Trimming nails is an important part of routine care for your dog. Although not all dogs need their nails trimmed because they wear them down naturally, almost all dogs need their dewclaws trimmed. Some dogs are reluctant to have their feet touched at all, while other dogs seem comfortable with touching but not with nail trimming.
Your dog may suffer from a more generalized fear of handling, which includes a fear of having his feet touched. If this is the case, you might need to resolve your dog’s anxiety related to other kinds of touching in addition to following the treatment plan described below. This article only relates to fear of nail trimming, but you can find more information about other handling problems in our article, Dogs Who Are Sensitive to Handling.
Avoid Cutting the Quick…
Dogs often develop a fear of nail trimming after they’ve had a painful experience—like getting a nail cut too short. The goal is to trim off only the dead end of the nail, but it’s sometimes hard to tell where the dead part ends and the sensitive live part begins. The live part is called the quick, and it contains nerves and blood vessels. It’s easy to see the quick on dogs with light nails. You can see through the white nail, and the quick appears pinkish. If your dog has black nails, you won’t be able to see the quick, so the best advice is to trim your dog’s nails frequently but only clip a little of the nail at a time. Avoid cutting the quick at all costs so that your dog has no reason to fear nail trimming. For more help, please see our article, Trimming Your Dog’s Nails.
…But Be Ready for Accidents
It’s a good idea to have tissues and a blood clotting powder, such as Kwik Stop® Styptic Powder, on hand when you trim your dog’s nails. Even if you’re careful to avoid cutting into the live quick, you might make a mistake. Applying Kwik Stop® to the cut nail stops bleeding instantly.
Use Caution at the Clinic
Many people prefer to have their dog’s nails trimmed by a veterinarian. If you do, resist the urge to ask the veterinarian to cut your dog’s nails short so that you don’t need to have it done again for a while. Most veterinary staff take off only the dead tips and take care not to cut into the pink quick, the live part of the nail. Cutting nails too short (all the way to the quick or into the quick) is extremely painful for a dog, and it’s a common reason for dogs to develop a fear of the veterinary clinic. Alternatively, you can learn to cut your dog’s nails yourself. (To learn how to trim your dog’s nails, please see our article Trimming Your Dog’s Nails.)
The treatments used for fear of nail trimming are desensitization combined with counterconditioning. They are highly effective but fairly complex and detailed. To learn more about using these treatments effectively, please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning. Don’t hesitate to contact an animal behavior expert, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for assistance in designing and carrying out a treatment program tailored to your dog. Please see our article Finding Professional Help to locate one of these professionals in your area.
While you work with your dog to resolve his fear of nail trimming, don’t actually clip his nails. You don’t want him to continue to have scary experiences with nail trimming while you’re trying to teach him that there’s nothing to be afraid of! Instead, walk him on pavement during your treatment so that his nails wear down naturally instead.
Step One: Teach Your Dog to Like the Clippers
Dogs who fear nail trimming quickly learn to fear even the sight of nail clippers. So the first thing to do is teach your dog to be comfortable—and possibly even to enjoy—seeing you pick up the clippers.
- Sometime during the day, tell your dog something wonderful is going to happen. Get very excited and rush to the place where you keep the clippers.
- Pick the clippers up and immediately give your dog a tasty treat, such as a bite of cheese or chicken, or toss him his favorite toy. Then put the clippers back in their place where your dog can’t see them.
- Repeat the sequence of picking the clippers up, giving your dog a fabulous reward, and then putting the clippers away 5 to 10 times a day for one to two weeks. Do these repetitions at various times throughout the day, not all in a row. You’ll know you’re ready to move on to Step Two when your dog looks excited and expectant as soon as he sees you pick up the clippers.
If your dog is so traumatized by the sight of you holding clippers that he runs away, you’ll need to keep him on a leash so that he can’t. Before you start the sequence, clip on your dog’s leash so that you can lead him to the place where you keep the clippers. After a few days to a few weeks of practicing Step One, your dog will learn that you aren’t really going to clip his nails and he’ll stop trying to run away. Once he seems confident that you aren’t going to do anything frightening with the clippers, start carrying them around with you for a few moments after you pick them up, all the while giving your dog treats or playing with him. Teach him to think it’s lots of fun when you get the clippers and carry them around.
Step Two: Get Your Dog Used to Your Handling His Feet
Once your dog is comfortable with you picking up the clippers, you’re ready for the next step. Spend a few minutes every day gently touching your dog’s feet. Aim to do this one to five times a day.
- Sit down somewhere comfortable with your dog. Some dogs prefer to lie down for nail trimming while others feel best when sitting, so practice the following sequence with your dog in both positions. During the exercise, talk to him in a soft, conversational tone and stroke him gently.
- Briefly touch your dog’s whole paw and then immediately give him a tasty treat. Just like you did in Step One, use something really delicious that your dog is sure to love, such as a little cheese, chicken or hot dog. Repeat this sequence a few times with each paw. (If this frightens him, try again later when he’s sleepy and will probably be less nervous.)
- Touch just one of your dog’s toes and, again, feed your dog a tasty treat right afterwards. Then repeat, touching each of your dog’s toes on both paws and following each touch with a tasty treat.
If your dog tries to pull his foot away when you touch his paw or toe, let him do it but don’t give him a treat. Try again but make your touch a bit briefer or a little gentler. If necessary, you can feed your dog a treat while you touch his paw. But discontinue this as soon as your dog becomes more comfortable with you handling his paws. You want him to accept having his paw touched first and then get rewarded with a treat.
Step Three: Adding the Clippers to Your Handling Exercises
Once your dog seems comfortable with you picking up and holding the nail clippers and with you touching his toes, combine these two exercises.
- Go pick up the clippers, set them down on a table or the floor and touch each of your dog’s toes with your hand, following each touch with a treat. Do not use the clippers in any way. When you’re finished touching all of your dog’s toes, pick up the clippers and put them away.
- The next step is to add the clippers to the paw-touching routine. Hold one of your dog’s toes with one hand while you pick up the clippers with the other. Do not move the clippers toward your dog’s paw. Simply put the clippers down again and then give your dog a treat. Repeat this sequence with each toe on each paw. Remain at this stage until your dog shows no concern about the clippers and happily allows you to hold each toe before giving him a treat.
- Now start to move the clippers in the direction of your dog’s paw. Do not touch his nails with the clippers yet. Just move the clippers a few inches toward your dog’s paw, put them down again and give your dog a treat. Wait a few seconds and then repeat the sequence. Over several repetitions, slowly move the clippers closer and closer to your dog’s paw until you can place them right next to his nails without him pulling his paw away. Then continue to repeat the exercise, each time touching one of your dog’s nails with the clippers before putting them down and delivering a treat. Be sure to practice touching all of your dog’s nails, one at a time. If your dog still seems comfortable, try squeezing the clippers closed—but do not clip any nails. You’re just getting your dog used to the movement of the clippers. Pretend that you’re playing “air trimming” (like air guitar). Remain at this stage until your dog is completely blasé or ho-hum about you holding the clippers right next to each of his toes and pretending to clip. Plan to spend a few days to a few weeks at this stage.
- The next step is to position the clippers on one of your dog’s nails, as if you’re going to clip it. This is a big step for your dog. He’ll probably get a little nervous and pull his paw away. Just do as you’ve done before: release your dog’s paw but don’t give him a treat. Then repeat the sequence until your dog accepts it voluntarily. This way you won’t engage in a struggling match that frightens your dog. Just remain calm, patient and persistent.
- Once your dog accepts you holding the clippers to his nails, quickly and carefully clip one. If possible, do this while your dog is lying in his bed, just waking up from a sleep so he’s still a bit groggy. Clip one nail only. Then immediately give your dog a special treat, make a HUGE fuss about how brave and wonderful he is, and put the clippers away. Later on in the day, practice the touching and “air trimming” exercises but DO NOT attempt to clip another nail that day.
- If all goes well and your dog hasn’t become uncomfortable again, clip a second nail the next day. If your dog does seem uncomfortable or concerned, take a few more days to touch and “air trim” before you try trimming another nail. Even if you only clip one nail a week and practice “air trimming” every day, you’ll be able to maintain your dog’s nails at a healthy length and keep him comfortable with the activity. Resist the temptation to do all of his nails at once. You’ve put a lot of time and energy into reducing your dog’s fear, so don’t risk having him go back to his original frightened state.
If at any time during your treatment exercises, your dog tries to pull his paw away, let him do it but refrain from giving him a treat. Repeat the exercise until he voluntarily accepts what you’re doing. You want him to be comfortable and even happy with nail trimming. It’s no fun for anyone if the activity becomes a battle of strength and wills.
If your dog shows signs of fear or aggression—such as trembling, trying to get away or hide, drooling, panting, whining, freezing, staring, growling, snarling, snapping or biting—contact a qualified professional for help. Please see our article Finding Professional Help to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear and aggression problems, since this expertise is not required for CPDT certification.
What NOT to Do
- Do not manhandle your dog. Try to use as little restraint as possible during nail trimming. The more you restrain your dog, the more nervous he will be and the more he will resist.
- Do not scold your dog or try to intimidate him. If you do, it will be more difficult to trim his nails in the future. Your dog will become increasingly panicked and might even attempt to bite you. Instead, please follow the exercises outlined above to patiently teach your dog that nail trimming is nothing to fear.
- Take care not to let your dog’s toes twist as you clip his nails. The twisting alone can cause discomfort and scare some dogs, even if you’re carefully avoiding the quick. Learn how to use the clippers without twisting toes, and be sure to regularly replace your clippers when the blades get dull.