Thursday, December 2, 2010

Touch those paws!

This is first in a series about trimming a dog's nails.

My rule of thumb with dogs is this — if they haven't experienced it often and from an early age, don't expect them to like it.
"It" applies to anything and everything you can possibly imagine — from being around kids to getting a bath, and not in the least, having their nails trimmed.
In fact, even just having their paws handled passes as an "it."
After all, paws are essential to a dog. Without paws, they have no mobility. So we can't be surprised that dogs put a lot of importance on those darling little paws.
From the day you bring your dog home — whether it's an adult from a shelter or a puppy — touch those paws. A lot.

If it's a puppy, just touch them all the time. If you're carrying the puppy around, hold a paw for a little while. When he lays down, pet his paws. When you're playing, gently find a way to touch the paw for a moment without interrupting the game. And pay attention to all the paws, not just one.
Add in some brief training sessions of the simplest sort too — just ask the dog to sit or lay down, touch a paw with one hand and feed a treat with the other, simultaneously. Eventually, as your puppy begins to realize he gets a treat simply because you are touching his paw, reward for good behavior only — when he's sitting nice and quiet and not struggling or trying to make a game of it. Then up the ante by holding each paw, touching between the toes and under the pads for a treat. The goal is to get the dog to behave nicely and remain still while you're handling his paws.
Don't waste any time introducing those clippers either — but don't introduce them to use them right away.
Bring out the clippers, set them on the floor, put some treats on them and around them and encourage the dog to check them out and eat the treats. Do this every day for at least a week. This teaches your dog that clippers equal good things for dogs.
In week two (and by now, you've also done all the handling techniques described above) start picking up the clippers and rewarding the dog with treats when you have the clippers in your hands. This teaches the dog that clippers in human hands equal good things for dogs.
Then, start touching the clippers to your dog's nails and giving a food reward simultaneously. Now, the dog is learning that clippers in human hands touching dog nails equals good things for dogs.
When you do clip nails for the first time, give the dog a treat after each nail that gets clipped. Up the ante again by making that food reward out of the ordinary and extra special — I like small squares of peanut butter on bread, a little lunchmeat or cooked chicken pieces.
Eventually, begin selecting those rewards for only the best behavior — while the dog is sitting nicely and being still.
I still, after all these years and despite my dog's impeccable tolerance for having his nails clipped, give him treats after the first set of paws are clipped and after all four are done. I simply want to make sure he gets rewarded for good behavior. It's only fair, right?

Retraining an adult dog
If you bring home an adult shelter dog, it's really unknown how that dog may perceive having his nails clipped.
Do the same steps as for a puppy, but use rewards for every time you touch a paw right from the start. Depending on how the dog reacts to the first touch, you may need to go really slowly and use lots of really awesome treats.
If the dog displays that he doesn't like his paws touched, slow down the whole process until the dog realizes that despite his past experiences or lack of experiences, having his paws touched now, by you and your family members, is indeed a good thing.
You absolutely can retrain an adult dog using positive reward methods — it just may take more time, patience and lots of really fantastic rewards.

The work, however, is easy and always worth the time and effort invested.

Still to come
  1. I celebrated Thanksgiving at my sister's house. She has an aging Boxer who is not very used to having his nails clipped. When he was younger, he spent so much time pouncing on a Frisbee on their brick patio that he kept his nails incredibly short. Now, he's got hip problems and doesn't pounce anymore, allowing his nails to grow and grow and grow. I promised I'd bring my clippers and give it a shot as long as my sister would take the video camera and tape the whole ordeal for my blog. The post, with videos, will be up tomorrow!
  2. It wasn't that long ago that I trimmed Sensi's nails, so he's not due for another clipping for about a week or so. I do want to show you his good behavior as motivation for what good nail training can accomplish with a dog, even a pit bull! There will be a video in this blog's future!
  3. Alternative methods to trim a dog's nails. We've all seen those commercials for the electric sanders that file a dog's nails. I bought a Dremel tool for Sensi last year, but have avoided using it due to a lack of good treats (thanks, food allergies) to train him with. I'll talk about what type of electric sander is good for what size of dog and the important steps you need to take to familiarize your dog with the sander, as well as the pros and cons of traditional clippers vs. sanders.
  4. Got an energetic dog who wants to make a game of everything and acts like sitting still for even a second is literally painful? I'll talk about the importance of training a down-stay to help your dog prepare for situations like nail trims (and to give him a better quality of life, period!).
  5. General tips — How to find the vein on a black nail, what to do if you accidentally cut it, dealing with your fears of trimming those nails, picking out a good clipper, etc.


  1. Great tips on getting a dog accustomed to being pawed!

    The dremel tool is often the only way to get a shelter dog or pedicure newbie to accept nail trimming...but yeah, the atmosphere is a bit like getting your teeth drilled....

    Is that stuff in the air nail debris or are my glasses dirty?

  2. Probably nail debris! It was kind of like sawdust, except much finer and much stinkier. I took off about a half inch on each nail, so there was quite a bit of "naildust" flying around!