How to train a dog or cat to let you clip their nails

My little dog Nora and I were spending the day working at Animal Haven Shelter (OK, I was working and she was romping around interspersed with periods of lounging), when I decided to take a break and spend a bit of time on grooming her. She likes to stick with the scruffy, little terrier look, so I focused on a bath and trimming her nails.

As Nora sat in front of me on the floor of the grooming room and daintily held her paw out for me, one of the shelter volunteers commented on how calm she was about having her nails clipped, “She almost seems to like it!,” she exlaimed. While this would be a moment that would make any pet parent (especially a pet parent who is also a dog trainer) proud, I felt I had to be honest and point out that while Nora is about as mannerly as one could hope for when she is being groomed, she doesn’t actually enjoy having her nails clipped. However, she has certainly learned to tolerate it very well. As a result the whole process goes by quickly and she can get back to romping around without the clickety-clack sound so many dogs make when their nails are in need of a trimming.

The volunteer asked me how I taught her to handle what is, for most dogs anyway, a potentially very stressful and unpleasant part of grooming. I explained that I took the easy route to teaching Nora, and all of my animals, to calmly tolerate nail trimmings. I set aside five minutes every day for a month to work on it.

The volunteer looked at me with what can best be described as a ‘I wish I had never asked’ look. I guess setting aside five minutes a day for a month to teach a dog or a cat something sounds like a big time commitment to some people. But, the way I see it is, I hope for my animals to each be in my life for about 15 years (hopefully more!). So, two and a half hours or so to help them learn to be comfortable with what is a vital part of their health (nails that are allowed to grow too long are susceptible to breakage, can affect the structure of the foot, make walking difficult and painful, and even potentially play a part in arthritis) is a very small amount of time to give to their well-being.

There are two options for trimming a dog or cat’s nails: clippers or a grinding tool such as a Dremmel. I prefer to use clippers, but some animals take more easily to the grinding tool so it is worth trying both.

Prior to introducing your dog or cat to these tools, it is best to spend some time getting them used to simply having their paws handled. With Nora, I not only set aside those five minutes each day where I would touch a paw and then give her a bit of her meal or a special treat (this way having her paw touched came to indicate to her that she was about to get something good), but whenever I was snuggling with her on the couch or bed I would make a point to play with her feet.

When I feel the dog or cat is tolerant of paw handling, I place the intended tool near them as I do so. This way they begin to gradually become accustomed to what is a novel item. After a few sessions I start to touch the tool to their paw without actually using it. I just want them to start thinking of the tool as a sign that they are about to get something tasty. I also tilt the odds of this happening in my favor by planning these sessions just prior to meal time.

The first nail clip is usually very easy since the dog or cat may not have experienced it before and hopefully doesn’t have pre-conceived notions about the experience by someone clipping the nail too short. I always make sure to take the tiniest sliver off with the first clip. Not only does this ensure avoiding the quick (the part of the nail that is full of blood vessels and that will bleed if cut), but it also means I have left a bit of nail that I can repeat the process with the next day.

I tend to focus on clipping just one nail a day to begin. It keeps the process brief, and again, allows me the opportunity to repeat the process on that or a different nail throughout the week. This brief, repetitive approach is a terrific way to build a strong learning muscle in your dog that nail clipping isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Once the dog or cat is calm and tolerant of this one nail a day process (I usually give this a month), I might start clipping two or more in a session. But, this depends on the individual animal’s personality. At this point I have also usually moved on from taking the tiniest sliver of a nail clipping to taking off enough to require just one or two clips for each nail. For many people, sticking with small sliver clippings is preferable as it better ensures you won’t cut the nail quick. However, I am especially brave with my animals since they are so calm during the process, and I have been doing this for years. So, even for my dog Moka, who has all black nails, I can accurately gauge the appropriate spot to cut. For dogs or cats with lighter colored nails this is fairly easy as you can see the live part of the nail (the quick). No matter how experienced or confident you are with nail clipping it is wise to keep styptic powder on hand which can be used if the quick is cut.

Even if you don’t feel you are confident enough to clip your dog or cat’s nails, I suggest working to help them become comfortable with nail clipping so that it is easier and less stressful when you take them to the groomer or veterinarian to have it done. Your dog and the person responsible for their pawdicures will thank you for it.

About Andrea Arden

Andrea can be seen on Animal Planet's shows Dogs 101, Cats 101, Pets 101, America's Cutest Dog and America's Cutest Cat. She is the author of numerous best-selling books on animal behavior and training. Andrea is thrilled to be a part of Pets for Patriots' efforts to help its members successfully adopt and share their lives with shelter pets! Read more...
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