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Ask A Vet: What Is The Best Way To Trim My Dog’s Nails?

All dogs have toenails and all toenails need some management. The best way to trim a dog’s nails is to achieve the following goals: the nails become shorter and blunter and no one gets traumatized or hurt. You might think these are lofty goals if you have a dog that resents a pedicure.

First we have to understand the basics of training animals. Nail trimming is not something that your dog naturally thinks is a good idea, but he doesn’t think it is a bad idea either… unless someone has shown him that it is. You have to be certain that you never cut too deep and injure the nerve.

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Human beings are much more goal oriented than dogs are and they tend to just grab an unsuspecting dog, wrestle him to the ground and start whacking off toenails. The problem with this (well ONE of the problems) is this kind of handling is perceived by the dog as a battle. In a battle, there is a winner and a loser. If you think that trimmed nails mean you won, then you need to start thinking like a dog. If your dog feels like he is being attacked, he might try to defend himself and you could get hurt. Or he might just submit to your perceived supremacy and then the thing that is hurt the most is your relationship with him.

There IS a better way! Tolerating nail trims is a trained behavior and remember, training requires patience and breaking down the goal into multiple small steps. First, you must start very slowly. Perhaps you pick up the nail trimmers and smear them with peanut butter and let him lick them, every day, until your dog looks forward to your grabbing the trimmers. The trimmers are now associated in his mind with positive brain chemicals. Then your next step is sitting down with him and the nail trimmers and reaching for his paw. Stop before he resists and reward him with an inviting reward. (Peanut butter was just an example and if you offer it, use VERY small licks as rewards only.)

You will also want to discourage undesired behavior (like backing away or removing the paw from your hand) and try to redirect it to the right one, so if he pulls his paw, go back to the last step that he would comfortably accept and reward, gradually advancing the steps. Never punish, only redirect and reward. Be extremely conservative and trim only the sharp tip, so that you never give him a reason to fear.

If your dog already learned that nail trims are torture, don’t worry. Just ask your vet to prescribe something for anxiety to help your dog manage his fear while you are relearning. Your dog wants to please you and your vet wants to help. Happy nails are reality. It isn’t easy, but aren’t you up to a challenge if it helps your dog?

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Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
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