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  • AMPP Pittsburgh

Nail Trimming Made Fun and Easy

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

By Dr. Stephanie Day DVM

Many puppies and dogs have a hard time holding still in order to allow their toenails to be trimmed, even if they aren't overly upset with the process in general. Sometimes all it takes to distract a slightly nervous dog or excited puppy is tasty treat, like chewing a bully stick, hot dog pieces, boiled chicken breast, or peanut butter, cream cheese, or baby food smeared on a lick-mat and you can get the job done with no problems (especially with 2 people doing the job). It is preferable that your pet will eat during the entire nail trim to prevent or lessen an overly fearful reaction, but even having treats on hand to minimize trauma if you happen to get too close to the quick/vein in the nail or cut it can be very helpful.

Food alone may not work if your pup is already fearful or panicked about feet handling or nail trimming because stressed dogs often cannot eat, so you'll need to start with a smaller step. Dogs that are fearful about their feet may become vocal or aggressive when their nails are trimmed or paws handled and wrestling them or pinning them down can be dangerous and traumatic for everyone. Dogs who are stressed with handling may pant heavily, struggle to get away, hide their feet under their body, or freeze in fear with dilated pupils. Thankfully, there is a lot you can do to decrease your pets fear to a manageable level or get rid of the fear altogether so you can enjoy stress-free nail trims.

Key Ideas

  • Proceed in small steps and start at a point where the dog isn't already stressed

  • Use highly palatable foods like cheese, chicken, steak, etc.

  • Help your pet to make a positive association with all aspects of nail trimming, not just the physical trimming part--what about you holding clippers, or the sound of clipping nails, or firmly holding their paw while you touch their nails with your other hand

  • Depending on how scared your dog is, it may take some time to go through all the steps, but you'll get there in the end, just go at their pace

What you need

  • Only 5 minutes a day--do a few reps every day for good progress

  • Nail trimmers

  • Treats that are tiny (the size of a raisin), that can be eaten quickly (in a ½ second),

  • and are extremely tasty (like meat or cheese).

Tips to remember

Keep it fun

Stop if you or the dog gets frustrated

End on a good note

Your pet should remain relaxed and happy throughout this entire process, if they are stressed or worried, go back a step. Watch for signs of stress, such as panting, dilated pupils, backing up or trying to get away from you, whining, growling, hiding their feet feet, licking their lips, and looking/turning away from you , etc. If you see any of these signs, go backward to a step that is does not elicit stress. Ears should be up, tongue and tail relaxed, and your pet should be taking the food without hesitation!

Getting Started

Hector learning that where there are nail trimmers there is also peanut butter!

1. Help your pet make a positive association with the sight of those nail trimmers (it's hard to trim their nails when they run away as soon as you have the clippers). Change the association from trimmers=pain + fear to trimmers=hotdogs. You can prop the clippers up in front of the food dish while he eats, pick them up before you give them a peanut butter kong, hold those trimmers in your hand when you do fun things with your pet, like during playtime, or marker training (clicker training) obedience sessions. Do not make a big deal about the picking up the clippers, just pick them up and do something awesome for the dog. If your pup gets concerned just when you walk to the place where the trimmers are kept, that is where you have to start changing the association (or consider moving the clippers do a different area to see if you can bypass this initial stress). Walk over to (or just towards if they are extra sensitive) the clipper storage area, if they haven't panicked, say "yes" or "good" and toss a special treat to your pet--repeat this 5x and be done for that session (should only take a minute or two). Once they are comfortable with you walking to the drawer, you will open the drawer, say "yes" and toss a treat (not grabbing the clippers yet). Stay at this step until your pup is practically excited when you go to that drawer. Work up until you can walk to the drawer, open it, and grab the clippers while your dog happily waits for treats.

Vivian is working on being comfortable with having her paw firmly held for a few seconds.

2. Build comfort with paw handling without the trimmers in your hand. A big part of nail trimming is handling your dog's paws in a fairly firm manner and in many situations, we need to build up to that--this can take days or weeks to build up and that's okay. Using those small high value treats you will start by having your pup sit or lay in a comfortable spot (or just if they are chilling next to you on the couch and you have treats) and just stroke their shoulder, or back, or side (whatever they generally LIKE) and give them a treat after each stroke (this should be easy).

Once they are comfortable with stroking their shoulder, you are going to stroke from their shoulder to their elbow and then give them a treat and repeat on both sides a few times. Repeat these short sessions until your pup is reliably comfortable with this shoulder to elbow stroking. You'll then repeat the process shoulder to wrist, then shoulder to paw (just running your hand off their paw, to start). Continue the process until your dog is comfortable with you resting your hand on their paw, holding their paw gently in your palm, squeezing their paw gently, a firm grip on their paw, gently squeezing individual toes, and finally holding their paw while you touch their nails with your other hand. Always start at the shoulder for each stroke and reward after each one--if they pull back, just go back to something 'easier' so you can "yes" and give a treat. With back legs, follow similar plan, hip to knee, then hock, then paw, or as similar as you can if they are positioned so you can't reach both back legs

Once your dog is excited about you picking up the clippers and they are comfortable with you handling their paws, you will work on putting those two pieces together, here are steps you should hit along the way...

1) A person casually approaches, pets, and gives treats to the dog while casually holding clippers

2) Do some of the above paw handling exercises with nail trimmers in view but not in your hand (always using treats)

3) Do the paw handling exercises with one hand while holding trimmers in the other

4) Do the shoulder stroking exercise with the trimmer in your palm (trimmer touching body)

5) During the paw handling exercises add touching the trimmers to paws or nails to the paw handling game above

6) During the paw handling exercises, place the nail in the trimmer WITHOUT clipping

7) During the paw handling exercises, place the nail in the trimmer and clip a tiny bit of the tip off--when you do this you should give multiple treats afterwards and then do some easy things and end

8) Build up to multiple nails cut in one session.

If your pet is wiggly- try progressing through the steps more slowly. You should only "yes" and treat when the dog is calm for the handling--if they pull away just go back a step where they were successful so you can "yes" and give a treat. Don’t progress to the next step until your pet has mastered being calm for the previous step. You can use more valuable rewards for the harder, scarier steps. If your pup is unfazed by the sight of the trimmers, then maybe he only gets a piece of kibble for that step but he can earn a piece of meat for successfully doing a step that is harder for him, like holding his paw for 3 seconds. The most common mistake is going too fast and practicing when your pet is not relaxed.

Your safety is important

Having two people can be very helpful so one can deliver treats for being calm and the other can clip the nails. It is not recommended that you proceed with this process on your own if your safety is in jeopardy, if even the 'easy' setups cause your dog to display aggressive behaviors, you should stop. If this is the case, please reach out to one of our Behavior Professional members for assistance.

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