Do your dogs run away when they see you with the nail clippers? Do they fidget, get nervous, or even try to bite when you or the vet attempt to clip their nails? Don’t give up – it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to get your dogs to accept and even like having their nails clipped, using a technique called desensitisation. We need to remember that for dogs, nail clipping can be many scary experiences rolled into one: being restrained in an unbalanced manner, having their sensitive feet touched and then held tightly, the strange feeling of their nails being clipped and the noise of the nail clipper. Add on any previous bad experiences where your dog may have been hurt when a nail was cut too short or having been shouted at or smacked for trying to bite a handler. Bearing these experiences in mind may help you to understand why retraining your dog that nail clipping can be a pleasant experience is so important. The purpose of the desensitisation technique is to teach the dog to gradually accept having its feet touched, manipulated, and finally having its nails clipped. Thereafter, using treats to reward the dog when it’s accepting you to touch its feet. Depending on how nervous your dog gets about having its nails clipped, this process may take some time. Patience is required, but it will be worth it in the long run.
We recommend you try the tips for desensitisation below:
- Fetch a supply of tasty treats and cut them into small pieces. Use something your dog loves and doesn’t often get, such as cheese, cooked chicken, freeze-dried liver.
- Start without the clippers. When your dog is lying down quietly, run your hands down the leg towards the foot. You want to stop at a point where the dog is calm and not reacting, say “yes” or “good dog” (or any other praise word you are comfortable with) and reward with a treat. Do this with all four feet and then end your session. Depending on the severity of your dog’s phobia, you may have to do this for several short sessions. Remember to always end on a good note.
- The next step is to run your hand down the leg to the foot, touch the foot briefly, praise and reward.
- Next, pick up the foot and hold it briefly. Praise and reward.
- Pick up the foot in your hand and place light pressure on each toe above the nail. Praise and reward with each toe manipulation. Do this with all four feet, but remember to keep the session short and fun.
- Repeat the above step but take out the nail clippers and leave them on the floor next to you during the session.
- Thereafter, hold the paw and pick up the clippers, but do not bring the clippers close to the nail. Again, when your dog is calm, praise and reward.
- When your dog accepts you picking up all four feet and placing pressure on the toes while holding the clippers, you can graduate to tapping the paw lightly with the nail clipper. After the dog is comfortable with that, you can place the clipper over each nail (but do not cut). Continue to praise and reward with each new movement.
- When your dog shows absolutely no distress with any of the above steps, you can begin by clipping only the tip of the nail. Start with one nail at a time, praising and rewarding after each successful clip. Do not be tempted to rush this stage. If you sense your dog tensing up, go back a step, praise and reward and give it a break. A negative experience at this stage will undo all the hard work done so far.
- When your dog calmly accepts getting the tip of its nail taken off, you can finally start to clip the nails shorter if needed. Remember to rather leave them a little longer and use a metal nail file to round them than to run the risk of cutting too short and hurting your dog.
NB: If at any time during the desensitisation process your dog shows that it is uncomfortable with your touch, stop immediately and make it easier for the dog by backing up a step. Never get angry or frustrated as this will only reinforce your dog’s current thinking that nail clipping is an unpleasant experience. Always be quick to mark the behaviour that you desire with your praise word and reward.
Here is a great video demonstrating desensitisation and counter-conditioning a dog to a toenail trim. Although Dr Sophia Yin does this in an impressive four minutes, your process will take longer as you and your dog gradually get used to the process of desensitisation. It will be worth it in the end.
Authored by Dr Karin Wilson (not a SAFREA member)
Proofread and Copyedited by Delilah Sao Joao (SAFREA member)