The Stress Free Way to Trim Nails
Trimming the nails on your dog or cat can be very easy- or extremely frustrating for you and scary for your pet. Trying to force your pet to hold still while they are terrified does only one thing- it makes them more afraid! They will fight harder next time and may even bite you to avoid the scary ordeal. The way to make things easy for everyone is to desensitize and counter-condition your pet to actually ENJOY getting his or her mani-pedi.
This is a step-by-step process, one in which your pet can move to the next level ONLY when the pet is COMPLETELY relaxed about the level before. If at any point your pet becomes the least bit stressed, STOP, give your pet a command she knows and likes, a lot of encouragement and love, and/or a VERY special treat. The session is over for the day as soon as any signs of stress occur. Go back to a step where your pet was happy, give a BUNCH of treats, and end the session on a very happy note.
Signs of stress can include pulling feet away, getting away from you, licking/nudging your hands, ears back, body and face tense, not eating the treats, or struggling in any way. If your pet starts to show any signs of stress, STOP, give him/her a bunch of treats, lots of love and reassurance, and try again the next day.
The next day, have a much more valuable treat available, maybe someone to rub their favorite spot, etc. Some pets are so fearful of nail trims due to previous experiences that they may require supplements, Thundershirts, or medications to help them relax. We are more than happy to provide these things for your pet.
In all training sessions, approach your pet when she is calm and relaxed. Remove all distractions from the area, especially other pets who will be excited about the treats. The treats should be very small, absolutely delicious, and very easy to eat. I love Zuke’s Natural Mini Training Treats for this purpose, but cooked meat such as chicken, beef, or salmon is also perfectly acceptable. Keep the treats TINY!
1) The first part is getting your pet used to positive reinforcement training. All you’re going to do is touch your pet in a place she likes (under the chin for example) and reward her for accepting it. Say “Touch,” touch your pet, and immediately give a treat. We’re teaching your pet that the word “touch” means she is going to be touched and then get a treat. You can gradually move the touch closer to the claw. Start with the shoulder, elbow, wrist, foot, then claw. If at any point your pet gets nervous, move back to a place she didn’t mind being touched for several repetitions, then end the session for the time being. Once she is happy with you touching her feet, you can increase the length of time you are touching her feet (not holding- that comes next). Be sure to condition your pet to like being touched on all 4 feet!
2) Once your pet is perfectly happy to allow you to touch her claw, you can start holding her claw as you would for a nail trim the same way you taught touch. Say “paw” hold her paw for a split second only, and give a treat. You know your dog is OK with this procedure when she starts to offer her paw! Increase the length of time that you are holding her feet very gradually.
3) Once your pet is happy to allow you to hold her feet, bring the nail trimmer into the area. Some pets are so afraid of the nail trimmer that you have to go all the way back to Step 1 and get her used to having her feet touched in the presence of nail trimmers. That’s OK. We’re not going to rush it, always keep your pet happy and eagerly accepting treats. If your pet doesn’t care about the presence of the nail trimmers, go on to the next step.
4) Using the nail trimmers, go back to Step One- Touch. Gently touch the nail trimmers on your pet exactly the same way you did before.
5) Once your pet is happy to be touched with the nail trimmers, you can move to holding the paw with the nail trimmers present. You may need a second person for this part. An alternative is to use a longer lasting treat item. Some suggestions are to spread peanut butter or squeeze cheese onto a Licky Mat. Baby food also works. Turkey flavor is a favorite of both dogs and cats. If your pet stops eating, it’s a sign of anxiety, so go back to a step where she was happy and eating and end the session for now.
6) Try trimming just one nail. You will almost certainly need a second person to be the treat dispenser while you work, or use the alternative long-lasting treat. Usually starting with the back feet is less stressful. Again, at the first sign of anxiety, stop, give your pet a lot of love, a lot of treats, and work slower the next time.
7) Continue to give your pet super-duper treats, go slow, and stop at the first sign of anxiety for all future nail trims. It may be some time before your pet accepts nail trims without medications or Thundershirts or supplements.
Our goal is always to work below your pet’s anxiety; if s/he seems to be getting anxious again, go back several steps and work your way back up. While it takes some time to train your pet to enjoy nail trims, it is much safer and much more pleasant to do the training than to rely on piling more and more people on your pet. The more aggressive you become trying to hold them, the more aggressive they become trying to resist. If your pet has already been treated this way in the past, the training will be very slow going, but they will still learn to enjoy nail trims if you are patient and always STOP at the first sign of stress. Please ask us if you have any questions or need additional help with this process. We want all aspects of your relationship with your pet to be pleasant, and trimming nails should be no different. We are here to help.
Authored by Dr. Meghan Ellis