Features June 2015 Issue

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.

[Updated November 13, 2017]

dog nail clipping training

Christine is on Step 6 as described at left; Tito is doing great.

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.

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!

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.

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