How to Get A Dog to Tolerate Nail Trims—5 Tips

Every morning when I wipe off Baxter’s feet after our first walk of the day, I clip two toenails.

This is an incredible accomplishment.

The fact that I can clip two nails (two!), that I can do it every day, that I can do it by myself—there were moments when I wasn’t sure we could get here.

Bax hates having his nails clipped. When we first got him, my husband and I went to clip his nails and he freaked out. We thought we must be doing something wrong. We called my friend who’s a vet tech, and she offered to show us how to do it properly.

How to get a dog used to nail trims

That nail trimming session involved Baxter pinned to the ground thrashing and growling and snapping. The leash was wrapped around his jaw as a makeshift muzzle. It took both Matt and I to hold him down while my friend clipped his nails.

It was awful.

But that was what a vet tech—a professional—did, so we figured that must be how it goes. Some dogs just don’t like getting their nails clipped. Matt and I went out and bought a proper muzzle, and every month we had a wrestling match with Baxter.

Everyone was stressed on nail cutting day, Baxter most of all. I finally decided I wasn’t going to do that to him anymore.

How to get a dog to tolerate nail trims

I started a campaign of desensitization.

For a few minutes every day, I touched his feet. I stroked his legs, touched his feet, examined his toes, tapped his nails, held his foot. Every day for about two weeks.

I should say here that we don’t do a lot of treat training, so food rewards were not part of my desensitization plan. Our trainer (whom we did consult about Bax’s off the wall toenail reaction) is adamantly against treat training, so we’ve never gotten in the habit of using treats.

tips-to-get-your-dog-used-to-nail-trims

After the desensitization session, Bax would get a massage, which he loves, or scratches in all his favourite places.

After the touchy-feely time had gone on for awhile, I added the clippers. I let him see and sniff the clippers. I touched his legs and feet with them.

Then I progressed to tapping his nails with the clippers. Again, this went on for about a week and each session was followed by massage. Then I started putting his nail in the jaw of the clippers. I was holding his foot the way I would when I cut the nail. The clippers were touching him the way they would.

I restrained myself from trying to cut a nail, no matter how calm he seemed.

Eventually after weeks of my desensitization campaign, I clipped a nail. There was jerking and growling and screaming (seriously, you should hear this dog scream). I hadn’t hit the quick or hurt him. He was fine. He was just upset. I scratched his neck—his favourite spot—and he calmed down. We left it at one nail and went on with our day.

Desensitization continued, and I tried another nail. His reaction was the same. There was one point where Bax put his teeth on me hard enough to bruise my hand. I didn’t give up and persisted with touching his feet, tapping his nails, massaging and scratching him and clipping one toe nail every morning.

Slowly, Baxter calmed down. He’s still not perfect. We’re up to clipping two toe nails every morning. I try not to push it more than that. Sometimes there’s a reaction of a grumble or a squeal, but there is no more snapping and no more meltdowns. I’ve clipped too short a couple of time and hit the quick. These incidents haven’t seemed to set us back at all. Bax will let me swab his nail and hold it until the bleeding stops.

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Over time, the position that Baxter is most comfortable in has changed.

At first, he was calmest in a sit with me picking his paws up in front of him. He seemed less anxious about having his front nails clipped than his backs.

Now, he stands every morning, and I bend his paws back under him so that he can’t see. When I clip his back feet, he sometimes doesn’t react at all—I love it when that happens.

Baxter is still a bit sensitive about his feet. I would never ask him to let someone else cut his toenails. I feel like Baxter has come to trust me around his toenails, and we’ve found a routine that works for both of us.

[quote_center]I feel like Baxter has come to trust me around his toenails, and we’ve found a routine that works for both of us.[/quote_center]

Five tips for cutting a dog’s toenails:

1. Don’t rush it. There’s no rule that says you have to cut every toenail all in one session. Clip just one nail a day—or every other day. Find what works for you and your dog.

2. Start small with handling your dog’s feet and toes. Get him used to the clippers, your grip and the sounds over time.

3. Be calm. You might be anxious about how your dog is going to react, but if you can be calm, he’s more likely to be calm. We’ve learned that my husband does not project a calm energy when it comes to nail clipping. Remind yourself that they’re just toenails. If today doesn’t work, you’ll try again tomorrow (see #1 above). If you want to talk, do it in a soft voice. I found a shhhh sound sometimes helped.

4. Try different positions. Have your dog standing, sitting, lying down. Try holding the feet in front or curled under. Pay attention to where your dog seems to be most comfortable.

5. Use a reward to associate nail clipping with something positive. Treats and food are obvious rewards, but petting can work too. Touch is a powerful communicator with dogs. Mixing in massage or scratching your dog in his favourite spot can strengthen your bond.

How does your dog handle nail trims?

Julia Thomson is a regular contributor to That Mutt. She maintains the blog Home on 129 Acres.

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How to get a dog to tolerate nail trims

25 thoughts on “How to Get A Dog to Tolerate Nail Trims—5 Tips”

  1. I just adopted a few weeks ago and nail trims don’t seem to be the challenge, I have a Giant Schnauzer with natural ears, which means I need to pluck those hairs in there. He’s almost a year and it looks like it’s never been done before! He let me get one almost completely plucked but I’ve spent the last three days getting a tiny bit out of the other one, at this rate it’s going to be maintenance. Any suggestions on getting him to settle down a bit more for this?

    1. Congratulations on your new addition, Kate. I have absolutely no experience with something like this–honestly, with my short-haired dog, I didn’t know it was something that dogs needed. I’d suggest that some of the tips I gave above might help for ears, the same that they help for toenails. Continue to think of it as ongoing maintenance. If he truly has never had his ears done like this, it may just take some time for him o get used to it.

  2. My dogs hate having their nails clipped and it got so bad with Scout that I hired someone to come to our house to teach me.

    Today, I can clip all of our dogs’ nails with little drama. I don’t do it all in one session – four dogs is too much. Instead, each evening is a different dog’s turn. This keeps the other dogs from stressing out in anticipation. And I do as you mentioned, a couple nails at a time at the start and built up.

    With Rodrigo, I can clip all of his nails in one setting. With Sydney, I had to build up to that. Scout and I argue initially and then he settles down and allows me to trim his nails – it’s best to do in one session if I can. And Zoey I do front nails one day and back nails the next day unless she’s willing to allow me to clip them all.

    Tonight’s the night – I think I’ll start with Sydney.

  3. Form a relationship with a good groomer?

    Seriously, I outsource. Shamelessly. I have never actually clipped my dog’s nails. She’s at the groomer every 10-14 days, or else I have her daycare do it.

  4. I have found that if I give my dog a spoonful of peanut butter he is vastly more interested in it than the nail cutting. We have moved out of cutting them in the shower stall. It’s a move in the right direction.

  5. I thought this was such a helpful post. Ace is nervous during nail trims and I think it’s because I’m nervous about hurting him. He lets me do it, but he struggles to get away sometimes and he is tense and licks his lips the whole time. My parents have a springer spaniel who freaks out during nail trims (screams!) and they have to just take her to the groomer or vet to have hers done. We have tried what you did with Bax with 2 or 3 adults holding her down. It’s awful and everyone ends up mad and scratched. These tips might work for them if they are up for it but I think at this point it’s just easier to have the groomer do it.

  6. I’ve been cutting my dogs’ nails every week for about 15 years. Every Monday, I pull out the clippers. Every Monday, they look for something to do. Maya will start playing with a toy, knowing how cute I think she is when she plays. Pierson suddenly starts looking for things to sniff, or if he’s outside, squirrels to chase. But they come when I call. I use the ‘play dead’ command in order to get them on their side. Then I give them a tummy rub. They then let me cut their nails, albeit reluctantly. They can count too. As soon as I’m done with their last toe, they’re up and ready for their treat.

    I started this routine with my dog Sephi, then later with Maya, and finally with Pierson. Honestly, I was really lucky with all of them. Sephi and Maya were pups when I got them and I started almost right away without too much hassle. Pierson was a year old when I got him. It did take a little longer before he was used to me holding his feet. But once I got to that point, he didn’t resist the cutting.

  7. Great post! My two Rottweilers don’t like having their nails done, my GSD is so easy and my Chihuahua will let me but doesn’t like it. I won’t give up on the rotties… Hahahahaha

  8. Julia, someone asked me on Facebook why your trainer doesn’t recommend treat training? I wasn’t sure what the reason was. I assume so you’re not depending on treats or to prevent dogs from getting too excited/distracted by the food? (Perhaps this could be a post idea sometime)

  9. I use a dremmel to cut our dogs nails. The pet nail grinder is less evasive and they tolerate it a whole lot better. Its like us using an emery board on our nails. We get all nails done at once. I suggest this as a great alternative. It worked for us. With our current dog…he is a biter too when it comes to nails. An Elizabethan collar during nail trimming has solved this.

  10. This is a very helpful post. Our springer absolutely hates having her toenails clipped, but doesn’t mind me touching her feet, wiping muddy paws, even trimming the fur on her feet. It’s only when the clippers appear that she goes bonkers. And I do mean bonkers. She knows the difference between the clippers and the scissors. This sequence to desensitize in small increments sounds like a good plan to try. Thank you!

  11. I use a dremel tool on my dogs nails (after too many times not being able to see the quick because their nails were black). I got them used to it by having my husband or daughter give the dog treats (hot dog pieces, string cheese pieces or animal crackers) and worked them up to liking the dremel. The dogs are still not totally relaxed with it but it is much better than the clippers even if it means I have to do the front nails one day and the back nails the next. Dremel tools (and I don’t buy the pet one because the regular cordless one works better) work so much better.

  12. Or, don’t trimvtheir nails that first time it occurs to you to do so. It’s b/c we trim, that they grow too long.
    If you never start, you will never need to.

  13. Hi, can I suggest guillotine clippers? I understand some people aren’t keen, but I’ve found that they make a much quieter noise when cutting the nail. Our dog Pete still isn’t keen and we have to try distraction etc, but it’s the best reaction I’ve had so far from him, having tried clippers, a grinder, and now these. 🙂

  14. If you have a puppy, nail trimming can be an easy habit to establish. Adult dogs are likely to be less willing. Just as some people dislike having their feet touched, some dogs have very sensitive paws. Others, like my two mutts, happily lie on their backs, paws akimbo, for high-fives x 4. Granted, they aren’t quite so relaxed when having their nails trimmed, but at least they are used to having their toes, paws and legs manipulated.
    If your dog is unwilling, pick a time when your pet is relaxed and having a cuddle. Remember slow and steady wins the race. Be a tortoise, not a hare. Hares just get dogs overexcited! Combine handling with treats as necessary.
    With practice, you should be able to touch and press individual toes (this is an essential part of trimming the dog’s nails). If done properly, your dog will not only tolerate having his/her toes touched in this way – he/she may even find it enjoyable. Obviously, don’t do this when your four-legged friend is agitated or excited; during down-time after exercise, or in the evening when your pet is relaxed are good times.

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