Over the years, I have struggled to get my dogs to enjoy nail trims. Truthfully, I used to struggle to even get them to tolerate a nail trim. From bribing with treats, to medication, to dodging snapping teeth, and finally resolving to pay the “experts” to do nail trims, I carried the guilt that so many pet owners have. I wondered why some people can easily trim their pets’ nails, and I was destined to always have pets who despised the act. Then, something changed.

I started taking classes in dog psychology, dog training and how dogs learn. Through all the learning, I made what was, for me, a breakthrough realization. The problem wasn’t that my dogs hated nail trims, it was that they weren’t introduced correctly to them! I, like many pet parents, grabbed the nail trimmers, did a few sessions of treats with the clippers, then began to clip away. I did not understand that to my dog, what I was doing was an abrupt introduction to something very novel and uncomfortable, and then asking them to be fine with it. Similar to taking someone who is afraid of heights, getting them comfortable on a step ladder, then asking them to jump out of an airplane high above the earth.

My current dog was by far the hardest dog to do nail trims on. He is deaf, so calming and soothing tones do no good; he was anxious, and he hated his feet touched. After years of getting nipped, we finally resolved ourselves to medication that made him drowsy and less anxious. Sure, we could get the nail trims done, but the effects of the medications made him lethargic all day and he would pace for hours as it wore off. There had to be a better way; and as I learned, there was

Back to basics:

I am not here to say that the work that needs to be done is easy- it’s not, but it is worth it! In less than six months I was able to take my dog who used to bite, nip, try to hide, all while sedated for nail trims to a dog who readily gets on his stool and allows us to trim his nails a little each day. We are still a work in progress, but I feel that there are pet owners who need to hear this: “You can do this.” We just have to return to basics and start from scratch.

Look, dogs are like us in the sense that they develop emotional reactions to things. If they are startled, or have a traumatic event happen, dogs develop an emotional response to that scenario of fear or anxiety. Dogs react to fear and anxiety by withdrawing or lashing out. When we continued to try and clip our dogs’ nails even though he was nervous, he had no option to lash out. It seems common sense now, but I tell you it was revolutionary for me!

Here is what I did. I wanted to undo my dogs’ association with the nail trimmer and with us doing his nails, but I needed a plan. We went all the way back to basics. When my dog was resting, I would gently pet him (which he loved). As I pet him, I would run my hand down his back, over his leg, and gently hold his paw for 1-2 seconds, then return to petting him. I made sure that we did this with all four paws several times a day. He loved being pet, so he would tolerate the paw hold for a short time if it meant he would get more pets. Both my husband and I did this for a few weeks. As he got more comfortable with having his paws handled, we noticed that sometimes, Murphy would put his paw in our hand when we were petting him! Success! That was my cue to move onto the next step.

Once we knew he was comfortable with us holding his paw, we started to gently separate his toes and apply very gentle pressure for 1-2 seconds (When you trim a dogs nails, you naturally need to apply pressure to the toe and separate it a little from the toe next to it, so the clipper can do its job without cutting the toe next to the one you are working on). When he was ok with that, we slowly added time that we manipulated his toes and nails- always being aware of where his comfort level was and slowing down or falling back a step or two if needed.

Transitioning to New Equipment:

Next came the hard part, how to recondition him to the trimmers. I’m sure it can be done, but I had learned that it is sometimes easier and less stressful for the pup to find a new stimulus (i.e. stop using the same trimmers!). We borrowed a Dremel from my brother-in-law for this step.

Why a Dremel? Well, to be honest, there were a few reasons. A Dremel tool looks nothing like the traditional nail trimmers we were using. It is a handheld tool that has a special tip that spins at very high speeds. The spinning head grinds the nail down, and it is easier to see if you are close to the quick. Since Dremel is a name brand (which we did use), going forward I will refer to it as a grinder tool.

First thing we did, was get our dog Murphy used to the grinder. This time, we were doing it correctly and taking tiny baby steps! I now have learned that dogs need to take small steps to not get overwhelmed and to feel confident. Our first step was to have him target the grinder tool. Targeting is when you teach your dog to touch something with his nose. It is a useful cue, with many applications. For nail trims, we wanted him to get used to the grinder and to develop a positive association with it. We got some of his favorite snacks (thick shredded cheese) and asked him to target the grinder. That was it- if he touched the machine with his nose, he got a piece of shredded cheese. If he chose not to, and to look away, we removed the grinder, spent a few seconds petting him and tried again. It was not long before he was eagerly touching the grinder with his nose every time we presented it!

I want to note something very important here. We asked him to touch the grinder, but we never made him do it. We made sure to always give our dog the choice to touch or not. Choice is very powerful for dogs. Murphy could choose to not touch; he just did not get the reward that he wanted. We did not get frustrated or angry- the choice was his, but the only way he could earn his favorite treat was to comply. As he grew in confidence and comfort, he more readily chose to touch the grinder. If we had made him touch the grinder or if we had pushed him and not given him permission to say no, we would have risked causing him anxiety and having him develop a negative emotional response to the grinder- the opposite of what we wanted.

Once he would reliably touch the grinder, we then plugged it in and asked him to target it, without turning it on. Dogs are sensitive, so I wanted to be sure that if there was any difference in the grinder because we plugged it in, that we were aware of it. He did not have a different reaction, so we then gently put the grinder to his toe- while it was off. Murphy pulled back and was uncomfortable so we took a step back and returned to targeting.

I want to note something very important here. We asked him to touch the grinder, but we never made him do it. We made sure to always give our dog the choice to touch or not. Choice is very powerful for dogs. Murphy could choose to not touch; he just did not get the reward that he wanted. We did not get frustrated or angry- the choice was his, but the only way he could earn his favorite treat was to comply. As he grew in confidence and comfort, he more readily chose to touch the grinder. If we had made him touch the grinder or if we had pushed him and not given him permission to say no, we would have risked causing him anxiety and having him develop a negative emotional response to the grinder- the opposite of what we wanted.

Once he would reliably touch the grinder, we then plugged it in and asked him to target it, without turning it on. Dogs are sensitive, so I wanted to be sure that if there was any difference in the grinder because we plugged it in, that we were aware of it. He did not have a different reaction, so we then gently put the grinder to his toe- while it was off. Murphy pulled back and was uncomfortable so we took a step back and returned to targeting.

The Next Big Step:

The next day, I remembered that in my Fear Free training I was taught that if you start by touching a dog where they are comfortable and gently slide your hand to where you need to do the work, it is less stressful for the dog. So, I began by putting a hand on his front shoulder and slid my hand down his leg to his paw. I then touched the grinder to one nail for 1 second, removed it and gave him his treat. After a few times, he was comfortable with the grinder touching his nails- as long as it was turned off. I held the grinder to his nails for a few seconds and moved the grinder tip up and down so he could get used to the sensation of the file on his nail.

After a few days, we turned the grinder on to the lowest setting, and stepped back in our training. We again started at the shoulder, slid our hand down his leg to his paw, and touched the now-powered grinder to his paw for one second. He was given his treat right away before we again started at the shoulder and slid our hand down his leg for the second toe. Murphy’s reaction was uncertain and so it was important that we gave him the opportunity to refuse. If he pulled his foot back, we let go and tried again. We never tried to force the interaction at all.

Where are we now?

After a few days of just touching each nail for a second or two, he started to get more comfortable. We decided that, for us, the Dremel was a little too fast grinding, and instead opted to purchase a grinder tool specially designed for dogs. It spins at a slower rate, so the vibration is not as intense for the dog. We introduced it to Murphy, starting at square one- literally asking him to target it without turning it on.

This time, however, the progress from targeting to grinding nails was only a day or two. He had developed the confidence and was associating the grinding tools with his favorite treat- we have successfully created a positive emotional response to the grinder! We can now trim all of his nails for several seconds before we have to offer a treat. He is no longer medicated and there is no stress around nail trims any longer. In fact, when he sees the grinder come out, he runs to his spot (a large ottoman in our living room) and waits for his nail trims.

We are more relaxed, and so is Murphy. What used to be a stressful and anxiety-producing event taking two adults and medication to accomplish is now easily done with one of us and no medication- unless you count shredded cheese as medication!

Murphy getting a happy nail trim

Takeaways:

Through this process, I have learned a few things that I now share with my clients.

1. Dogs need to have the power of choice.
Giving a dog the power to say no is a wonderful way to build trust between you and your canine friend.

2. Dogs can have the power of choice and consequences of that choice.
When our Murphy said no, we did not get angry, but we also did not offer him his much-desired reward. If he wanted the cheese, he would have to push past his discomfort, but we had to be the ones to help him.

3. Set your dog up for success.
When asking something new or uncomfortable of your dog, make the request one they can comply with when they choose. Remember my example of someone who is afraid of heights? You can’t ask them to jump out of an airplane or go skydiving right away. You can ask them to get comfortable on a step ladder first, then go from there. The same is true for your dog.

4. Consistency is key!
Reward the behavior every time your dog does it. We still reward Murphy if he targets the grinder, even if we didn’t ask him to.

5. Take teeny tiny baby steps
This was key for me to learn, and I find many families I work with make the same mistake. Too often, we see a dog is comfortable with one level and we jump to the fifth level- we cannot do that. It is better to take tiny steps and adjust back if needed. Our journey to happy nail trims took several weeks, not just a day or two, and we practiced it nightly. Take baby steps to prevent your dog from getting overwhelmed, confused or anxious.

6. Remember that when one part of the equation changes, you may need to go back a few steps.
Just like when we switched from the Dremel to a lower powered grinder, we needed to go back to targeting. Dogs do not generalize as well as we do, so we need to expect them to need more encouragement when one part of the equation changes.

7. Touch can be a very powerful thing.
If your dog does not like his paws handled, you can gently touch them while petting him. This can be done for any body part that dogs do not like touched. For example, my dog loves his ears rubbed, but not all dogs do. When stroking a dog on the head (if they like that), you can gently let your wrist touch his ear, and keep petting. Eventually, as he gets more comfortable, maybe you can gently pet his ear with your hand, before trying to handle his ears (which is necessary for cleaning them). Use touch in a positive way only- never use harsh touch or aggressive touch with your pet- that will destroy their trust in you and can cause more anxiety, stress and fear.

8. Always move at the dogs’ pace.
Some of our transitions happened quickly, others did not. The thing I realized this time was that I had to allow our dog to decide when he was comfortable, I could not determine that. I had to become proficient at reading his body language and I needed to respect what he was telling me

9. Always end on a positive note.
We never end a training session in our house with Murphy feeling frustrated. Even if it’s as simple as asking him to sit and give a paw, we do that so we can end well. For harder sessions, like nail trims, we end sessions with a “jackpot reward”- basically 4-5 pieces of his favorite treat given in rapid succession (not all at once).

10. Have fun!
Building trust between you and your dog takes work, but it can be fun, and it is so rewarding! Don’t train if you are frustrated or too tired to be relaxed. The point is to make it fun!

I hope I have encouraged you a bit. Your dog’s journey to a happy nail trim may be different than Murphy’s. In fact, I almost guarantee it will be, but if you take it slow, read their language and allow them the power of choice, you too can have a happy pup at trimming time! I would love to hear your success stories as well!

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