Nail trimming is a task most people hate because their dog gets distressed with the process but training can change that. When I adopted Willow, she was 5 years old and she did not like having her feet handled or her nails trimmed. If I picked up her foot she would whip it out of my hand and become stiff in anticipation of another attack to her beautiful limbs. For the sake of her health, I needed to teach Willow that clipping her nails was not a threat. In addition, I needed to teach her regardless of the pain she may have suffered in the past, that I was not going to hurt her when I clipped her nails. All this can occur through training.
How to avoid clipping too far
Before we talk about how to train your dog to be relaxed with nail clipping, lets get the big question of how much nail to take off out of the way so you can relax. The best way to not cause pain or bleeding while clipping a dog’s nail is to only take the smallest sliver off the nail each time you clip. Each time you clip a tiny sliver off the tip of the nail, look at the cut edge. If the cut edge looks crumbly or is solid, dead white material with no dark center or pink, take off another sliver. When the cut edge starts looking less solid, more like a cloudy appearance or has a center that is different, you are getting into the softer tissue, stop clipping.
Training Dogs To Accept Nail Trimming
When it comes to owning a dog that is fearful of nail trimming, the goals are to:
- Change the dog’s emotions by working with the dog at a level that does not produce a negative emotional response.
- Minimize damage when a negative emotional reaction does occur
With nail trimming there are 3 elements that need to be trained, acceptance of the handling necessary to trim the nails, the sight and sound of the tool (clipper or dremel nail grinder) and the feel of the tool. Each of these are different training exercises. Each stage of each training exercise must be mastered to the point of complete relaxation before going onto the next stage of training to ensure success.
When doing these training exercises, you will need to deliver treats to your dog. Because your dog has a negative emotional reaction to nail trimming you will want to use little pieces (no larger than the size of a plain m&m for dogs over 25LB) of meat or cheese, as opposed to store bought treats which are not as valuable and will make the training take longer.
Throughout the process, you need to evaluate for success. A successful trial is one in which your dog is completely calm and relaxed. This means your dog does not show fear; wiggle or try to move away but instead is eagerly looking to get a treat. If your dog has:
5 successful trails in a row – do the next stage
3-4 successful trials in a row – stay at that level
0, 1 or 2 successful trials in a row – go back and do something more remedial
Because you want your dog to be completely calm and still, working on these training exercises when your dog is tired, right after exercise or when your dog is sleepy would be a smart choice.
Handling Exercise 1 – Restraining the leg, foot, toe
You will need your dog to hold still for at least 30 seconds, while you hold its paw in a position that gives you a good view of the nail while using your fingers to isolate the nail you want to clip. If your dogs does not like this type of handling you will start at a remedial level.
What to do if your dog cannot be still
Regardless of the stage your are working at, if your dog is struggling to be still for 30 seconds, try for less time and build up to 30 seconds or do an easier stage.
Try to work on this training for 5 to 10 minutes, 3 to 5 times a day or 25 to 30 trials a day.
Stage 1 – Place your hands on your dog’s shoulder or hip and restrain your dog for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, give your dog a treat, play with your dog for 30 second and then repeat. Do this training for each of your dog’s legs. Evaluate after 5 trials on each leg to know whether you should repeat this level, advance on or do something more remedial. It is normal to be working on different stages of the training exercise for individual legs.
Stage 2 – When your dog has 5 out of 5 correct, repeat this training on that leg except now hold and restrain your dog by placing your hands on your dog’s upper leg or arm.
Stage 3 – When your dog has 5 out of 5 correct, repeat this training on that leg except now hold and restrain your dog by placing your hands on your dog’s knee or elbow.
Stage 4 – When your dog has 5 out of 5 correct, repeat this training on that leg except now hold and restrain your dog by placing your hands on your dog’s wrist or hock (ankle).
Stage 5 – When your dog has 5 out of 5 correct, repeat this training on that leg except now hold and restrain your dog’s foot making sure to hold it in the position necessary for clipping.
Stage 6 – When your dog has 5 out of 5 correct, repeat this training on that leg except now hold and restrain your dog’s foot while isolating a nail to be trimmed and making sure to hold it in the position necessary for clipping.
Handling Exercise 2 – The sight and sound of the tool
To do this training you will need:
- Your tool of choice (nail clipper or a dremel tool)
- Wooden dowels approximately the same diameter as your dog’s nails
A successful trial is one in which your dog remains calm and does not try to move away but instead is eagerly looking to get a treat.
Stage 1 – Either have a helper hold your dog on leash or tether your dog to an object your dog cannot move.
Take your tool and the dowel at least 20 feet away from your dog (but within view). Clip the dowel one time or sand the dowel with the dremel for 1 second.
Immediately toss your dog a treat. Toss the treat from your full distance don’t walk up to your dog. If you have a helper they can give the treat.
If your dog shows any degree of fear (tried to move further away or looks scared) move further away until you find a distance your dog is not scared.
After 5 trials evaluate and change your training accordingly.
Stage 2 – Each time your dog gets 5 out of 5 correct move 1 foot closer to your dog.
Stage 3 – Once you can activate the sound by your dog, it remains calm, does not try to move away but instead is eagerly looking to get a treat from you move the tool a couple inches towards your dog’s toes. Repeat this until you can use the tool right by your dog’s toe’s for 30 seconds.
Handling Exercise – The feel of the tool (Only start this exercise when you have completed all stages of the previous training exercises)
Hold your dog’s paw and isolate a nail. Touch the clippers or the dremel (turned off) to your dog’s nail. Just one touch, then give your dog a treat and play with your dog for 30 second. Repeat. Do 200 repetitions over the next 1-2 weeks. When your dog has been completely relaxed, does not try to pull away, struggle or show any degree of negative emotions for a period of time, you can advance to “putting it all together”.
Training Exercise – Putting it all together
When you have finished all these training exercise you can begin the process of trimming your dog’s nails. Expect it to take a couple of months to get to this stage.
Hold your dog’s paw and isolate a nail to be trimmed. Clip one nail, taking just a tiny sliver off or touch the dremel (turned on) to your dog’s nail for 1 second. Just one clip or touch, then give your dog a treat and play with your dog for 30 second.
Do Not Repeat today! Do the same nail tomorrow and the next day until you have trimmed that nail to the desired length. Then start on the next nail.
After a while you will be able take multiple clips before taking a break. And then you will be able to trim all the nails on one foot before taking a break. As time passes, you will be able to trim all your dog’s nails in one session. Maintain your dog’s new emotional association to nail trimming by doing some nail trimming combined with play and treats once a week. If you accidentally clip to much nail and cause bleeding you can get the bleeding to stop by using a bar of soap.
When you really just have to get the job done
Life provides us with times in which we need to handle the dog in ways that may bring out a negative emotional response. Nail trimming is a common example of this. We need to get the dog’s nails trimmed so they don’t get too long and cause problems but if we just go for it and get the job done it makes the problem worse. Under these circumstances your dog’s reaction is going to get worse. Make the process as pleasant as possible. Use a ton of treats, get help and don’t cause pain. Give your dog breaks as you work to get the job done. Trim your dog’s nails as short as possible without getting them too short (getting into the soft tissue with nerve endings or bleeding). Hopefully, they will be short enough that you will not need to trim them again until after you have worked through this process.
Nail Trimming – It does not have to be a Doggie Nightmare
It took about 7 weeks to teach Willow to relax enough that I could trim all her nails in 1 session. It was 7 weeks well spent, as I never again had to worry about Willow’s fear of having her nails trimmed.
How to avoid clipping too far
The best way to not cause pain or bleeding while clipping a dog’s nail is to only take the smallest sliver off the nail each time you clip. Each time you clip a tiny sliver off the tip of the nail, look at the cut edge. If it looks like solid, dead white nail, take off another sliver. When the cut edge starts looking less solid, more like a cloudy appearance, you are getting into the softer tissue, stop clipping.