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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.

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.

Get a new, sharp clippers for your dog on Amazon here!

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 favorite spot—and he calmed down. We left it at one nail and went on with our day.

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How to get a dog used to nail trims

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 times 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.

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.

Order a new nail clippers on Amazon here.

how-to-desensitize-your-dog-to-nail-trims

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.

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 Preston 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

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Joey

Sunday 7th of June 2020

"It’s b/c we trim, that they grow too long."

Their nails grow because that's what they do, not because you cut them. Their nails and hair grow the same as yours do. How long would your nails and hair be if you never cut them? I have known two dogs that kept their own nails chewed off, and some dogs keep their nails worn down by walking on rough surfaces, and some dogs' nails grow more slowly than others--but they all grow.

Lilly

Sunday 24th of February 2019

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.

Sophie

Friday 24th of August 2018

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. :)

Barb

Tuesday 17th of April 2018

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.

chris

Thursday 12th of April 2018

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.

Lindsay Stordahl

Friday 13th of April 2018

That seems to work better for a lot of dogs. I've never used one.