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Cooperative Nail Trims

For many dogs, and their people, nail trims are a nightmarish endeavor. Some dogs are just a bit squirmy and have a hard time staying still long enough to do a nail trim, while others have a much bigger aversion to it. They may run and hide at the sight of the trimmers or they may become aggressive, making it a next to impossible task. At this point most people stop trying, but the nails keep on growing!

Nails that are too long cause a myriad of problems for our dogs including pain when walking, difficulty walking on slick surfaces, stress on tendons, and a higher chance for broken nails. Your pup may become more anxious and aggressive at this point because of the pain, making everything even harder.

But why do dogs hate nail trims so much? There are a lot of factors going on. They don’t understand what’s going on, they have to hold still for a long time, it feels strange, they may be off balance if you’re trying to pick up feet while they stand, and it can sometimes be painful if the nail is cut too short. Then add on top of all of that, they are being forced through the process, often with more and more restraint as the dog fights it harder. All this added restraint and insistence on getting the trim done makes it even more stressful on the dog! Then the next time you pull out the trimmers, they’re remembering not just the nail clipping itself, but the whole scary process!

This is what happened with my own dog Maze. The first time I ever cut her nails she wiggled a little bit, and I just held her still and got it done. Every time I cut her nails she fought it harder and harder until I physically couldn’t keep her still. I would’ve needed at least one, if not two, other people to hold her down if I wanted her nails done. She got to the point where she would run away if she just saw the trimmers. If I tried to restrain her she would instantly flail, sometimes even headbutting me, or turn to bite at my arm (luckily for me it was a more “mouthy” bite, not one to draw blood, but still not fun). She would even run AT me, gut punch me with her front paws, then run away again if I was holding the clippers. As you can imagine, it was hellish for both of us.

Now, by using cooperative care, she can lay on her side calmly while I dremel all of her nails in one sitting. It is truly a night and day difference!

The most important piece of this method is that your dog has a clear way to “opt-out” and that you honor that decision every single time. For nail trims, I like to teach dogs to lay flat on their side with their head down. Then, if they pick up their head, I pause what I am doing. At first they will just be picking up their head to see what I’m doing, but they quickly realize that it works to get me to stop.

After they have lifted their head, and I have paused, what happens next depends on them. If they get up entirely at that point, we take a break. If they put their head back down, I continue with what I’m doing. So now they have a way to pause the interaction, a way to fully end it, and a way to start it again. This removes all of the pressure and restraint, allowing them to relax and just enjoy the treats they’re getting.

The other crucial piece to this process is that you go slow. Don’t expect to be able to cut your dog's nails anytime soon, especially if your dog already has a deep seeded fear or hatred of nail trims. You’ll be spending a lot of time just working on touching their legs and feet, holding their paws as if you were going to clip, touching the trimmers to the nail without clipping, and so on. This whole process took somewhere in the realm of 6 months for my dog, which may sound daunting, but thanks to that work, we have now had many years of stress free, easy nail care!

On the other hand, if you teach this early on, before they build a huge negative reaction to the process, it will go much quicker! So if you have a new dog or puppy, it’s worth working on it now, before it gets to the point that you need it.

Now, if just seeing the nail clippers is enough to send your dog running, you may consider switching to a dremel for this process. It will still take time for them to get used to the strange sensation, but you’ll at least be starting on a fresher slate if it’s new to them. This is what I did with my dog. Her reaction to just seeing the nail clippers was so strong, that it would have taken much longer to get her to accept them. This isn’t the best fit for every dog, but it’s worth trying out!

You should also consider replacing your nail trimmers if you’ve had them a long time. They can become dull over time, which creates more of a pinching sensation on the dog when you cut. New, sharp, trimmers will be much more comfortable for them.

Lastly, consider what to do in the meantime for nail care. If their nails are very long and you just can’t get them cut, you may need to ask your vet about doing a nail trim under sedation. Then for regular maintenance you can teach them to use a scratchboard to file their own nails. I find the scratch board isn’t effective enough to fully replace regular nail trims, but it does help during the training process to keep the nails from getting too long.  

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