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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.