Some dog owners prefer to have their veterinarian or groomer clip their dog’s nails, either because they are uninterested, uncertain of their technique, or afraid they might cut the nail too short or hurt their dog. Others prefer to clip their dog’s nails at home but face an uphill battle in getting their dog to tolerate it. If you are in this latter group, help has arrived! I will work through today how to teach a dog to calmly tolerate and even enjoy nail clipping using positive reinforcement.
Many dogs find nail clipping less than enjoyable on its own. When done correctly, there is no pain to nail clipping, as there is none when we clip our own fingernails. When the nail is cut too short, some bleeding and pain can result but even when a dog’s nails have never been cut to the quick, he or she may find the whole routine tedious at best and downright frightening at worst. Paws are a sensitive body part for dogs, and many respond to paw touch or paw handling with an instinctive pulling away. If an owner or handler just grabs that paw and then clips a nail, the dog may become increasingly frightened, resistant, or even aggressive when having her paws reached for over time. Some dogs “grin and bear it” for a lifetime, but others become defensive. By the time they are in my office for behavioral intervention, they are snarling, snapping, and biting when their paws are touched or even approached with those nail clippers!
If we know that nail clipping is inherently a little off-putting for most dogs, then our best strategy is to work to make it less so. In fact, we should be teaching dogs that nail clipping, while it still involves paw holding and mild nail pressure, is in fact kind of fun! This can be accomplished in stages by using patience, positive reinforcement, and practice.
To start, sit down with a bowl full of your dog’s favorite treats cut into tiny pieces. Have the nail clippers sitting by your side on the floor. If your dog already knows what nail clippers mean, and she won’t even approach when they are in sight, then you’ll have to move them further away from you to start. When she approaches, praise and provide a treat. If she tries to nose her way into the bowl, block it casually with your hands until she quits trying to steal treats. When she sits or stands back and quits nosing in the bowl, praise and treat. Run your hand down her leg and when it reaches her paw, praise and treat. If she seems comfortable with this (no retreating, mouthing, aggression, or sharply pulling her paw away), then repeat. Try different paws and always praise and treat with one hand as your other hand passes over her paw. Then try lifting that paw briefly as you praise and treat. Let this process take place over several sessions, maybe 5 minutes at a time a few times a day when you know she is hungry and most excited about those treats.
When she will let you lift her paw in your hand, try moving the nail clippers so that they are laying clearly in view near her. Repeat paw lifting and praise and treat each time you lift a paw. When she seems comfortable with this over several repetitions, hold that paw for an extra moment before you praise and treat. Your job now is to teach her to let her paw rest in your hand for a few seconds. Start with very short holds and gradually hold that paw a moment longer each time before you praise and treat. If she pulls her paw from your hand, don’t praise or treat Just wait a few seconds and try again.
When she will allow you to hold each paw for a few seconds, try bringing the nail clippers to her paw with one hand. Don’t clip yet, just bring the nail clippers near to her paw, then praise and treat from your treat bowl. Repeat. From there, these steps involve holding a nail in front of the nail clippers and finally pressing down with the nail clippers to clip the nail. (If you are unsure of how to clip the nail itself, speak with your veterinarian for instruction before you reach this stage.)
What’s important throughout this process is that your dog understands she is free to walk away at any time and yet she doesn’t want to walk away because she knows there’s something in her behavior that is producing those treats! We teach her that “sticking around” is rewarded, and we gradually increase the paw manipulation and ultimately nail clipping without her realizing there’s any reason to feel anxious in the first place. Of course, when the anxiety and fear of the process go away, so does any defensive aggression. In its place, we have a dog who comes running when she hears those nail clippers come out of the drawer, ready to place her pretty paw right into your hand!