Nail Trim Like a Boss (Part 1 of 2)

nailtrimcoverUgh! There’s nothing more stressful than nail-trimming time. I remember when my bloodhound/lab mix Boy was a puppy: The clippers would come out of the drawer, and the hound in him would start howling (Boy tends to be a bit of a Drama Queen in some situations.) Not only does nail trimming bring stress to the pet but also the pet owner.

We make associations with things on a daily basis.

If you yourself have had a past bad experience with, say, a dental procedure, then you are unlikely to want to subject yourself to that experience again. You may find yourself avoiding your scheduled appointments not just for procedures but even for cleanings. As time passes, you may develop significant dental problems (The Dreaded Root Canal!) merely because you avoided taking care of business when it needed to be done. “Even a small leak will sink a great ship,” as Benjamin Franklin once said.

On the other hand, if you have a positive dental experience, you are far less likely to avoid going to the dentist the next time, and you may even welcome routine cleanings for the shine they bring to your smile. If the Novocain does its job, and the dentist is skillful and gentle and rewards you with a nice, shiny, new toothbrush when you leave, you are far more likely to return before you are in crisis mode.

Nail clipping is not much different. We can make the experience positive or negative depending upon our preparation and approach. If, for example, we pair the clippers with something tasty like freshly cooked meat or cheese, even my Drama Queen Boy may hold his howl for the squirrels and rabbits.

Following is a quick training regimen you can implement. As you train, please be sure to be safe. If your dog has a tendency to nip, I would highly recommend using a muzzle (There are also protocols to make muzzling a positive experience). While working on the training regimen, be sure to keep sessions very short, 30 seconds tops. Many short sessions throughout the day are more beneficial than a single hour-long session, for example.

The other thing to watch as you move through these exercises is your dog’s body language, which is his way of communicating to you. As you “listen” to him, you may need to adjust what you do, for example, holding the clippers farther away and gradually moving them closer. Dog behaviors to look for that say “I am uncomfortable” include looking away or backing away from you. Signs that show stress include shaking or refusing treats. If you notice these signs, stop training at that time, and when you return, revert to the place where you were first having success and then go very slowly. Additional information on reading body language can be found by clicking here.

backingup     turningaway
(backing up and lift of leg)                 (Turning away/not taking treats)

First 3-4 days
Place the nail clippers on table, give your dog a handful of treats (one right after the other), and then put your clippers away. Do this a few times a day for 3-4 days.

The following 3-4 days, hold clippers while you are petting him, giving lots of treats as you do.

For the next 3-4 days, touch the clippers to his nail (without clipping) and give lots of treats. Be sure to read your dog’s body language, and go slowly to ensure that it is a positive experience and there are no signs of stress. If you do see signs of stress, like backing up or tensing up, end the session. Later, when you start a training session, go back to the stage at which you were having success.

clippersonnailFor the following weeks of training
Once he is comfortable with the clippers touching his nails, start the process of clipping, and make sure there are a lot of treats. Also, giving him a Kong® stuffed with peanut butter or a bully stick to chew while you are clipping can be very helpful. I had a friend let her dog lick the dirty dishes in the dishwasher while she trimmed. You can make the goal of getting one paw done a day. If his fear is severe, I would encourage you to do one nail a day with a large handful of treats and something amazingly fun like a game of fetch or a nice walk afterward. This process is obviously going to take more time, but it is better to do a very short, successful training session than a long session that will end up with back tracking in the training process.

Once your dog’s nails have been trimmed to a good length, you can do something called tipping which will allow your dog’s nails to stay short and not result in great distress for either one of you. Tipping is simply clipping the very tip of the nails once a week.

Nail trimming need not be like a dreaded trip to Dr. Vlad the Impaler Dentist for either you or your dog. Instead, it can be a fun trip to see Dr. Doolittle, lover of all things animal. A little planning and preparation can go a long way toward ensuring a positive experience for you both. Stay tuned for a later blog that will give you the technical aspects of how to trim, along with the best tools for the job and “what if’s” for accidental “quicking.” In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, start your prep!


Blog written by Michelle Huntting
Michelle Huntting is a double nationally certified professional dog trainer. She is working towards her graduate degree in behavior analysis. Michelle is known as the All-American dog trainer with a passion to bring science-based training awareness to the world. She is currently working toward a radio talk show and a local morning TV show. Michelle lives in Dallas, Texas, with her twin boys and two dogs.

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