Let’s assume you didn’t know that most dogs prefer not to have their paws touched and need to be gently acclimated to paw handling from puppyhood. Or your dog entered your life as an adult who had never had his paws touched and freaks out if you even mention touching his paws.
Either way, you’ve got a dilemma: how to trim his claws and care for his paws when he prefers that you do neither. Enter my solution: “Clip a Claw, Get a Cookie!”
It’s a fun way to condition your pup to having his paws handled using positive reinforcement. And it helps if you sing it: by creating a happy song associated with the process, it first off puts you in a jolly, upbeat mood which you know your dog can sense. Next, it teaches your dog that this is a good time when he can expect his nails to be clipped and he’ll receive something delicious to eat after each clip.
The process is a slow and gentle build of skills. It starts at the place just before your dog is exhibiting anxiety, and rewards him for the skills he builds in handling each new task. You are decreasing his fear and giving him confidence to accept a new experience that he might have been afraid of in the past. The key to this is taking tiny steps, over a gradual time frame. Here’s how to do it.
First, assemble your tools: a sharp and comfy nail clipper and a bag of treats. Not just ordinary treats. These treats should be what trainers call “high value,” meaning they are something your dog absolutely loves and doesn’t receive on a regular basis. We love Cloud Star’s Tricky Trainers in Crunchy Cheddar, for example. You can use cheese, hot dogs, beef jerkey…you get the idea. Make sure they are cut into tiny pieces so that treating him after every step in the process doesn’t cause him to gain two collar sizes overnight.
Next, determine where your dog’s fear begins, and start just before that point. Is he fine until he sees the clippers headed for his nails? Start with just holding the clippers in your hand. Does he freak out the minute you head towards the closet where the clippers are stored? Place him in a calm “down” and begin there. Is he okay when you touch his legs but then gets nervous and leaves when you reach his ankles? Start at his knees.
Start with singing your version of the “Clip a Claw, Get a Cookie!” jingle and get the clippers from the closet. Toss pooch a treat! Sit down on the floor (dog level) and place the clippers down. Toss a treat! Is pup seeming nervous about the clippers? Then your session for the day is done here. Get up with the clippers, return them to their storage spot, and toss a treat.
Eventually, the clippers will come to mean that treats will follow. When pup seems fine with the presence of the clippers, then it’s time to continue. Gently massage one leg starting at the point where he’s okay with it. With each tiny step of progress you make, toss a treat. Is it not working? You might be going too quickly. Break the process down into micro-steps and take it slow—perhaps your dog will need two months or more to get used to having his paws touched, and another two months or more to get used to a clipping. Perhaps he’ll need even more time. The point is to go at a snail’s pace and make the whole experience a rewarding one (literally!). Once you are able to clip a claw, immediately praise and treat him. What a good boy!
Once you’re able to clip his claws, be sure to only clip a tiny bit of claw per session. If your dog has light colored nails, it will be a little easier to see the quick (the blood supply down the center of the nail) and avoid cutting deep enough to reach this sensitive area. If your dog has dark nails, you won’t be able to see the quick at all. Regardless, be sure you take a long time to gradually shorten your dog’s nails by clipping only a tiny bit per nail trim session (no more frequently than once a month). Because not only will clipping the quick be painful and bloody, it will confirm to your dog that he was right in believing that no one should ever touch his paws!
And if all else fails, be sure to let your veterinarian do the job. Overgrown nails can be a painful hazard for your pup.