Perhaps one of the most dreaded pet care tasks of all is cutting a dog’s nails. Dogs tend to be afraid and many struggle madly as a means of avoidance, people put it off because it is so aversive with the result that success becomes even harder to achieve, and sometimes a small but painful injury actually does occur. Gee, I can’t imagine why there is any dread involved!
After I got my PhD, I spent almost a year working as a dog groomer in order to gain dog skills. As a result, I have cut the nails of dogs who range from the most docile to the most devilish, wiggly, and even aggressive dogs. No matter what their individual temperaments and reactions to nail clipping, they needed to go home with properly trimmed nails, so I know a few tricks about getting the job done.
First of all, let me say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a professional such as a groomer, veterinary technician, or a veterinarian cut your dog’s nails. Of course, it is an expense, not to mention a hassle, to take your dog to have this procedure done, but if it means the nails get trimmed properly, it may be worth it. As a behaviorist, I focus a lot on the relationship between people and dogs, and all that good work building up a trusting relationship can be ruined if a dog is truly frightened of you when you cut her nails. It’s far better to have those negative feelings associated with a groomer or somebody at the vet’s office than with you.
One of the easiest ways to cut a dog’s nails is to give her something to keep her occupied while you work. A Kong or other hollow toy stuffed with something that is beyond delicious such as steak, hamburger, peanut butter, turkey, or cream cheese can often be enough to get your dog to relax and ignore what you are doing. A real bone, a chew toy, or any extra special treat may also do the trick. Let her have it long enough for her to get really involved with it before you even bring out your clippers. Make sure that she gets this same kind of special treat at other times so that she doesn’t get anxious and think, “Uh-oh, here come the clippers!” whenever the Kong appears.
Another trick to getting nails clipped without a tantrum or a wrestling match is to clip just one nail, and then immediately take your dog out on a walk. When I say, “immediately,” I mean that you cut the one nail, and the very next second you grab the leash, and say, “Let’s go for a walk.” By doing this once a day before a walk, you can cut all of your dog’s nails in about three weeks, and then start over again. After doing the one nail then go for a walk sequence for several weeks, many dogs will start to be happy when they see the nail clippers because they have learned to associate having a nail clipped with the happy event that always follows it—going for a walk. Once your dog is happy about having her nails clipped, you can do more than one at a time, working up to a whole foot or two’s worth of nails at a time until finally, you can do all her nails at once before going on a walk.
In some cases, I used a physical hold to be able to cut a dog’s nails. It works best with two people. If one person can get your dog on her side, kneel by her back, then lean over her whole body and hold onto the two legs that are on the floor side, she will not be able to move as easily as with most other holds. Then, the second person can cut her nails. True, most dogs will not like this, but if it allows you to keep her still long enough to cut her nails with a minimum of fuss, it may actually be less stressful for her (and for you!) than a prolonged struggle would be. This type of hold is best for dogs who struggle but do not try to use their mouths to stop you from cutting her nails. If your dog behaves aggressively, trying to bite you when you try to cut her nails, this hold is not a good idea.
If your dog is aggressive in the context of having her nails cut, first of all, please know that this is very VERY common—take it from a former groomer. If this is the only situation that brings out any aggressive behavior in your dog, do be wary, but consider yourself lucky all the same. If your dog bites or tries to bite when you cut her nails, it is perfectly acceptable to use a muzzle on your dog. I recommend getting her used to the muzzle rather than just slapping it on her, but then, put the muzzle on, cut her nails, and be done with it. I am of the opinion that it is more humane to use a muzzle and get her nails trimmed quickly than to fight and struggle over it for a long time, and then probably still not be able to do as good a job with the nails themselves.
Good luck! I hope at least one of these techniques helps you and your dog accomplish this task faster, more easily, and with less angst!