When it’s nail trim time at my house, there’s a flurry of excitement. Tank starts whining and running around in circles, Leia squirms out of blankets as quick as she can, and Sandy is right at my feet. Tails are wagging, and dogs are jostling each other trying to be picked up first.
It’s not what you’d typically expect when a dog sees a nail grinder come out. Most dogs fear and dread getting their toenails cut. It’s completely understandable too. The majority of dogs have been quicked at least once in their life, and that really hurts. Luckily, there’s hope. You can condition your pet to really like nail trims, all it takes is time.
Understanding Why Dogs Hate Nail Trims
We already talked about one reason dogs hate nail trims. Getting quicked is no fun, but that’s only one factor. Nail clippers, even the sharpest ones, squeeze the nail, so there’s always a bit of discomfort to it. Grinders are a lot more comfortable, but the noise and vibration can bother some dogs.
On top of this, we as owners typically pet our dog on the back or head way more often than we stroke their feet. This means their feet are a lot less desensitized to touch. Since dogs aren’t used to having their feet touched like they are their back head, they’re a lot less likely to be well behaved.
Dogs have a threshold to what they can tolerate. If they’re bothered by the sound, that puts a drop in their “panic meter.” The vibration adds another drop. Touching their foot is another drop. By the time it blows, an ordinarily nice dog could bite because it’s just too scary for them.
In order to unwind their fear, you’ll have to address each fear separately, one at a time.
Step One: Gathering Intel
Do you plan to do the nails yourself, or have a groomer do them? If he’s naughty at the groomers and you’re trying to make the dog better, you’re going to want to ask your groomer for a few details. Here’s a few questions you should ask:
- Do you use a grinder or clippers?
- Which does my pup like the least?
- At what point during a nail trim does he start showing distress?
- How does my pup handle having his feet touched?
If you’re planning to clip at home, these are questions you should ask yourself. Does your pup high tail it at sight of the grooming tools? Does he avoid them if they’re just lying on the ground, or only if they’re in human hands?
Is he fine with the grooming tools but doesn’t like it when they’re touching his body? Is he fine with them touching his body but doesn’t like it when they’re near his feet? Is it that he doesn’t like his feet being picked up? Or the sound?
If you’re dog is likely to bite you for this, it’s better to do this probing with a basket muzzle on so that you don’t get hurt finding out specifically what your dog does and does not like. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to assume that your pup high tails it the second he sees a nail grinder.
If you’re not sure, start on the first step and go from there.
Step Two: Reintroducing Tools
The goal of this step is to reframe how your dog thinks about grooming tools. Right now he sees the nail grinder and associates it with noise, pain, and having his feet touched. We want him to see the grooming tools and think about hotdogs, squeaky toys and going for walks.
If your dog isn’t big on treats or toys, try to think of something he does really like, even if it’s a bit irregular. One of my dogs personally loves carrying around baby socks, while another one likes to rip up tissues.
What ever your dog takes joy in, this is what you’re going to pair the tool with. We’re going to assume it is your dog’s favorite treat here.
When your dog is in a relaxed mood, show the dog the tool, and then immediately scatter several great treats. If your dog runs away instead of eating the treats, you’re too close. You may need to be on the other side of the room and throw the treats. Gently, of course.
When the treats are gone, the tool goes away too. Keep revealing the tool and showering them with treats until they start anticipating food at the sight of the tool. You want them to treat seeing the tool the same way they do their leash, or when you open up the refrigerator door. It’s exciting business!
Don’t attempt to do the nails during this phase. It’s better to use a scratch board or have someone else do them at this time. That way they don’t get worse wondering if today is a fun training session, or a scary nail clipping.
Once your dog is excited to see the grinder and is super happy it is there, it’s time to turn it on. If your dog is truly excited about seeing the tool, he’s probably come as close as possible on his own. You’ll want to back off for this next part. Go back to the other side of the room so you don’t startle him.
Turn the grinder on when you’re on the far side of the room, and scatter treats again. Yay! The sound goes off when the treats are done. Treat that grinder like it’s a switch for treats. On for more treats, off for none.
Be patient, and let your dog show you how thrilled he is to hear the grinder before deciding it’s time for the next step.
Step Three: Reintroducing foot handling
The tools should be nowhere in sight when you work on this. Desensitizing your dog to having his feet touched is very important to being able to work on their nails. We pet our dogs all the time, but the places we touch our dogs less are often the places they like having handled the least.
Feet are often a sensitive subject for our dogs, so it’s important to go all the way back to the beginning. Once again, you’ll need to do a little bit of sleuthing here.
How far down your dog’s leg can you go before they pull away or don’t like it? You’re going to start rewarding just before that. Many dogs are comfortable on the shoulder, but start to feel concerned about the elbow level.
You’ll be using the same technique to make them like it. Pet their shoulder, and at the same time you are petting them, give them a treat. Repeat this several times over several sessions.
When you are confident your dog is not only comfortable, but delighted to have you pet their shoulder in exchange for a snack, you can move to petting their elbow. After several sessions, move to the middle of the leg, and then their ankles, and finally the paw itself.
Don’t Forget The Warm Up
Getting your dog used to having their feet handled takes time. You will be doing this over several sessions. When you first start a new session, make sure you start off a step or two back before moving forward.
That means if you’ve gotten to the paw on your last session, start at the middle of the leg for a few treats before moving back to the paw. This gives your pet a chance to warm up before suddenly having their foot seized.
Step Four: Tricky Toe Nails
Once your pup is comfortable having his paw touched, move to touching toe nails, moving them, spreading the toes apart, and moving the paw around. Move in the same, slow manner you did reaching the paw. Reward your dog heavily for this.
Remember, the goal here isn’t just to have your dog put up with it. We’re trying to change their feelings about it. The reward is aimed at creating an emotional shift in your dog. This is why we’re rewarding so heavily, so often, for some very small changes.
This is also why you don’t start at “the problem area” (the feet) during paw handling. Just holding the paw all of a sudden, even if your dog allows it, will still probably be emotionally unpleasant for your pet. By starting with the shoulder and gradually moving down, that emotion doesn’t show up.
Step Five: The Best Place to Be
So far, we’ve taught our dogs that the tools we use to clip nails are wonderful to be around. We’ve made them feel comfortable having their feet and toes touched. The final component before we can start putting this all together is to make your dog comfortable with the place their nails will be cut.
Dogs don’t generalize very well, so while they may feel fine having their toes touched and squeezed on the couch, this may change when you move them to the floor or to a table to have their nails clipped. The place, position, and any other people who will be helping need to be desensitized in the exact same way.
You can do this by putting your dog on the table, feeding them a lot of treats, and then setting them down without touching their feet at all. Even though your dog is probably totally comfortable with having his feet touched, he may be worried about having them touched while in “The nail trimming area.”
If you plan to take your dog to the groomers and are working on the behavior for it, call your groomer up and ask them if they are onboard with helping. Most groomers will be over the moon you are working with your pet, and will bend over backwards to help you.
To desensitize the groomers as a place, break it up into small steps. Reward your pet for being in the parking lot without ever going inside. Then reward for being inside, but don’t get their nails cut. Then have the groomer take your dog, feed them loads of treats, and leave. Then have the groomer take the dog to the back table, feed them lots of food on the table, and leave.
Form a plan with your groomer so they’re not surprised by your sudden visitations. While your groomer will be glad to help you, they don’t want a surprise, unplanned visit.
Step Six: Stacking Stressors
Up until now, we’ve worked on different aspects of nail trims separately. This is because dogs have a “threshold” for reaction, and we’re trying to raise that threshold.
Let’s walk through a typical grooming experience, and see how stressors stack up to produce a reaction. We’ll say that this is at home, skipping stressors like getting in the car, meeting a stranger, and being taken away from their family.
Your dog’s first stressor is seeing you get out the tools, they know they are in for an unpleasant experience. They feel bad. This isn’t enough to elicit a bite or growl, but some more sensitive dogs may try to leave when they see the tools. This is stressor one.
Now you pick him up to do his nails. This is stressor two. They are now in the clipping place. A bad experience is about to happen! This is stacked onto seeing the tools. The pup still hasn’t reacted yet, but he’s feeling really bad about it. He may hunch down a little and feel very angry.
Finally, you pick up the foot to cut the nails, and this is where most dogs blow their fuse. You’ve stacked the bad feelings of seeing the tools, being in the clipping place, getting picked up to go there, and finally touching their feet.
It’s not touching their feet alone that’s the problem, it’s all these things stacked together. This is why we work on all these things separately before we can work on them together, and why we can’t just go on to the nails as soon as they do them separately.
In order to make your dog genuinely like the entire process, you’ll want to stack the stressors one at a time.
More Warm Ups
Show your dog the tools a couple of times and reward them with treats, even if they’re already super excited about this. Then put the tools out of sight, place the dog in the nail trimming area and reward a couple of times, no tools in sight.
This acts as a “Warm up” so your dog knows you are playing the nail-game today and gets their brain into that positive mood. Use lower value treats for this. Something your pup likes, but not the very best treats.
Next, show them the tool while they are in the grooming area. Use your best treats for this one and make it fun and exciting! Reward lavishly and heavily for seeing the tools in the grooming area. Do not touch the feet during this entire session. Do not add anything else.
Release your pup with absolutely no foot touching or progressing past this point. You don’t want to make them feel emotionally bad about the grooming experience at all.
Step Seven: Start Stacking
Keep doing sessions just combining the two, even if your dog is clearly fine with it. The idea is to build on those good emotions and to make sure there’s not a single doubt in your pup’s mind about being on the table with the tools
Once you’ve gone through this several times, touch your pups shoulder with the tool and reward lavishly. (If it is the grinder, the grinder needs to be off.) Repeat for several sessions, as long as is needed for your dog to be super pleased with getting their shoulder touched.)
Gradually move down the leg, and then add on foot handling, and then touching the tools to the toenails (no clipping.) Reward each step heavily, never moving past a phase until your dog is 100% happy and excited about it.
Step Eight: The first cut!
This is a big day for your pup! You’re going to finally cut a toenail. You’ve walked your dog through a vast foundation of exercises so that your pup is comfortable in the nail grooming area, having their foot picked up and held, seeing the tools, and getting their toenails touched.
If you are using a grinder, your pup is also happy to hear the sound of the grinder, and is fine with feeling the back end of it touching their feet for the vibrations. Start with a warm up, practicing touching feet, seeing tools, and being in the grooming area.
It helps to have a helper here with lavish treats to feed while they are getting their first toe cut. Since I often don’t have a helper, I put a big bowl of special treats out or a licky mat with baby food on it while my dogs are getting their nails cut.
A helper is nice here because they can watch for reactions, chat to the dog, and reward heavily while you are working on the nails.
After your warm up, lift your dog’s foot and take the smallest possible snip off your pup’s nails. You want it no where near the quick. Cut just one time, reward, and done!
The next training session, don’t add this in, even if it goes well. Dial it back to picking your pup up, holding them, touching their feet, but stop short of cutting a nail. The day after, cut another nail.
Slowly, you can add more cuts, or do more nails, until you can do all of them in one go. Always reward your pup for this.
What to do if you quick a nail
At some point after cutting your dog’s nails, you will probably quick them. This is one reason why a grinder is better than a nail cutter. It’s much harder to quick them with a Dremel than with a pair of nail cutters.
Mistakes do happen though. If you end up quicking your dog stop, praise, and back off cutting nails for the next few lessons. Your dog will forgive you, but you’ll want to stack more ‘positive experiences’ in their memory to help counteract that bad one.
Bleeding can be quickly stopped using kwik stop powder should you hurt your dog. Kwik stop powder is good to keep on hand at all times, but in a pinch you can use flour or cornstarch to stop bleeding.
This will set you back in training, but it won’t be the end for your dog. Eventually, the positive reinforcement will win out over the negative aspects of nails, and your dog will like it..
Getting your dog to like a nail trim takes a long time, because you simply can’t rush the process. You’re not just trying to get your dog to stop resisting nails, but to actually enjoy the procedure. This means breaking down each step into the smallest possible stages, and thoroughly conditioning them to love that step before moving on to the next one.
Changing your dogs mind about nails will likely take a long time, 3-6 months of daily work, even as much as a year for dogs who have had lots of bad experiences.
If your dog is prone to biting and not just squirming away, a basket muzzle is a great option to protect you from harm. A basket muzzle allows you to feed treats to your dog, let them pant, but restricts them from biting you.
Stay safe while working on your pet, and remember that even though it takes a long time, it’s totally worth it.
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