Take your time when teaching your dog to tolerate nail trimming.
My question has to do with nail trims. My pup is deathly afraid of them. I have tried pairing the nail trim with something really good (yummy food, lots of verbal praise etc.) but he is really stressed. My veterinarian says once you start a nail trim you must finish or he will know he has won and put up the same fight next time.
We asked our Training Editor, Pat Miller, to answer this question. Miller is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is also the President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and recently published her first book, The Power of Positive Dog Training. See “Resources" for more information.
Your veterinarian’s advice is a great example of old-style force-based thinking. We aren’t in a war with our dogs and we don’t have to win battles. As the supposedly more intelligent species, and as positive trainers, it is our job to get our dogs to voluntarily give us the behaviors we want without having to use force. Stop and ask yourself, “What’s the rush? Why do I have to trim all of his nails, all in one sitting?”
When we first found our Scottish Terrier, he was about seven months old and hated being brushed or having his feet touched (much less getting his nails trimmed). We worked very slowly to desensitize him to those necessary grooming procedures. Now he loves being brushed and tolerates nail trimming.
The key is to do it a tiny bit at a time, never pushing to the point that the dog struggles, panics, or fights. I first showed my Scottie the grooming brush, clicked and treated, then let him sniff it, clicked and treated again. Repeating each step numerous times, over several days I worked up to just touching him with the brush, then brushing once or twice on those areas that he was least sensitive about (the top of his head and back of his neck).
Over the next few weeks I worked up to brushing his back, his hindquarters, shoulders, and chest, clicking and treating all the while. (NOTE: I also use the verbal marker, “Yes!” with grooming procedures when I don’t have a partner to click for me, so my hands are free to wield grooming tools and dispense treats.)
Finally I convinced him, still using clicks and treats, that having me brush his legs, feet, tail, and tummy is a really good thing.
During the same period, without the brush in hand, I desensitized him to being touched all over, including his legs and feet. If he started getting uneasy when a hand touched his knee, I would run my hand down his leg and stop just above the knee, then click and treat. After countless repetitions he began to look forward to having his leg touched rather than avoiding or fearing it.
Then, by tiny fraction-of-an-inch increments, I moved lower and lower on the leg, with numerous repetitions at each increment, still clicking and treating, until he was comfortable with me touching and holding his feet. Then I added the nail clippers to the program, still not trying to clip, just touching him with the clippers as we handled his feet, clicked and treated.
When he was comfortable with the clippers touching his paws, I clipped one nail, clicked, treated, and STOPPED clipping but continued to touch and hold his paws, click and treat, with the clippers in my hand. The next day I did another nail in the midst of the paw-handling program. On day three, I did two nails, interspersed within the touching exercise.
In this manner, I got all of his nails trimmed over a two-week period, with no struggle or mental trauma. I always made it incidental to the rest of the desensitization program, and never forced the issue. If he started to resist at any point, it was my fault for pushing too fast, and I backed off to where he was comfortable again. Two weeks ago, I clipped all his nails on all four paws in one session for the very first time.
When you do this, err way overboard on the side of caution. Only nip off the tips of the nails; don’t try to accomplish a short, show-ring-style trim. There is nothing like quicking a nail and making it bleed to convince your dog that he is justified in resisting your attentions to his feet.
Sure, you can overpower some dogs and win the nail trimming battle. Some dogs will even submit and learn to accept having their nails trimmed by force. And some won’t. You can get bitten in the process, make your dog hate nail trimming even more, create a dog who will not tolerate having his feet handled. Worst of all, in the long run, you can do permanent and serious damage to your relationship with your dog. No thanks!