Making nail trims possible (and even fun!)

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Many dogs are sensitive about having their feet handled, and there are many theories as to why. Everything from their feet being their “get away boots,” to their nail beds already being sensitive or painful due to nails that are too long (just think of when your toenails get a little long and you start jamming them into the front of your shoes) has been suspected, and they probably all have a note of truth to them. Whatever the reason for their dislike of having their feet handled or their nails trimmed, you can teach your dog to allow you to trim his/her nails.

Anyone who has talked dog training with me has probably heard it before, but the number one mistake most people make when training is going too fast, or expecting too much. This is especially true when it comes to trimming nails. If you rush the process, and force your dog into something before he or she is ready, nail trims aren’t likely to get any easier. Fear and pain are pretty powerful motivators, and they often come with unintended consequences.

Toenail trimming is important to the well being of your dog. Long toenails may be painful, but they can also have a negative impact on the gait and posture of a dog, which could lead to injury or other problems, so it’s important to work on making nail trimming a positive experience so it can be done easily and often.

Where to begin? I like to take a three dimensional approach, where I introduce the nail clippers, paw and nail handling, and a good position for nail trimming all separately. The first two parts of training are mostly about changing the association your dog has with something, so will primarily involve desensitization and counter (classical) conditioning. These two things are surprisingly easy to work into your daily routine. The third is all about training and giving your dog a choice.

Introducing the nail clippers

I promise this is easy and will go smoothly as long as you don’t rush it! The first thing you’re going to do is start getting the nail clippers out and showing them to your dog when it’s time for his or her breakfast and/or dinner. That’s it, easy. Dog sees nail clippers, dog gets food. Don’t limit yourself to meal times though, any time of day you can use the nail clippers to forecast treats for your dog.

At this stage, you’re not trimming nails at all, but the more you practice, the happier your dog will be to see those nail clippers, and the sooner you’ll get to trimming nails. Gradually, the nail clippers are going to need to be closer to your dog to predict those treats. When I say gradually, I mean GRADUALLY. You may start by just showing your dog the nail clippers from across the room and then tossing a treat, or racing him or her to the next room to get dinner.

When your dog understands that nail clippers equal yummy food (does the name Pavlov ring a bell?) you’ll be able to tell because it may drool a little, get excited, run to the dinner bowl, or start watching for a treat. Then you’ll up the ante, you may hold off on the food, just for a second, and then feed if your dog comes toward you and the nail clippers. Your dog has the choice to come forward or not, if it doesn’t after a couple of seconds, put the clippers back out of site and start over. You never force the clippers on your dog. Leaving the choice up to them gives them more control, and will ultimately make them feel more confident and comfortable with the whole process. Little by little, your dog should get closer and closer, until it’s practically in your lap when you get out the nail clippers.

Some dogs may be sensitive to the sound of the clippers cutting the nail as much as the clipping itself. For those dogs, you may want to repeat the process outlined above, not only holding the clippers, but actually clipping a cotton swab or match stick to make the sound as positive as the clippers themselves.

Paw and nail handling

If your dog has already had a bad experience with nail trimming, this may take a little more work. If you start these exercises early on when you bring home a new puppy you’ll make your life, and his life, easier.

I like to teach dogs to offer their paws for holding, examination, and yes, nail trimming but that’s a topic for another time. For now we’re going to focus on the paw handling itself and helping your dog feel comfortable with that. For many dogs, you won’t be able to start with their feet, so you’ll need to start up high on their legs or even their shoulders. In the beginning any touch equals a treat. If you need to start at the shoulders, or even your dog’s neck, that’s just fine. Start where your dog is comfortable. Even though you’re rewarding the touch with a treat, it’s important that nothing bad or scary happens at this stage. If it does you’ll just need to start from an easier point again, and it may take some more time going forward.

Little by little, move your touches closer to your dog’s paws, still treating for each touch. When you can touch each paw without your dog flinching or moving, start to add some duration to the touch. So now you’ll be doing touch, hold, treat. The amount of time needed to trim a nail is variable, and will depend on how comfortable you are with doing the trimming, but plan on working up to at least 15 seconds, more if you want your dog to be happy with having all the nails on one foot trimmed with no break in your hold.

Now you’re ready to start very gently, and only briefly, lifting each paw. You may not actually get the paw off of the ground in the beginning, just lift slightly and treat. Since you’re increasing the difficulty of the behavior for your dog, you should back off on the duration a little. Lift, treat, lift, treat, lift, and treat. After you’ve practiced the motion and pressure of lifting, try actually lifting your dog’s paw just a little, and then a little more. Gradually increasing the height, then adding the duration again, treating each time. When that’s going well and your dog still seems happy with the whole process, start using your fingers to play with their toes. As before, add just a little at a time, until you can gently move each toe and touch and hold each nail.

Position

Train your dog to play dead. It’s easier to properly trim the nail of a dog when they’re lying on their side or on their back. You have a better view of the nail, and having a still dog makes things go more smoothly. That being said, if you force your dog onto its side or back you won’t be doing anyone any favors, it will quickly erode any trust and confidence you’ve built up.

My first two choices for training this behavior are shaping, and capturing. If you are not experienced with shaping it’s a little more difficult to explain, but basically, you break your goal behavior into very small steps and reward each one several times and then move on two the next, breaking the steps down even further if your dog has a hard time catching on. Capturing is easier, but does require that you be prepared, or at least know pretty well which situations your dog is most likely to perform the behavior on their own in. Then, when the behavior does occur, you mark it and treat it. Repeat until your dog gets what you want, and then you can put it on cue.

Since those two methods can be a little trickier for novice trainers, I’ll tell you how to train with a food lure. I’m assuming from here that you’ve already taught your dog to lie down on cue. Starting with your dog lying down, hold a treat in front of its nose. Slowly move the treat to the side, and then back to its shoulder. If your dog naturally prefers to lay on one side, or stretches its feet out one direction when it lies down, go with the side it’s already chosen. Make sure you move the treat slowly and steadily enough that your dog can easily follow it. As you reach its shoulder, if you’ve gone slowly enough and kept the treat close to its body to avoid prompting it to get up to follow it, your dog should turn its body to make it easier to reach the treat, leaving it lying on its side. Feed your dog the treat.

Repeat the process this way a few times, your dog will begin to predict what you want and will move onto its side before you get the treat to its shoulder. Fairly quickly, remove the treat from your hand in the process, but use the same motion, and then get and feed a treat once your dog is there. From that point, you can begin to modify what was originally a food lure, and then your empty hand, into a hand signal if you’d like to use one. Then you can add a verbal cue.

Next you would put two of the three elements together and work on them in pairs. I would start with paw handling in position, or paw handling with the clippers present, then switch and do the other, when your dog is comfortable, try all three. Don’t go too fast, keep your dog comfortable and use plenty of good reinforcers, and you’ll be ready to trim your dog’s nails in no time.

For more information on how to properly trim your dog’s nails once it’s ready, check out this Kikopup tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cq5X8aV95E