Cutting nails is a stressful activity for a lot of dogs, and for their owners. It’s something that has to be done, so that your dog is able to walk comfortably and stay active. That means it’s important that your dog is used to the process of having their nails trimmed, whether that’s by you, or a vet or dog groomer.
But as you undoubtedly know, that’s easier said than done. Many dogs won’t let their nails be trimmed or even touched by their owners.
Let’s talk about reasons why your dog might have nail-trimming anxiety, the ins and outs of nail trimming, and most importantly, what can be done to help your pup, and to help you.
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Reasons Why Your Dog Hates Nail Trimming
Wondering why your dog won’t let you cut his nails? You may have hit a vein before, you might be using improper technique, your dog may not like their feet touched due to arthritis, or your dog might be distrustful of you or the groomer.
Let’s go into those reasons in more detail:
You’ve Hit a Vein Before
The first reason why your dog may hate having its nails clipped is that you (or a groomer) might have hit a vein early on in your dog’s life in an attempt to cut his nails. Or, if your dog is a rescue, maybe a previous owner did.
It’s not uncommon to hit a vein when trying to trim a dog’s nails. One thing’s for sure, though, if you do hit the vein, it’s going to cause some discomfort or even pain. To be more specific, this part of the dog nail is called the “quick” and contains blood vessels and nerve endings, so it’s very sensitive.
You want to establish trust with your dog, and you need to do that by making sure that the dog doesn’t feel any pain or discomfort during the trimming process.
The second reason is improper leg positioning. This is really important because you want to be able to do your dog’s nails with efficiency.
That said, you really need to position the legs in the most efficient way to get the nails clipped as quickly as possible.
You shouldn’t be fumbling around and hesitating, causing the dog to pull its leg back and really not trust you and what you’re about to do. Read through the rest of this article, including the sections on how to properly use each tool, and the angle of cutting, before you try trimming again.
Lack of Trust
If you don’t have your pup’s trust, you probably won’t be able to trim their nails properly.
This might be related to the first point about hitting a vein before. Or maybe a previous nail cutting session was anxiety-producing for other reasons (such as being yelled at, or not having the ability to leave the stressful situation). Additionally, some dogs are naturally more trusting, or more neurotic than others.
In some cases, the dog can be so stressed out that you’d opt not to trim their nails. We’ll talk about those options, including sedation, at the end of this article.
Trust is essential when clipping your dog’s nails, or doing anything on your dog, for that matter. And trust can be regained, albeit slowly. It’s a longer topic than what we can fit into this article, but it takes time, patience, consistency, and an understanding of what your dog is trying to communicate.
If you are able to build up good associations and act in a consistent manner each time, you can slowly teach your dog that there’s nothing to worry about when you touch their paws.
How to Clip Your Dog’s Nails?
Here’s a simple step-by-step guide that you can use to train your dog to accept having his paws touched and his nails clipped, even if your dog is already dreading having their nails cut.
Get Your Dog Used to Paw Touching
If your dog is not comfortable with paw touching, let’s work on that first, before trimming. We’ll build up a positive association with paw touching. Here’s how to go about it:
You pick up a paw and say “yes” (or “good”) while holding that paw, and then give your dog a treat. As long as the timing of your “yes” happens while touching, the dog will start to associate that with the good rewards that are coming.
Repeat the steps with the other paw. Most dogs pick up on food-enforced training quickly, and will start to understand that he’ll be rewarded with a treat.
By keeping at it, your furry companion will get the idea that touching their paw is nothing that he should worry about. This is not something that’s going to happen in a single session, depending on how touching-adverse your dog is. Keep in mind that some dogs may have paw pain such as arthritis, and won’t ever get used to paw touching. We’ll get to other options later in this article.
After a while, you’ll be able to gently hold your dog’s paw without him showing any resistance.
While you’re holding the paw and handling it, make sure that you can separate the toes a little bit. Then, reinforce the dog’s behavior with a treat.
Start out small at first. Don’t try to hold your dog’s paws for too long, and don’t try to separate his toes forcefully. Slow and steady wins the race.
Eventually, you’ll build up to the point where you can hold your pooch’s foot for as long as you want without him having any problem with it.
Introduce the Clipper
Having trained your dog to remain calm while you’re holding his paws, it’s time to introduce the clipper. If there’s still anxiety or distrustfulness, or you dog wants to pull away, keep working on the positive reinforcement first.
Stay nice and calm when attempting to introduce the clipper, and don’t get anxious. Your dog can sense when you’re anxious, which will in turn cause him to feel anxious, too. Again, we’re focusing on positive associations.
If you’re a little worried about the trimming process, close the clippers so that you’re not going to do any accidental harm. Take a breather and go for it again.
Now, pick up the dog’s foot and just give it a little touch with the clipper. Give him a treat upon doing so. This will help your dog associate positive feelings with the clipper.
You can try putting the clipper on the ground for your dog to discover it, then pick it up again and touch your dog’s paw with it one more time. Say “yes” and reinforce his behavior. This is the same principle as clicker training; you’re training your dog to anticipate a certain positive outcome after a specific behavior.
Note that if you’ve got a dog that is a little bit sensitive about having its feet handled, you’ll need to take slower steps with this.
Time to Cut the Nails
Use whatever style of clippers you want. It’s simply a matter of preference. Whichever type of clippers you use, you want to be able to cut off small nail portions more frequently rather than cut off large portions once every month or two. So, once a week or so, work on just taking and shaving off little bits of the nail. Make sure you read to the end of this article to see the angle at which you want to cut the nail.
To start trimming your dog’s nails, gently insert the dog’s nail into the clipper. Watch his reaction before attempting to clip. Make sure he’s nice and calm.
If all is good, snip off a little bit of the nail. The piece that you’ll take off should be about a millimeter or so.
From there, move over to the side of the nail and take off another tiny part. Next, snap another little piece in the inside of the nail. Those tiny cuts enable the nail to reseal as it grows
It’s pretty important to note that there are blood vessels in a dog’s nail that will bleed if you cut into them, and of course, that’s something that you want to avoid.
If you do happen to cut into that nail, there are several types of styptic powders on the market that can help stop the bleeding in a hurry.
If you’re in a pinch and don’t have any of those things on hand, a cold compress will help. You also want to keep your dog calm to keep the blood flow moderate.
If you’re having a hard time with the back paws, here’s a tip. Rather than try to fumble with your dog’s paws under them, extend their back leg out behind them, like a farrier working on a horse hoof. This is less awkward for each of you, and you get a better view of the dog’s foot.
Exactly How to Cut a Dog’s Nail
Before we get into the tools, let’s talk about the nail shape we’re going after. A picture is worth a thousand words, so here is a diagram to help you visualize.
In the first “correct” view, the dog’s nail is short, and the quick (the pink part, full of blood vessels and nerves) is unharmed. This nail is short and rounded, and might be this way due to walking on cement.
In the second correct view, the dog’s nail has been trimmed on an angle. This angle leaves a flat surface that is parallel to the ground, so it doesn’t hurt to put pressure on it. This method is how you want to cut your dog’s nail.
Next, we’ve got the incorrect options. First, there’s a long, untrimmed nail. This of course is the problem we’re trying to solve, as it’s painful for your dog, and they risk snagging and breaking a nail.
The middle photo in the “incorrect” row shows a nail that is cut too far in, where it has gone past the outer nail (dark gray) and inner nail (light gray) and into the quick. We don’t want this!
Lastly, we have another incorrect way of trimming the nail. In this view, the nail has been trimmed, but on an angle that creates a sharp point facing downward. When a dog puts weight on this nail, all the pressure will be on this small point. Think of it like a stiletto where all the pressure is on one very sharp point. It might look good on a high heel, but it isn’t good for dogs.
Types of Nail Trimming Tools and How to Use Them
There are two styles of nail trimmers: the scissor style and the guillotine style. Both types are effective, so it’s up to you to choose which one suits you best.
Scissor clippers are super easy to use. Such clippers are so versatile that they enable you to cut your pooch’s nails in any direction.
With that said, if you find that you’re not confident about the whole precision aspect of trimming dog nails, you may find that working with a scissor trimmer is easier than with a guillotine, which requires a little more precision in holding and moving.
With the guillotine style of clippers, there’s a right and a wrong way to hold the trimmer.
If you hold this trimmer with the moving edge in your palm and line up your dog’s nail when you go to cut, you’ll see how much the head moves, and you’ll end up taking off a different amount than what you had planned.
So it’s very important with these trimmers that you hold the non-moving edge in your palm. This way, when you go to squeeze, you can see it’s just the blade that moves up, and you’ll find it a lot easier to cut the exact portion of the nail you’re trying to cut.
When Clipper Training Still Doesn’t Work
As mentioned before, some dogs have paw pain, or are so distrustful or anxious that these steps may not work, or won’t work in the timeframe needed. As you can probably imagine, it’s painful to be walking around on nails that are too long, and even more painful if they snag on something.
So what do you do if your dog still won’t cooperate with getting its nails trimmed? You have a few options.
Walking on concrete
Dogs are descended from wolves, who didn’t have owners or veterinarians giving them nail trims. So, how do they manage? By naturally grinding their nails down with every day activity.
For modern dogs, this likely means walking on sidewalks and other concrete surfaces. If you regularly go for walks on sidewalks, or your dog frequently spends time on similar surfaces (driveways, etc), you might not need to trim your dog’s nails. Or at least not as much.
This is a great option for dogs that are relatively active, and it’s good for you too. The downside is that this is a slow process. If your dog’s nails are in dire need of trimming, this option won’t help you much. And, it doesn’t fix their dew claws, the so-called “5th nail” on the back of their legs, a few inches above the paw. Still, you can use it as motivation to get outside and get moving more often.
If you don’t have access to concrete sidewalks, prefer nature walks, or have a reactive dog that has a hard time on sidewalks in populated areas, there’s another option.
A scratchboard has a rough surface that files the nail down, much like walking on concrete. One benefit is that you can do this inside your home. The second benefit is that your dog is the one in control.
The original company behind this idea is ScratchPad. With techniques similar to the training plan described above, you build up a positive association with the scratchpad. You reward your dog for touching their paws to it, and gradually work up to having them scratch their front paws on the scratchpad, slowly wearing down the too-long nail. Once they’re a pro at that, you can train the back paws.
It’s similar to a grinding tool in that it sands down the nail. It’s not as instant as clipping, and doesn’t get their dew claws. But, it lets your dog be in control, and most importantly, you don’t have to touch their paws.
For dogs whose are aggressive around nail trimming that it poses a threat to dog or the handler, sedation is an option. But it is not without side effects and risk and should be used sparingly, and only with the recommendation and help of a professional.
As always with medical intervention, it’s absolutely necessary to make this decision with the help of a veterinarian. Don’t try to do this yourself.
You may find advice online to give your dog essential oils or other lower-strength, calming medicine. This may take the edge off slightly but should not be considered a replacement for building up trust.
Clipping your dog’s nails on a regular basis is very important for the health of his paws and his overall comfort and hygiene.
Sadly, many dogs don’t like this process, and the main reason for this is usually a lack of trust. Even so, positive association exercises will help a lot with easing the process.
With the aid of the information shared in this article, you’ll be able to get your dog to accept having its nails clipped with less resistance over time. Just be sure to choose the right type of nail trimming tool based on your preference.