One big reason dogs hate having their nails trimmed is simply that they are not used to it and the strangeness of the experience elicits a fearful self-protective response. This can be the case if they didn’t have their paws handled enough as puppies. They might also have negative memories of the clippers if their nails have been clipped too aggressively in the past, causing pain and stress. The first step, therefore, should be to change the way they perceive nail trims, from a horrible torture method to something they can tolerate on a regular basis.
This is achieved through a combination of desensitization and counter-conditioning. These are two terms that are commonly used in dog training, and they describe methods that change a dog’s behavior by reshaping their attitude and response to a negative stimulus. Desensitization is the act of gently exposing the dog to low levels of a fearful stimulus (in this case, a nail trim) to help them learn that it’s not as scary as they think. Counter-conditioning is the act of helping them create a positive association to the stimulus by pairing it with something they really like, such as treats. The trick to these methods is to carry them out very gradually.
Start by disregarding the clippers completely and focus on letting your dog touch their paws. Every single day, spend at least a few minutes doing the following exercise: lightly tap your dog on the paw, then immediately give him some praise and a tasty high-value treat. The key is to use something that they don’t get to enjoy often – this ramps up their excitement and gives them a stronger incentive to let you touch their paws. If your dog isn’t food-motivated, use a toy that he only gets to enjoy when it’s nail trim time. Repeat this exercise for a few days to a week, until he stops pulling his paws away every time they’re touched.
Slowly increase the length of time your dog tolerates having his paws touched. Go from lightly tapping his paw to laying your whole hand on it for a few moments. Once he stops minding that, move on to wrapping your fingers around his paw, and then to picking it up with your hand. Remember that you will need to spend a few days at each stage, increasing your handling of his paws by tiny increments. This helps gently desensitize him to having his paws touched, and while it may take longer for some dogs than others, it’s worth being consistent until he makes that positive association between you handling his paw and a yummy reward. Eventually, he should be able to tolerate you picking up his paw and flipping it over to get a look at the nails from underneath.
Watch our blog tomorrow for what comes next!