Earlier this week, I recorded a podcast (I will link to it once it’s live) and I was asked what were my five top tips to successful trim a dog’s nails, and I thought it worthwhile to share and expand on them a bit here (these are paraphrased and I have taken a few liberties with my own words.

The Five Tips I Believe are Necessary to Successfully Trim a Dog’s Nails:

1.) Pay attention to your dog’s body language. Many dogs are less comfortable with things like nail care than we might think. In some cases, it’s clear: the dog tries to leave, growls, pulls away or even bites when their paw is simply touched. In others, it may be a bit more subtle and this is where observation is so very helpful. Some dogs may express their discomfort by huddling up in an attempt to make themselves smaller, some may pull their ears back and down, some may lick their lips. Check out this body language gallery for some examples.

2.) Consider switching tools. If your dog (or you!) has had a bad experience with one tool, I always recommend starting fresh with a new tool. If things have gone poorly with clippers in the past, and a Dremel or a nail file will get you up and running because they’re new tools you can help your dog to feel comfortable with, that’s where I put my money. You can always work on getting him/her comfortable with the clippers again later, but why not start with a clean slate? Often, the novelty (or newness) of something can help things move along more quickly.

3.) Don’t skimp. Use food. And be generous about it. In my course, Nailed It! A Course in Canine Nail Care, I say this:

“Throughout this process, you will be using food. I am not encouraging you to use food, or asking you to use food. I am telling you that you will be using food. Boy, I’m bossy, huh?!

There’s a reason you’ll be using food. It is extremely important and simple: dogs like it. We need to get dogs liking this process. Food is the easiest, most effective and most efficient way to do that.

And there’s an even more effective and efficient way to use food to our advantage here: by using novel, high value foods. When we combine something the dog loves with something new, we can – by association – make the dog love that new thing, too.”

This is really important if we want dogs to like something-and when it comes to things like nail care, a “WOW” factor, in the form of special, delicious food, can really help our cause.

4.) Consider classical conditioning if operant conditioning is not cutting it. #3 speaks to this issue. You don’t need to be a dog geek and really dig into this, but in my course I do try to help my students understand it a bit better. Many dogs find giving a paw, having a nail clipped (or swiped with a file or Dremel) and then getting a treat to be a bit too…expensive. This can mean that she is simply going along with the program because she is a Good Girl after all, but at some point, her discomfort wins out and you can no longer maintain her nails this way. The paw, clip and treat is operant conditioning- “If you give me your paw and let me clip your nail, then I’ll give you a treat.” For a great number of dogs, underlying body handling issues make this too difficult, and that’s why I designed Nailed It the way I did. Addressing a dog’s comfort and progressing only as the dog continues to be comfortable helps ensure that the nail care process is sustainable and that your dog feels safe and good about it.

5.) Celebrate the successes and remember that it doesn’t have to be a battle. I have seen a great many times at this point (Nailed It has been out just over a year), people able to give themselves a break, not judge themselves, take a breath and finally be able to move forward at a pace that works for their dogs- and them. This is so important to me, because so many of us, for so long have approached things like nail care as something we just need to get done and have had it backfire. Recognizing that we can try a new approach, slow down a bit and have a fantastic outcome is something to be proud of. Celebrate it! Even if you can only do one nail in a session. Celebrate! Chances are pretty good that you didn’t believe you’d get that far. But, if you stuck with it, and your dog is now comfortable with something that before was scary and uncomfortable, celebrate!

trim a dog's nails

It probably seems odd to most people that one of the things I am most excited about is comments like the one in the image above. But it’s the truth! When people are able to achieve something that had previously seemed impossible to them, it makes me want to jump for joy. And when they do it in this way- with their dog’s comfort at the forefront of their minds- my heart feels like it might burst.

If you haven’t yet joined us over at Nailed It!, we’d love to see you there. The community of dog lovers in the course is unlike any I have ever experienced- people who are invested in their dog’s physical and emotional well-being and are putting in the work. You can take 20% off and get the course for only $31.20 when you use the code FIVETIPS at checkout. Read more about it and sign up here.