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Ask the Dog Trainer: Trimming Nails, Step by Step

Dear Kendall,
We need help! We have a five year old Australian Shepherd named Misty who hates having her nails trimmed. She won’t let us hold her leg and we can’t even pick up the pruning shears without her running out the door. She is very stressful for everyone because we just want to help keep her healthy! We are lost! Help!
–Paws out of bounds


Dear Paws Off Limits,
It’s very common for dogs to dislike having their nails trimmed, and I applaud your efforts to make the event less scary for Misty.
First, slow down the entire process and set smaller goals that can ideally be accomplished without stress. He starts by touching Misty’s paw briefly, then takes his hand away from her and praises her. Then touch her paw for several more moments, back away and praise her. Work this way using short, frequent sessions with plenty of praise and tasty treats until she allows you to touch her feet without running away or showing signs of stress such as lip licking, tail poking, shaking, or growling.
Once Misty is happy to have her paws touched, now it’s time for the next step. As a dog trainer, I prefer my dogs to willingly consent to necessary procedures like grooming, brushing teeth, and clipping nails, so you’ll want to teach Misty to offer you his paw.
To develop this skill, sit on the ground in front of Misty with some treats and hold out your hand. Say “paw” and then reach down and gently tap your paw on the pad at the back of the ankle joint. Apply a small amount of pressure toward yourself until you lift your foot off the ground, and then reward and release. Repeat until she no longer has to prompt you with her touch and she lifts the corresponding paw toward you as she holds out her hand.
Next, increase the duration by only rewarding him for longer periods of holding his paw in your hand. At first, he might only give you a foot for a second or two, but once he learns the game, he should move on quickly. This is an important detail to learn because nail trimming can take a couple of minutes and Misty must remain still and patient throughout the entire process.
While working on their paws, you can also transform the nail clipper into a wonderful treat dispensing tool. Start by placing the scissors on the ground and scattering high-value treats around him to encourage him to come closer. When he sees the scissors and starts wagging his tail in anticipation of an upcoming reward, you know your efforts have been successful.
Once Misty is delighted to have her paws handled and the clipper is a source of awe, you’re finally ready to mimic the entire nail clipping process. Sit down with your scissors and ask for her paw. When he’s done, take the nail clippers and touch his nails, but don’t cut them. Reward and repeat the action, touching each nail and working your way up to opening and closing the clipper close to your nails and finally cutting one nail. Proceed in this way, one nail a day, until you can cut all her nails in one session with her calm and happy.
It’s wonderful to take care of your dog’s grooming needs whenever possible, and by following these guidelines to gradually redefine the nail-trimming process, you’ll soon be helping Misty stay healthier and happier.
Kendall and Chandler Brown own Custom K-9 Service Dogs, a dog training business serving Minden/Gardnerville, Carson and Reno. For information visit customk9servicedogs.com or email customk9servicedogs@gmail.com.

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