Dog Training: Stress-Free Nail Clipping

For many dog owners, nail-trimming can be one of the most stressful parts of grooming. If you’ve ever cut the quick, your dog probably doesn’t trust you with that clipper. But nail-clipping has to be done; overgrown nails on a dog can lead to foot damage and joint issues if left long enough. So how do you get your dog to enjoy (OK, at least tolerate) getting his nails trimmed? The answer is to use positive reinforcement training. By pairing something scary (cutting the nails) with something good (treats! praise!) your dog can learn to sit quietly while you quickly and painlessly trim his nails.

The steps outlined below will work more quickly with a dog that does not have a strong negative association with getting his nails clipped, but with patience and commitment, even dogs who cower at the sight of a clipper can learn to tolerate clipping.

Step 1: Preparation

Make sure you have a pair of clippers that are meant for dog nails, are sharp, and easy for you to use. The proper tools will make the actual job go much more quickly, putting less stress on you and the dog. Decide on a cue word that you will use when clipping your dog’s nails, such as “clip”. This allows your dog to know what is coming and do as you ask. You will also need treats, especially for the first few times while you are actually teaching the dog your expectations. Once the dog has learned what is expected of him, you can probably phase out the food and use praise exclusively. Finally, get familiar with nail-clipping. Maybe this means asking your vet for tips, or practicing on your friend’s very calm dog. You can also use dog nail grinding tool.

Step 2: Paw Manipulation

Your dog needs to learn that getting his paws handled is no big deal. Whenever he and you are relaxing, start by touching your dog’s paw lightly. Do it several times a day with each of his paws. Once your dog is comfortable with light touching, increase the amount of time or manipulation in small increments. Don’t rush the process; you want your dog to adopt a “whatever” attitude about getting his paws handled. The goal is to be able to manipulate your dog’s paw for up to 30 seconds, putting fingers between his toes, touching his nails, and moving his foot into different positions. He should allow this to happen without pulling his paw away or biting at your hand.

Step 3: Body Position

Depending on the size and temperament of your dog, you want to figure out the ideal body position for nail-clipping. Our Newfie was trained to lay on his side while getting his nails done so that we could reach all four feet, which would work well with dogs of any size. You could train this behavior, or simply “capture” it by sitting next to your dog when he is laying down and petting/praising him in the position. If he gets up, you stop the petting. Many dogs will allow you to manipulate them into this position, but make sure to keep it positive. You want him to want to lay down for you, not feel as though he’s getting forced into that position.

Step 4: Clipper Desensitization

Based on your dog’s previous experience with nail-clipping, this step may take a very short or a very long time. If your dog is scared of the clippers, you may need to start by simply giving the dog a treat whenever he approaches you with the tool in your hand. If your dog is already neutral about the clippers, ask him to get into position. Give the verbal cue, and manipulate one paw with one hand while holding the clippers in the other. Give him a treat if he allows this to happen. Sitting up or licking your hand is OK, as long as he allows the manipulation and doesn’t pull his paw away. Finally, give the verbal cue, touch the clipper to his paw, and reward with a treat. He doesn’t have to completely ignore what you are doing, but he should allow it all to happen.

Step 5: Time to Clip!

At this point, your dog should understand that he is supposed to sit or lay down and hold still while you manipulate his paws. It’s time to start clipping! Start by giving him a treat for every nail you clip. Give the cue, clip a nail, and reward with treat and praise. If he seems OK with it, try doing two at a time, or doing the whole paw and then rewarding. Your dog may get antsy and decide he’s done after one paw. At this stage, that is OK. Allow him to get up, walk it off, and then ask him again to get back into position. Give lots of praise and treats. You may only get one or two paws at a time for the first few sessions, but keep practicing. Its better for the process to take a little longer with a willing dog, than to have the stress of a wrestling match between an anxious dog and a nervous owner.

Training your dog to allow nail-clipping can be a time-consuming process, but the benefits are more than worth it. This kind of training eliminates stress, both yours and your dog’s, and also builds trust between the two of you. By putting in the work, you can actually save time in the long run by having a dog that willingly cooperates with nail-trims.

Sources: Personal Experience

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