I’ve been there…

Seeing my dog’s nails getting a little too long and making excuses about trimming them until they were too long to ignore. 

Psyching myself up to break out the clippers, and dreading the struggle that would inevitably ensue. 

Watching my dog slick his ears back and retreat whenever the clippers came out of the drawer despite me breaking out his favorite treats. 

And dripping with sweat after wrestling my dog for what seemed like an eternity as I clipped each nail, praying I didn’t strike blood. 

Listen, I used to hate nail trims. 

So much so, I ended up pawning them off on groomers, vet techs and anyone that would do them for me. 

I did it because I had no idea there was a better way. 

I had no idea you could actually teach a dog to like nail trims. 

Take Mayday for example…

Mayday came to hang with us due to some worrisome behavioral issues.

Not only did he bite people…

He was also severely aggressive with dogs…

And there was no way anyone (owner included) could trim his nails or check his teeth without a muzzle and a solid strategy. 

Because of his behavior…

His vet put him on regular, and very heavy sedatives. 

And when he arrived…he was a bit of a zombie. 

In fact, it took us well over a month to get the meds out of his system, and get him operating like a normal dog again. 

But these days, Mayday is rocking his nail trimming sessions.

Not only does he get excited when the clippers come out…

He doesn’t bite…at all…when his nails are trimmed.

So how did we do it?

  1. We stopped worrying about his long nails – His nails were overgrown, but getting him to accept handling was more important than having them trimmed up right away. So long as they weren’t hurting him, it was okay to leave them long until his training was finished.
  2. We broke the trimming process into baby steps – First, we taught Mayday to accept handling, and to stay still while we handled his feet, grabbed his collar etc. Then, we introduced the sight of the clippers, followed by the sound of the clippers (clipping a stick), followed by the clippers actually touching him…all before we actually clipped his nails. Patience is a virtue when it comes to cooperative care.
  3. We traded him for treats – At every step, we worked to build a new association with our actions by trading him for treats. For example, we’d touch his foot, and trade him for a treat…we’d grab his collar, and trade him for a treat etc. We stayed at each step until he was comfortable before moving on (some steps required more repetitions than others), and if at any point he showed stress, we backed up a bit and made it easier so we could set him up for success (Mayday could leave the session whenever he wanted).
  4. We paired the reward with the pressure, to help him form new associations with the tough stuff. That means, rather than rewarding AFTER the nail was clipped, or AFTER we let go of his foot, we rewarded WHILE we clipped, or WHILE we were holding his foot. We’d use a marker word (YIP!) and then let go of his foot to get and deliver his treat. When paired with the tough stuff, that marker word serves to help our dogs learn that the tough stuff = good stuff.
  5. We kept our sessions short – Sessions were always about 3 minutes in length give or take. Long sessions would stress him out, so it was important we never pushed too hard and we practiced frequently.
  6. We broke up the sessions with movement – Because this was scary stuff for Mayday, we didn’t do too many reps in a row. Instead, we’d handle him a bit, and then toss a treat away to get him moving, and help him release any stress he may have been building during the exercises.

This is Mayday’s 4th or 5th session with nail trims. And not only is he off all of his medications, he no longer needs to be muzzled for routine care. And while our work isn’t done yet, and he needs a quite a bit more help in the confidence department, (and we have to work up to trimming ALL of the nails between treats ) I couldn’t be more proud of how far this little guy has come. 

Truth is, nail trimming should be easy. It should never be an exercise in frustration. But our dogs aren’t born knowing how to relax when they are being manhandled for basic grooming that frankly, they simply don’t understand. For that reason, it’s up to us to spend time building trust in that department, and teaching our dogs that nail trimming is nothing to fear. 

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    1 Response to "It shouldn’t be a struggle: 6 Steps to Make Trimming Your Dog’s Nails Easy"

    • Jenny Haskins

      I believe that many people have success with the method you recommend.
      I have had dogs who were blissfully easy about nail cutting.
      I’ve had dogs who were much more reluctant — down to “bloody impossible” 🙂
      With Mad Millie (came to us called Millie, we added the Mad) none of this as worked.
      She came to us because she has some wuite severe problems — the turning point foer her forst ‘ family was ‘running away’. She was fearful on ALL humans , but chose us as she like our other dogs.
      After 5-6 years we have overcome a lot of the problems. But any little thing can set her off and we have to work carefully on overcoming them again.
      Nail trimming is the worst. I will not send her to a groomer or vet because I think that would tip her again into neurosis.
      I can get to trim her front nails — usually just one in a session.
      But I’ve done her back feet only once and now she refused to get up onto the table at all!
      Unfortunately I am old and cannot sit of the floor (well I suppose I could, but getting down would be difficult enough, getting up well nigh impossible without a crane 🙁
      When we lived in the suburbs, I never needed to do dogs’ nails at all because I walked them on concrete paths.
      Now we live on acreage with very soft ground, and no formed footpaths. I will not walk my dogs on the road — which anyway is bitumen which doesn’t wear the nails down. 🙁
      I’ve tried a cricket bat with wet-and dry sand paper glued to it as a hand target, but with little success even with the dogs who don’t mind their nails being trimmed

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