presence of the bad thing (in our case, dogs passing us on the street) and keep his energy & attention focused on me and this Best Thing Ever and keep it up until the bad thing is gone. The goal is to transfer the feelings of food happiness/relaxation to the dog-passing situation and give them the ability to experience relaxation when passing other dogs.

So, I don’t know if you can soothe a dog’s worries by giving them that happy feeling before or after the bad event. Their little brains are not necessarily complex enough to let them carry that feeling through the event.

If a treat is given close enough after (within a few seconds), they do associate it as if it was the result. (For example, another dog passing causes a special treat within 5 seconds, or whatever the maximum time is.) Go beyond the brain’s time limit, and they are perceived as separate events (a dog passed; also, I got treats today).

Do we want the dog to learn “Every time I get a special treat, it makes a scary thing appear”? That sounds to me like a mistake, unless I’m misunderstanding part of the process. However, my chances of misunderstanding are quite high.

I don’t think this would work, mainly because of the infrequency with which toenails need trimming. Are you going to trim the dog’s nails every time he asks for a treat, whether the nails need trimming or not? Hell, my dog would ask for the treat every 5 minutes until I got tire of trimming his nails!

I seriously doubt this would work. More likely, I’d imagine the final trained sequence would be:

  1. Ring bell
  2. Eye treat warily
  3. Try to snatch treat without getting boxed in by the human carrying the scary nail clippers

Basically, you’d be training the dog that ringing the bell creates a dangerous but potentially lucrative opportunity. At that point, the dog’s task (from its perspective) is to figure out how to get the treat while avoiding you, which isn’t exactly a behavior you want to cultivate. If it repeatedly failed to obtain the treat safely, I would imagine the dog would stop trying (and perhaps develop an aversion to bells).

This strikes me as no different than my dog eyeing leftovers on the counter and wondering if it’d be safe to snatch some without getting in trouble.

I think with reactive training is that the bad thing isn’t actually bad (not like he’s getting hit or something) so if we can experience being happy and relaxed in its presence instead of tense and upset, we can change the reaction permanently.

Yeah my dogs needed to be coaxed into coming inside for a while, and I gave them treats for returning successfully (Grady was a fence-jumper). Now every time they go out they come in and sit for treats and I’m pretty sure they go out in the middle of the night with the ultimate goal of getting treats! (I’m training myself out of giving them treats)

If you tie it to a time and place, then it would work. (Most) dogs are smart enough to handle two or three components to a cause and effect situation. For example, I brush my hounds’ teeth every night after dinner. Actually my husband and I take turns, one night I do dishes while he does dog teeth, the next night we swap, etc. When we get a new dog, we continue that pattern, but if they’re not used to having their teeth brushed we’ll start very simple, letting them just smell the toothbrush and paste. Gradually work up over several nights to brushing one tooth, then one half of the mouth, then both sides. At any rate, it doesn’t take long for them to come to expect this routine happily.

After dinner, I’ll get the brushes and paste, and sit on the living room floor. They come running. At first they’ll jockey for position, both trying to lick one brush, but when I push one dog away and start in on the other, then they’ll patiently wait their turns.

They’re greyhounds, so not really up to the level of smarts it would require for them to tell ME when it’s toothbrushing time. But a super smart breed like a border collie could take that next step. Especially if you trained him to retrieve the brush and paste and bring them to you.

My old dog was so focused on food that if I had tried what you’re describing he genuinely would not have noticed the other dogs coming by.

So I would have had to wait for him to see the other dog first, and THEN give him something. I think.

This is exactly my trainer’s teaching currently for my dog as well. She (the trainer) by the way, has trained horses to line up and lift their toes to be trimmed.

So I guess I found out that this is true with my own dog. I started keeping the nail trimmers and special treats in their own cabinet. When I trim his nails, I give him a treat after each paw. After a while, my dog started to occasionally put his nose to the cabinet and look at me. When I pull the stuff out, he lies down to get his nails cut. So he seems to have learned that he can ask for a treat and get it after putting up with a nail trim. He only does it about 1-2 times per month. It seems like he understands that the trimmer treats come with a downside, but sometimes he’s willing to put up with it.

One of my family’s dogs, (5 maltese at one point), would refuse her favorite treat (Good Boys doggie chocolates) after being given a bath. I don’t know if the others associated getting it with the bath, but they’d hang around the fridge after their turn, and we’d hand out the treats only when everyone was done. Not only would Susu not hang around the fridge after her turn, she would refuse her treat for several hours and when she did accept it, it would have to be someone who didn’t give her a bath! As I think about it, since dog washing was usually a two day affair, sometimes Susu would refuse her portion even before her bath since she knew what was coming up.


Dogs don’t have opposable thumbs; I wouldn’t expect one to be able to do my nails competently howsoever tasty a treat I offered. Also, with the color-blind thing, I wouldn’t trust a dog to even be able to get the nails all the same color.