Just like humans, dogs’ nails need regular attention. But while many humans quickly fall in love with the experience of getting a manicure or pedicure, dogs often need a little help becoming comfortable with this necessary aspect of their care.
It may seem more efficient to just dive in and hope for the best, or to have someone hold your dog so they can’t escape, while you get the job done. But over time, this can increase your dog’s fear of the experience, and can even create other handling sensitivities or discomfort when you approach. The better choice is to take it slow, and pair the nail-trimming adventure with something wonderful, in order to create a positive association with the experience.
Laying the Foundation
Before you can trim your dog’s nails, you need to simply be able to handle their feet and get near them with the nail clippers or a Dremel-style tool. You’ll want to have your happy voice, a comfortable space, and a bunch of treats ready. Start with placing your empty hand near one foot (or touch it if they show no response to that), delivering treats while your hand is near or on their foot. Then remove the hand and stop the treats. Hand-touching them predicts a flow of yummy treats. This is laying the foundation of developing a positive (dare we say ‘pawsitive’) conditioned response (CER+).
When the dog will allow you to hold their foot, you can start over again but with the clippers in your hand, again rewarding while the clippers are near their toes, and stopping when you move the clippers away.
Trimming Your Dog's Nails
You may need a second set of hands once you’re ready to actually move as though you’re clipping a nail! One person can be ready to deliver treats while the other holds a paw in one hand and clippers in another. Start by just touching the clippers to a nail, then work toward positioning the clipper and applying gentle pressure.
When your dog tolerates all of this without pulling away or showing any signs of stress, you are ready to clip a nail. Make sure you have a clear understanding of how much is safe to trim so that you do not catch your dog’s nail quick, the part of the nail that contains blood vessels and nerves! This is painful, and could undo any progress you’ve made creating that positive association. If you’re unsure, ask your veterinarian or a groomer to help you the first few times.
At first, you will want to deliver a treat after each successfully trimmed nail. Yes, that’s 20 treats per mani/pedi! But it’s worth it. Over time, you will be able to do a few nails at a time and then give the treat. Eventually you can just do one celebratory treat at the end!
Other Nail Care Options
If you don’t want to use traditional clippers, there are other options available. A Dremel tool is a great way to grind down a dog’s nails so they are short and also smoothed out. Many dogs who dislike the clippers are more comfortable with a Dremel, and vice versa. You should be prepared to accustom your dog to the experience the same way – with the added step of doing the entire process with the Dremel off, and then again with it on. The sound makes a difference!
You may also choose to teach your dog to “file” their nails. This eventually takes your hands out of the process entirely. To do this, you’ll create a giant nail file by affixing sandpaper to a plank, and then shaping your dog to scratch at the board with their feet, thereby filing down the nails.
This process is pretty simple: Start by marking (with a “yes” or a click) and rewarding any motion toward the board or attention the dog pays to it. Slowly work toward rewarding things that look more and more the finished behavior, like a paw near the board, then a paw on the board, and then the paw in motion on the board. Dogs will quickly learn that the pawing motion is what you want, and enthusiastically scrape away (to the point that you should put the board away when you’re not using it, or they’ll scrape their nails down too far!). There’s wonderful information about this process available from Whole Dog Journal.
Need More Help?
Remember that nail care is as important as any other aspect of your adventurous canine’s grooming routine, so don’t neglect it! But don’t stress if you’re struggling, either – there is help for pedicure-phobic pooches and their frustrated humans! If you’re still struggling with nail care for your adventurous canine, we’re here and can help. Just contact us and share your concerns and goals.