Trimming a Dog’s Toenails

We're not saying clipping your dog's nails is easy, but there are ways to do it that will show your dog it's not so scary.


Whenever you need to perform some routine grooming or husbandry task on your dog, try to both employ counter-conditioning and to give your dog a sense of control or choice in the matter. Even behaviors that don’t lend themselves well to choice, such as trimming hair and medicating ears, can incorporate an element of choice and priming by teaching your dog to “station.”

To “go to station” means to to go to a specific spot where nine times out of 10 (or better yet, 99 times out of 100), really good, fun stuff happens. If, every once in a great while, a slightly less fun (but not hugely aversive) procedure happens, it shouldn’t be enough to change his happy association with his station, especially if you do much of the classical conditioning away from the station, and invite him to station only when he has a positive association with all the parts of the procedure. Remember, do multiple repetitions at every step until the dog is happy!

dog nail clipping training
We moved through the steps too quickly; Tito is not ready to have his foot touched. He moaned (a Chihuahua prelude to a growl), his expression is guarded, and he pulled his foot away.

Classical Conditioning Approach to Nail Clipping:

1. Show your dog the nail clippers; feed him a treat.

2. Move clippers toward dog; treat.

3. Let him sniff the clippers; treat.

4. Move clippers as if you were snipping nails, several inches from dog; treat.

5. Move clippers toward the dog’s feet; treat.

6. Touch clippers to his chest or shoulder; treat.

7. With clippers close to his feet, move them as if snipping nails; treat.

8. Touch his foot with one hand while holding clippers near his body; treat.

9. Pick up and hold his foot for a brief moment while holding clippers near his foot; treat.

10. Pick up and hold his foot for a brief moment while snipping clippers near his foot; treat.

11. Pick up and hold his foot, spreading his toes apart, as if you were trying to get a toenail into position to be cut, while holding clippers near his foot; treat.

12. Pick up and hold his foot, spreading his toes apart, and touch the side of the clippers to a toenail or two; treat.

13. Pick up and hold his foot, spreading his toes apart. Clip a tiny slice of one nail; treat.

14. Once your dog is happily on board for all of these steps, invite your dog to his station for the procedure. This introduces a small element of choice, but choice nevertheless.

dog nail clipping training
As we approached Step 12, Tito suddenly hopped onto Christine’s lap! She gave him some treats and clipped a couple nails. Huge success!

Learn more about how to train your dog to accept being touched for basic husbandry chores.

Previous articleA Good Reason to Neuter
Next articleMovies Going to the Dogs
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.