If you’re like most dog owners, you dread trimming your dog’s nails and put it off for weeks. But nail trims don’t have to be a frustrating nightmare. They can actually be enjoyable. Training your dog to enjoy grooming is one of the most worthwhile things you can do for your dog’s health, not to mention your bond with them.
Why Are Regular Nail Trims So Important?
The biggest reason to keep your dog’s nails short is to maintain a healthy posture. Imagine if your toenails were so long, they touched the ground while you walked. You’d have to distribute your weight to your heels to avoid feeling your nails painfully digging into the ground. This is exactly how it is for your dog when their nails are long. The awkward posture caused by long nails can also make your dog more susceptible to injury and chronic pain.
Your goal should be to keep your dog’s nails short enough that they do not touch the ground while they are walking. There should be little-to-no audible clicking sounds when your dog walks around on hardwood, tile or linoleum floors.
A dog’s nail consists of a hard, thick outer layer and a blood vessel known as the “kwik.” A pink kwik is visible through light-coloured nails. If you cut too close, you may hit the kwik and your dog’s nail will bleed. It may be impossible to trim your dog’s nails short enough without hitting the kwik. With frequent nail trims at the alternate cut line, the kwik will recede. You may need to trim the nails as frequently as every 3 days to help the kwik recede, and then you can maintain it with weekly or biweekly trims.
Ways To Trim Your Dog’s Nails
Clippers are a scissor-like tool used to cut dog’s nails. Never use “human” nail clippers. With clippers, you can cut off a significant portion of the nail in one quick “clip.” It’s important that you sharpen or replace your clippers before they become dull. Dull clippers may squeeze, rather than cut the nail, and can actually cause the nail to painfully split. After you use clippers to trim your dog’s nails, you may be left with sharp edges that you can file down with a nail file or a Dremel tool.
A scratchboard is a piece of sandpaper mounted on an elevated platform. You can teach your dog to scratch the scratchboard to grind down their own nails. However, it’s difficult to teach your dog to use the scratchboard to trim the nails on their hind paws. The dog will usually not be able to grind all of their nails down evenly, so you may still need to use another method.
Long walks can wear down your dog’s nails naturally over time. In the wild, wolves and coyotes keep their nails short through digging and running after prey for hours. Since your dog is likely not running around in the wilderness all day, you may need to walk them on concrete to help keep their nails at a reasonable length. Walks are typically not sufficient for keeping the dog’s nails from touching the ground, but they can be helpful while you counter-condition your dog to tolerate other methods.
A Dremel rotary tool is a handheld electronic sander that is used to grind down the dog’s nails. There is a Pet Dremel specially designed for nail trimming, but you can also use the general-use model like the Dremel 7300-N. When using a regular Dremel tool, start at the slowest speed and use a medium grit sandpaper band.
The Dremel tool allows you to grind the nail more precisely than clippers. You can use it in combination with the clippers or on its own. Many dogs are afraid of the noise and vibration at first, but respond well to counter conditioning and desensitization.
What Is Counter-Conditioning And Desensitization?
Counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC/DS) are methods that you can use to teach your dog to actually enjoy having their nails clipped, rather than fearfully tolerate the experience.
Counter-conditioning means using positive reinforcement to change your dog’s reaction to a stimulus – in this case, the sensation of having their paws touched, the sounds of the clippers or Dremel tool, or the feeling of having their nails trimmed.
Desensitization means exposing your dog to a low-level intensity version of the stimulus and gradually increasing the intensity at a rate with which they are comfortable.
Let’s say you want to teach your dog to sit calmly in your lap while you use a Dremel tool to trim their nails. If your dog is content with sitting in your lap, you’d start CC/DS by gently handling their paws while petting them and offering treats. You’d progress to holding each toe and touching each nail with your fingertip. Pair the presence of the stimulus with something good – small treats, a peanut butter filled Kong or a chew stick work well.
Then, you might have the powered-off Dremel nearby while your dog sits in your lap. When your dog is comfortable having the powered-off Dremel touch their toes, you might start to desensitize them to the sound by running it near them, without touching their nails. You can actually use your Dremel or clippers on uncooked spaghetti to simulate the sound of a nail trim. Only when your dog is comfortable with the sound, may you begin to Dremel just one nail. During the next session, you might try two nails, and at the next, the whole paw.
Most people move too quickly through each stage, which defeats the purpose of CC/DS. At no point should your dog be so frightened that you need to use force to keep them from pulling away. This does mean that it can take weeks to complete this process. In the meantime, you can walk your dog on concrete or use a scratchboard.
Safety Tips And Tricks
Whenever you use force to restrain a dog during nail trims, you put both the dog’s and your own safety at risk. Dogs can injure themselves while trying to get away, and may bite in a panic. That’s why it’s so important to teach your dog to enjoy nail trims, not merely tolerate them.
Even so, you may want to use a muzzle during nail trims whether or not your dog is likely to bite. You can use CC/DS to teach your dog to like their muzzle, too. Muzzle training is extremely handy for vet visits, especially in case of a medical emergency. Remember, if a dog has teeth, they can bite if they are scared or in pain.
Always stop if you are getting frustrated or annoyed with your dog. Pulling away, growling and biting are not signs that your dog is misbehaving. They are simply communicating their fears in the only ways they can. As a responsible dog owner, it’s your job to reduce your dog’s fears, not teach them to repress their natural reactions.
You Don’t Have To Do This Alone!
Fear-free nail trims are challenging for most dog owners. A professional positive reinforcement trainer will help you safely trim your dog’s nails and guide you through CC/DS.