In this video, Dr. Karen Becker shows you her tips and tricks for trimming your dog’s nails and how to make it a positive experience for both of you.
By Dr. Becker
So here I am again with my wonderful model, Rosco. So far we’ve bathed him, cleaned his facial folds, and cleaned his ears. That leaves the dreaded nail trim still to do.
Here’s what I’d like you to keep in mind. Nail trims can be painful if you cut too far back. The experience can also be quite stressful for your dog because you’re holding his foot, and it feels weird to him.
Often when you take your dog’s foot in your hand, he’ll try to yank it back as if to say, “Ooooh! Let go! Let go! Let go!”
Rosco’s Rocky Start in Life
Now Rosco here has had his nails trimmed by me for the last 11 years, so he’s used to this now. But Rosco was a rescue we got when he was a year old. It’s kind of a strange story, which I’ll simplify.
I went to get my hair cut. I’m sitting in the chair at the salon, and my hairdresser says, “Hey, did you see the lady who just left?” And I answered yes, I’d seen her.
So my hairdresser says, “She just dropped her Boston terrier off at the forest preserve.”
I said, “WHAT?”
This was February 14th in Chicago, and we were in the middle of a blizzard.
My hairdresser goes on to say the dog’s name is Rocco, and he really doesn’t have much personality, according to his owner. So she tied him to the forest preserve sign because he’s really cute and she’s convinced someone will find him there.
I was horrified by this news and right away called my husband. He went to the forest preserve and sure enough, there’s ‘Rocco’ tied to the sign exactly as the woman had described.
So we took Rocco home, changed his name to Rosco, and we’ve cared for him ever since.
Using Food Treats to Create a Positive Experience
Rosco’s first year of life, before we rescued him, included treatment that created phobias.
He didn’t like to walk on a leash. In fact, we’d show him a leash and he would just freeze. It seems he was dragged, and no one worked with him to learn to feel comfortable walking on leash. He was pulled along, and to this day he still has some residual phobia about leashes.
Rosco also had a phobia about nail trims, but we’ve worked on desensitizing his paws, and as you can see, now he’ll even hold hands with me.
Whenever your dog is nervous or afraid about something you need to do to him, you should incorporate positive rewards. I use food, which works for almost any dog.
Now, there are people who don’t believe food should be used in this way, but I disagree. Food tells the dog, “Good job!” and “Well done!”
Rosco’s probably pretty nervous even though he doesn’t look it. He knows he’s going to get a nail trim, after all. So I’m breaking these food treats into microscopic pieces, and as you can see, Rosco’s okay with things right now because I’m blotting out his potential for panic with food.
Sometimes if a dog is extremely nervous, she won’t accept food treats. She can’t even swallow. That’s when you know she’s gone past the panic response threshold. She’s honestly in fear for her life.
Rosco was that way when we rescued him. But as you can see now, thank goodness, he’s highly food motivated. And he realizes something scary like a nail trim comes with something fabulous like food treats.
When we rescued Rosco and realized he didn’t like having his paws touched, we started desensitizing him.
When he sat on the couch with us, we would pet him and incorporate touching his feet into the petting. So we would stroke his head, his body, and his paws.
If the only time you touch your dog’s paws is to trim her nails, it gives the dog reason for concern. Every time you take hold of her paw she’s thinking, “Oh no. It’s coming. The dreaded thing that sometimes hurts.”
Another really important thing I want you to remember is when you trim your dog’s nails, you can always go back and take a bit more off if you leave one too long – but you can’t reattach a nail if you cut it too close.
If you create a painful experience for your pet during nail trimming, your dog will forever link the clipper with “Ouch!” In fact, right now Rosco’s little heart is beating really fast because he knows what’s coming.
With Rosco, we not only use food treats, but we only trim one nail a day.
We get the nail trimmer out, we get the food out, and Rosco knows what’s coming. My husband holds him, we trim one nail and say, ‘Yay, Rosco! Great job!’ We feed him and we’re done for that day.
Rosco has a very low stress tolerance threshold, and nail trims are stressful for him. So instead of trying to trim all his nails at once, we do one at a time and it all happens so quickly and pleasantly each day he doesn’t have a chance to get stressed out.
Tools of the Trade
For Rosco we use a nail trimmer, however, a lot of people use a Dremel battery-operated rotary tool. It files down the nails instead of cutting them.
There’s not a right or wrong tool for nail trims, so if your dog isn’t bothered by a battery-operated tool, go for it. But if she’s nervous about the vibration or noise, she’s probably not a good candidate for the Dremel.
Rosco doesn’t like the Dremel at all, but some dogs don’t mind it a bit.
It’s important to read your dog’s body language so you can use the tool that works best to create a low-stress nail trimming experience.
Getting Down to Business
Rosco has some white nails and some black nails. He also has a couple of nails with pink polish on them thanks to my daughter. (I’ve had to apologize to Rosco repeatedly for that.)
Black nails are scary because you can’t see the quick, which is the blood vessel inside the nail that nourishes it.
You can see looking at Rosco’s white nail here that there’s a white tip and then the pink part. The pink area is where the blood vessel is and we don’t want to trim that. We don’t even want to get close to it. The white part out at the end is the extra nail that can be trimmed without creating a painful experience.
So start trimming just a tiny amount. Rosco is very excited as you can see, because I’m getting his food rewards ready. While he’s preoccupied with that, I’m going to hold his foot and clip off a tiny amount of the white part of the nail.
You’re probably thinking, “That wasn’t a nail trim.” It wasn’t a very big nail trim, but it was a positive experience for the dog, which is the goal. Rosco was good with it.
Now I’m going to do it again – take off a tiny bit more. You can see what the end looks like here after I’ve clipped the nail. Now I’m going to take off a little more and I’m at the junction of the white tip and the pink area I don’t want to touch, so we’re done with that nail. That’s a perfect one-nail trim for Rosco.
Black nails are scary because you can’t see where the quick starts. So I’m going to take off just a tiny snippet. I still see keratin and I don’t see the beginning of the quick, so we’re good.
Some nail trimmers come with a guard, and you can flip up the guard and it will only allow you to take off a tiny amount of nail – maybe an eighth of an inch, if that.
I’m going to move this guard back so you can see now what a tiny amount I’m trimming off, and I can check to make sure I’m not about to over trim this nail.
When I get close to the quick, there’ll be a circle inside the center of the nail that indicates I’m approaching the blood vessel. So I’m going to stop on this nail and call it good enough.
Tomorrow we’ll trim another nail for Rosco and he’ll get a few more treats. All in all, nail trimming is not a fun experience for him, but it’s just neutral, which is fine.
Nail trims should be something you do without creating stress for your dog, because it’s a chore you’ll need to do for her lifetime and you want it to be at worst a neutral experience for her.
Don’t Forget the Styptic Powder
One important thing to remember before you start trimming is to have styptic powder or quick stop on hand in case you cut into the quick of the nail.
You can buy styptic powder for pets at any big box pet store, or you can use human styptic powder.
The key is to have it on hand before you start clipping those nails.
If you hit the quick of your dog’s nail, the amount of blood that tiny wound produces can be impressive. Not only might you panic, but so might your dog. You can end up with blood all over the place and the bleeding can be difficult to stop.
So if you trim into the quick and draw blood, have that styptic powder on hand. I use a wet Q-tip and put a bit of powder on the end. I hold it right up against the cut nail to stop the bleeding.
Hopefully you’ll never need to use it, but do have it available so neither you nor your dog needs to panic about a cut.