Trimming a Dog’s Toenails

Toenails PicHelp! My dog will not let me trim his nails at home- he acts like I’m trying to hurt him and won’t sit still! Is there any way to train him to let me do this?

The good news is that yes! There are several easy things you can try at home to desensitize your dog to the “horrors” of the nail trim (in his mind) and change his perspective to the whole process. I have met dogs who feel the nail trimmer is the equivalent of a horror movie villain, clearly up to no good with harmful intent.

The next appointment may have a dog so eager to get his nails trimmed that he will bully his housemates out of the way for his owner to file his nails first, tail wagging the whole time. What’s the difference between these dogs? Fundamentally, nothing, beyond how nail trims were introduced and handled in the past.

Most dogs do not like their feet touched, most especially by strangers. Now, take this natural aversion to touch, and introduce a strange device that puts pressure on your toenail to cut them. In most cases, the dog’s natural response is to wiggle, whine or try to get away from the things it does not like- and as kind-hearted owners, we let them. In your dog’s mind, he’s just “won” that round- wiggling and whining got you to stop that toenail trim he doesn’t like. He will remember that “win”, and every time that you stop trimming his nails when he does this, it reinforces the behavior. Now, you’re frustrated and holding him more firmly- which he also doesn’t like- and trimming his nails despite his squirming. In his mind, you have escalated the negative experience, and his response will escalate as well. The end result of this becomes a battle of wills and a dog that is convinced that the toenail trimmer really is “out to get him” and he must protect himself at all costs. Sound familiar?

The key to changing your experience with toenail trims is to change your dog’s perspective on the entire process, from a terrifying punishment to a reward. How, you ask? Find your dog’s ultimate treat- the best, most enticing thing he will do anything for. This may be food, it may be a favored toy; every dog is different. We will use this reward only when we are working to retrain him about nail trims for the time being; ie- treats only come out when “bad” things are happening. Over time, this pairing will gently shift your dog’s perspective from one of dread to one of anticipation.

To start reframing the process, hold the dog in your lap and casually touch his feet, extending his toes one by one while feeding small rewards. When you stop touching his feet, the rewards stop and do not come out again until you are touching his feet. Do this in approximately 2 minute “commercial break” sessions, as frequently as you can until he is no longer bothered by this action. After a while, it becomes routine to your pet and you can proceed to the next step.

Next, have the nail trimmer out on the couch next to you, where your dog can see it, but it is not coming towards him. Again, give treats when he is near it comfortably, but stop as soon as it is out of sight. Once this step is mastered, gently tap a toenail with the nail trimmer while- you guessed it- giving treats. When he no longer reacts to you tapping his nails, place the nail trimmer around the nail without applying pressure, then finally applying pressure as that stage is mastered.

Keep in mind, this is done at your dog’s pace- some catch on very quickly, while others have to overcome a phobia and may take a bit longer. The key is to keep your sessions short but frequent, and to time the treats to ONLY be given when the negative stimulus (the nail trimmer) is doing something they don’t particularly like. If your dog is upset by any particular step, STOP and give him a break. This just means you’ve got a bit too fast for him and need to backtrack a bit. Ironically, as with most training, the slower you introduce the next step, the faster you will attain your goal overall, as less time is spent regrouping on a dog that was pushed too far past his comfort level. As long as your dog is engrossed in the treat rather than watching what you’re doing with his feet, you are successfully teaching him that toenail trims mean treats, and easing the way for all future nail trims. It is, after all, just a matter of perspective.

For further information or a helpful video outlining the training regimen suggested above, please visit: https://drsophiayin.com/videos/entry/training_a_dog_to_enjoy_toenail_trims or consult your local veterinarian.

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posted in:  VMA Modesto News