Nail Trimming

Today’s guest blog is brought to us by Mandy Eakins of Manners Matter Dog Training in the Greater Lexington Kentucky area.  I feel very fortunate that Mandy agreed to help me out with this topic, because I know that nail trimming causes excessive stress to a lot of dogs, and handlers too!  Mandy has done an excellent job of breaking the training down into manageable pieces.

Thanks, Mandy!

Nail Trim Nightmare?

“I don’t know why he hates nail trims—I’ve handled his feet since he was a puppy.”

“It took three people to hold him down last time when I took him to the vet for a trim.”

“Oh, we can’t get near his feet! He will bite!”

“We just muzzle him and hold him down when it’s time for a nail trim.”

“We just gave up and drug him for nail trims now.”

These are all comments I have heard from clients when it comes to that one task that’s probably the most dreaded part of being a dog owner—the dreaded nail trim.

In the past I have struggled with nail trims with some of my dogs, in particular my little dog Scooter (rest in peace). Both of us needed a tall drink of liquid courage to prepare and get through his nail trims. Over the years, as I have evolved as a trainer and worked with many more dogs, I have come to realize how important it is to train stress-free body handling to dogs, especially when it comes to nail trims.

Recently I had the pleasure of working with a wonderful German Shepherd dog named Ranger. I had done several lessons with Ranger and it was on his fourth lesson that I made a suggestion that it might be time to trim his nails. The owner looked at me with blinky eyes and said, “I have never trimmed his nails.”

“Why?” I asked, thinking to myself how in the world this dog has gone 10 months with no nail trimming.

“Trimming nails scares me,” the owner said. “I just take him to the vet and let them do it. It took three people to hold him down last time.”

That’s when I knew it was time to add in some extra lessons with Ranger and his owner.

With a plan in mind on how to help both parties, I gave Ranger’s owner homework—he needed to purchase a set of nail trimmers, as well as work with Ranger on paw target behavior. Paw target behavior is learning to touch an object with his paws on command, done through clicker training.

Below you’ll see video documentation of Ranger and how we have worked with him on accepting a force-free nail trim. It is important to understand that each dog will work at a different pace and progress is dictated by the dog and their comfort level.

Success is best achieved with patience!

After watching the videos below, I’d love to hear your story on how you are making nail trims less stressful for you and your dog. If you have questions about this progression or would like suggestions on variations, please email me:

Getting the dog comfortable with being in position for a nail trim is first. Before trimmers are ever presented you should pick a nice quiet spot for nail trimming and work on reinforcing the position you will be using for nail trims. For most dogs a down is easiest and most comfortable. Small dogs can be done on elevated surfaces such as grooming tables but position must also be taught on the table. Once the dog can be in the designated area and settle into position calmly and quietly it’s time to move to the next step of having the dog target the nail trimmers with their feet. By encouraging the dog to touch the trimmers they become less scary and the dog makes the choice to interact in a safe and predictable manner. Targeting the trimmers may take some time, especially if there is a past history of stressful nail trims. The following video link shows the above described steps.

Once the dog is familiar with targeting the trimmers and having the trimmers around their feet you can then work towards positioning the trimmers around the toe nail as seen in the next video.

Lastly we progress to actually trimming the nails. Don’t feel the need to trim all the nails in one session. It’s actually more beneficial to only do one or two nail per session. Remember, we want to set the dog up for success and our goal is low stress. Once the dog gets more comfortable with the process you will be able to trim more nails per session.

Mandy Eakins KPA CTP, FP-MT

Manners Matter Dog Training

Greater Lexington Kentucky area

Thanks again, Mandy! This article will help A LOT of people!


About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.
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13 Responses to Nail Trimming

  1. ejhaskins says:

    I have found with my dogs that the biggest problem is having me actually HOLD their feet. Not the actual cutting of the nail at all. Sue I do all of the things that you suggest, but I also have sessions where I hold the dog’s foot firmly. massage the webs between their toes and TREAT like mad.
    Of course the other thing to remember is to have your nail trimmer SHARP. Really sharp. And if you have dogs (like mine) with cast iron nails, that means buying new trimmers quite frequently..


  2. bnvoshol says:

    I do have one question – what if every time you clip a nail, you go back to basically square one? We’ve worked on paw targeting, allowing us to tap the clippers on her nail, allowing us to place the clippers on her nail and apply pressure, but every time we make even the tiniest cut to her nail? She runs away and it will often be another round of counter conditioning to even make touching her paws without the nail trimmer any sort of ok.

    This is something we’ve been working on since we got her about 1.5 years ago, and we’ve gone back and forth from dremels, clippers, holding the paw, not holding the paw, different clipper styles, an emory board, super high value treats, kibble, and everything in between and she just freaks out at them all.

    Any suggestions?


    • ejhaskins says:

      There are two solutions to this. The easiest is to walk your dog regularly o concrete. Not the highly polished sort. When we lived in the suburbs we never needed to do the dogs nails (except for the ‘thumb’ and dew claw” because we had an expanse of ‘drive-way’ and I regularly walked the dogs on concrete footpaths.
      Less easy and more work is to make a dog nail file and have the dog do its own nails. I have made a file out of a piece of wood (chopping board) with some high quality commercial abrasive material glued onto it. You can find more ideas by Googling ‘dog nail file”. Just a rough concrete slab can work, You DO then need to teach the dog to foot target the ‘file’ add scrape their nails downwards/towards themselves.
      With my big dogs with very hard nails I find that it works best for me only as a finisher after clipping.


      • ejhaskins says:

        Hmm. Thinks: Maybe a nice abrasive surface on a ‘walking machinne?? 🙂


      • Sandy L says:

        The walking-on-concrete works on my terrier, but with my phobic dog it doesn’t do a thing! He has some big strong nails fot a medium sized dog! He also makes backwards progress every time I try to condition him to paw targets, the presence of clippers, etc.

        In fact, since I’ve started trying to train cooperative care over the past 1.5yrs, he has become much more sensitive to any implements that I hold in my hand near him. Sometimes I just pick up a toy or a spatula (or anything really) and gently tap him on his body just to give him the idea that he won’t be killed by my “tools”, but any progress made seems to be temporary at best. He might be 100% fine with me holding clippers nearby one day, then terrified to see them on a table 20ft away the next.

        Just last week I gave him a bath (usually no problem as long as I don’t try to dry his feet with a towel) and he is started to yelp and scream bloody murder when I just spray water on his feet! I thought surely he must have an injury it was so bad but I found zero evidence of a physical problem!

        I’m stumped! This dog has had a lot of anxiety issues that we’ve worked on (and improved on, albeit slowly), but progress has been very rough on the nail clipping. I even tried a Thunder Shirt last week and he was terrified of the velcro noise despite having many velcro toys that he loves!

        Is there another tactic that I can try? I hate the idea of trying drug options, but I’m starting to run out of ideas!


      • ejhaskins says:

        >He also makes backwards progress every time I try to condition him to paw targets, the presence of clippers, etc.>
        Sandy I don’t know, but I my experience trying too hard can freak an anxious dog right out. WE gave up trying to ‘do’ Fletch’s nails. And then we actually got him to voluntarily ‘shake hands’ (though he DID put his wrist on our palms, not his hand itself).
        With Mad Millie, the spooky Speagle I decided to simply give up on her — all our training seemed to make her more anxious. So (provided she was in the yard/house) if she didn’t come to me then I simply left her. If she refused to come through a doorway because I was standing there waiting to close the door, I simply closed the door and left her behind. It took over a year, but her freaking out (Oh, NO! oh, NO! I know what you want to do!!!!) episodes are few and far between. When she does get them we continue to ignore her.
        I suppose it is really a case of “Softly Softly Catchee Monkee”.
        All he best — and remember that there are worse things for dogs than overlong nails 🙂


      • ejhaskins says:

        PS Sandy L
        Fletch’s problem with his feet was a history or sore feet (and apparently numerous visits to the vet, before we got him. We were told that the problem was never properly identified, but he WAS seriously overweight, and had conformation problems (well Modern style GSD). We could do nothing about his conformation but we e lost all that excess weight is walking/trotting became smoother and I think that his feet were no longer painful for him.
        But he remained always very, very nervous about his feet being touched.


  3. Shelby Young says:

    I struggled for over a year and a half trying to make nail clipping an easy, relaxed affair for my youngest dog. There were lots of baby steps with a boatload of treats to reinforce them. and no aversives in terms of forcefully holding her foot, etc., but it wasn’t until I switched reinforcers that I started seeing a big improvement. She likes treats a lot, but she LOVES tug. Now I put the tug toy on the floor in front of her and hold out my open hand. She puts her paw on it and holds it there herself while I position the clippers and clip the nail. Then we immediately play a quick game of tug before doing a second nail. Her focus is entirely on the upcoming game of tug and the nail clipping has simply become a predictor that the game is coming. I really hate that it took me so long to try reinforcers other than treats for this particular dog.


    • Stephanie says:

      We use a down, flat on your side position (trained for nails and brushing), occasionally a laying on your back position if someone feels so inclined (not trained), on the floor. I find it helpful to just hold the nail itself steady, because I’m a little inclined to hold a paw too tight in a “don’t move! I might hit the quick!” paranoia. I might have a paw/leg steadied on my knee or wrist but I resist actually holding it. The inclination to pull away decreased when I switched so I think they are more comfortable. Our grooming stuff also happens to be stored in the toy bin. It was sort of accidental, but handy that nail clippers and such are always associated with toys coming out (some guarding issues, so special toys were tightly supervised and are now vaguely rationed as those have decreased). Nails are also almost always done at bedtime or naptime, when they are already tired and inclined to be relaxed and cuddly.


  4. Like any other, nail trimming also scares the hell out of me. I get scared that my dog might bite me anytime it feels discomfort. Same thing goes to my vet. Thanks for sharing this one by the way.


  5. Becky says:

    Hey just a tip, if you use the “embed video” code from YouTube, readers won’t have to leave your blog to view your videos and you’ll create a better user experience. 🙂 Really great content though!


    • dfenzi says:

      90% of the time you are right and I do that. 10% it won’t work. I have no idea why – even the wordpress blog says “it will take them to the page if it doesn’t embed”. It’s supposed to be automatic.

      But if you know a way around that, feel free to share! It drives me crazy.


  6. Lashanda says:

    My dog went crazy when trimming, and i dont know how to deal with it
    this informative’s realy help me out. Hope to see more on this topic here.


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