A Counter-Conditioning Protocol for Trimming Your Dog’s Nails


1. Determine the location of touch your dog can tolerate without reacting fearfully or aggressively. Perhaps it’s her shoulder, perhaps her elbow, or maybe her knee. She should be a little worried, but not growl or try to move away. This is called the threshold.

2. With your dog on-leash, touch her briefly and gently at threshold. The instant your dog notices the touch, start feeding bits of chicken, non-stop.

3. After a second or two, remove the touch and stop feeding chicken.

4. Keep repeating steps 1-3 until touching at that location for 1-2 seconds consistently causes your dog to look at you with a happy smile and a “Yay! Where’s my chicken?” expression. This is a conditioned emotional response (CER) – your dog’s association with the brief touch at that location is now positive instead of negative.

5. Now increase the intensity of the stimulus by increasing the length of time you touch her at that same location, a few seconds at a time, obtaining a new CER at each new time period before increasing the time again. For example, several repetitions at 2-4 seconds, until you get consistent “Yay!” looks, then several repetitions at 4-8 seconds, then several at 8-12 seconds, etc., working for that consistent CER at each new duration of your touch.

6. When you can touch her at that spot for any length of time with her in “Yay” mode, begin to increase the intensity of stimulus again, this time by moving your hand to a new location, 1-2 inches lower than your initial threshold. I suggest starting at your initial touch location and sliding your hand to the new spot, rather than just touching the new spot. Continue with repetitions until you get consistent CERs at the new location.

7. Continue gradually working your way down to your dog’s paw, an inch or two at a time, getting solid CERs at each spot before you move closer to the paw.

8. When you get below the knee, also add a gentle grasp and a little pressure; each is a separate step in the CC&D procedure. Continue working down the leg, all the way to the paw.

9. When you can touch grasp, and put pressure on the paw, add lifting the paw.

10. If your goal is happy nail trimming, start the process over, this time with the nail clipper or grinder in hand. Show the clipper to your dog and feed a treat, again and again, until the appearance of the clipper or grinder elicits a “Yay!” response. Then counter-condition the clipper action (squeezing the clippers) or the sound of the grinder. Go through the whole touch sequence again, this time with the clipper in your hand, also touching her with the clipper, then again while you squeeze the clipper. Remember that you are still feeding yummy treats and obtaining CERs throughout the whole process. When you can hold her paw and make the clipper action right next to her nail with a happy response, clip one nail, feed lots of treats, and stop. Do a nail a day until she’s happy with that, then advance to two nails at a time, then three, until you can clip all her nails in one session.

The more complex the stimulus, the more successful the dog’s avoidance or aggressive strategies have been, and the more intense the emotional response, the more challenging the behavior is to modify. Take your time. Be patient. A few more weeks – or months – of long nails isn’t going to hurt anyone, and the result – a canine family member who willingly participates in the nail trimming procedure – is well worth the effort.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.