Many people struggle with trimming their dog’s nails. I remember my mentor, Jean Donaldson, saying that having a leg restrained often elicits the flight response, because it’s like having a leg caught in a trap. That was some very strong imagery for me and really motivated me to try to come up with a way to make nail maintenance more comfortable. Because my own dog, Hazel, was not a fan of clippers, I decided to try a plain old nail file! Devising a plan to trim my dog’s nails helped me be able to chart our progress and be sure that she was completely comfortable along the way. When working through this plan, the dog’s comfort is the most important aspect and I’ve detailed how you can determine that comfort in the steps below to trim dog nails.
The full plan looks like this:
Step 1: Build the positive Conditioned Emotional Response (+CER) to the nail file. You build the +CER by bringing the file out randomly a few times a day and show it to the dog, while feeding a high value food (I use freeze-dried tripe). The only requirement here is that the dog actually sees the file before the party starts. You know you have a strong +CER when your dog looks anticipatory and happy. You want to make sure that your food party stops as soon as you put the nail file away.
(NOTE: You may get some bang for your buck here if you are lucky. The nail file is likely to be a completely novel object, so you won’t have any fears to overcome like you might clippers. File this under: WIN!)
Step 2: Get your dog comfortable with handling of legs and feet! This may mean simply starting with touching the upper legs, moving down to elbows, lower legs, feet then nails. Touching means no restraint at first. If you have to start here, have no fear. You will get there, but it pays to go slow if necessary. This will look like: touch on upper leg (no nail file in sight just yet!), migrating down to elbows and lower legs for a few seconds (don’t get greedy!), overlapping touch and high value food. You want the touch to predict the food and the end of the touch to predict the end of the food.
Step 3: You may need to start up at the upper legs or elbows again for restraint. This is okay! You are going to migrate down the leg to the feet again. This will look like: restrain on upper leg (no nail file in sight just yet!), migrating down to elbows and lower legs for a few seconds (don’t get greedy!), overlapping restraint and high value food. Again, you want the restraint to predict the food and the end of the restraint to predict the end of the food. The nail trim is coming so be patient.
(NOTE: You may be able to move straight to restraint, but if you do, be absolutely sure your dog is comfortable with it. The signs of comfort may not be as obvious, but you should see a relaxed looking dog, who still has that look of anticipation and is not pulling his/her leg or foot away. You may see a wagging tail or you may just have a dog who is looking for the good stuff (the food!) to begin upon restraint.)
Step 4: Once you have completed the migration to the feet and you are sure you have a dog who is sticking around willingly, work on manipulating the toes. Run fingers down the length of the toe towards the nail and feed from your other hand. Again, toe touching stops, food delivery stops. Toe touching predicts food. You are going to feed for each toe. In addition to running through the steps too quickly, fading the food too quickly can be harmful to the cause. Don’t be stingy! And don’t hold on to the toes for more than 3 seconds initially. We don’t want the dog to feel the need to pull away, because that will set you back. With Hazel, I had the benefit of having done this work a long time ago, so we were able to breeze through it, but unless your dog is used to it and, more importantly, likes it, take your time.
Step 5: Begin to restrain foot as if you are about to file. This will include putting some pressure on each toe to gain extension of the nail and the ability to manipulate toes. I began by holding Hazel’s foot with my hand, manipulating the nails and toes. At this point, your dog will still be fed for each toe.
Step 6: Restrain foot, manipulate toes and touch toe with file. Feed. Continue toe by toe. If your dog pulls away, looks upset or is resisting the touch of the file or being restrained, back up a step. Remember that “foot stuck in trap” thing. It’ll set you right every time! This is the point at which this becomes a true 2-handed procedure, so overlapping can be hard. Just be sure to stop the food party as soon as you have stopped touching toes.
Step 7: Restrain foot, manipulate toes and give one nail a swipe with the file. Feed. Celebrate (in your inside voice, so your dog doesn’t feel the need to get up and celebrate with you!) and continue nail by nail, feeding after each one. This is another “don’t get greedy” spot. You don’t want to increase your duration (the amount of time between each food party) prematurely. Please don’t, you could blow it all.
Step 8: At this point, you can move on to filing each nail with a little longer duration. Continue to feed after each nail. The temptation may exist to file in 2 directions. I have found this to leave little shards of nail on the feet and not be as comfortable for Hazel as just going in one direction, as I need to use a little more pressure to hold her toe in place.
(NOTE: If you and your dog are comfortable with filing in 2 directions, you can go ahead and add that in. Just know that you may need to pick off some small pieces of nail, which may involve a bit more restraint. This does have the benefit of making filing go quicker, but may include some stronger restraint. This may necessitate some more conditioning work.)
Step 9: Once you are comfortably filing a foot at a time, you can move to feeding after each foot and then 2, then 3, then after all 4. I will typically give all four feet at least a little bit of attention in each session to make sure that she is staying comfortable with the procedure and to keep her nails even.
Step 10: Bask in the glory of your dog’s gorgeous nails!
Lori Nanan is the Canine Behavior Education Coordinator at Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, PA, serves as Intake Coordinator for malenademartini.com, runs projects for The Academy for Dog Trainers and is the founder of Your Pit Bull and You, which provides education and information for all dog lovers and can be found at www.yourpitbullandyou.com
sponsored by Pet Tutor®