Nail clipping can be easier

Proper training can reduce the stress


Q:We have a large dog and when we try to clip his nails, he becomes very upset and tries to bite. We've tried to give treats, give lots of praise and make it a pleasant experience but it doesn't help. A friend of mine gives her dogs a tranquilizer when she wants to cut their nails and I've been thinking about trying that, too. Do you have any ideas?

A: Since individual dogs vary a great deal in their reactions to tranquilizers, I'm not in favor of their use at home without the direct supervision of a veterinarian. Few dogs enjoy nail cutting but most, with training, will learn to allow their nails to be cut without a major struggle.

Start out with a sharp nail clipper and a helper whose pockets have been filled with extra-special treats. Bits of hot dog or shredded cheese work well! Most people use the single-bladed “guillotine” type clipper. I prefer the kind that looks like a little pliers and has two blades, top and bottom. It cuts faster with less effort. I replace mine every year (they're inexpensive) to make sure they're always sharp. The sharper they are, the less they pinch the nail during the cut.

Dogs feel most confident and in control when they're on the ground because that's their primary domain. I like to put a reluctant or uncooperative dog up on a grooming table or other raised surface with my helper supervising the dog's head. Your assistant doesn't have to hold his head still (this often causes dogs to struggle more), just keep him occupied by tempting him with treats and prevent him from turning around or jumping off the table. I start with the rear feet - dogs seem to be better about these, perhaps because they can't see what you're doing.

We'll do the right rear foot first. I stand at the dog's side, next to his rump, with my back to his head. I grasp the dog's ankle (just above the paw) from the front with my left hand (I'm righthanded), lift the foot and turn the paw backward so that the pads are facing up. The bend of the dog's ankle is cradled in my palm. Your grip should be firm: the dog shouldn't be able to pull his foot out of your hand. They seem to try harder to get away if your grip is tentative or delicate.

The dog is going to try to pull away, at least at the early stages of this training, and I'm very clear that I expect him to stand there nicely. He's corrected in a stern voice “NO! BEHAVE!” but don't let go of his foot while you correct. The person at the dog's head should be reinforcing you by repeating the same thing, making eye contact with the dog and keeping his head from turning around. (Growling or trying to bite shouldn't be tolerated. If you let him frighten you with this behavior, he'll only get worse.) It may take a minute or two just to get the dog to tolerate your holding his foot but be very firm about — keep your voice low, deep and calm and use a tone that shows him you do not intend to compromise. Do not ask him to cooperate — tell him! As with so many other things with dogs, it comes down to a battle of wills. If your will is stronger, almost all of them give in eventually. Reward with treats and praise for good behavior.

Some of the more resourceful dogs will try to make you think you're killing them and will even scream to convince you. Don't believe him — you're not hurting him at all. You're just holding his foot, for criminy's sake!

With the dog's ankle cradled in your palm and pads facing up as described above, use your fingers to spread his toes and push the nail you want to clip upward into view. For these first few sessions — this is important — just nip the very tip of the nail with the clipper so that there's no way you're going to cut too far and hurt him. It means that you're going to have to live with longer nails for awhile, but it's critical for the dog to learn that nailcutting might be uncomfortable but it doesn't hurt. After you've nipped the first nail, praise him and give a treat (but don't let go of his foot!) and move on to the next toe.

When you've finished the entire foot (it might take a little while during these first sessions), put it down and make a big fuss over him, lots of praise and treats. Depending on how the dog is handling this so far, you can either start on the next foot or take him off the table for now and work on him some more later in the day. I usually cut nails as part of routine grooming. With a reluctant dog, I'll do one foot, brush awhile, do another foot, brush some more and continue in this way until all four feet are done.

Front feet are done similarly to the rear ones: standing at the dog's shoulder and looking toward his tail, pick up the forefoot at the ankle and turn the foot so the pads are facing up. Most people stand in front of the dog, pull the leg forward and try to hang on to the paw. This just doesn't work with a reluctant dog and seems to make them want to pull their foot away all the more.

Many dogs object to nailcutting because someone has clipped their nails too short in the past and hurt them. Unlike our toenails, dogs' toenails have a nerve and a blood vein inside them. When cut too short, it causes pain and bleeding. The entire nail isn't sensitive, though; there's an easily seen distinction between the “live” part of the nail (the part that can bleed) and the “dead” section, the part which has no nerve or vein. If you only cut the “dead” section of the nail, you will not hurt the dog or make it bleed.

The live area in toenails that are white or very light colored is easy to determine. The section with the nerve and vein is pink while the dead part is white. Most dogs, though, have black toenails making it impossible to see where one area ends and the other begins. By holding the foot with the pads facing up, as described in the paragraphs above, it's easy to see this distinction no matter what color your dog's nails are. Along the bottomside of the nail, you'll see a groove. It begins at the tip of the toenail, where its outline is very sharp, deep and distinct. The groove continues toward the toe, becoming wider and shallower until its outline blends in with the rest of the nail and seems to disappear. The part of the toenail with a deep, distinct groove is the dead area. There is no nerve or blood vein in that section and you may safely cut it off without harming the dog.

Worrying about where and how much to cut makes many people nervous and this nervousness is easily felt by the dog, making him jittery and more inclined to struggle. Until you feel confident in your work, cut just the very tips of the nails. You'll get better with practice and by cutting them often (weekly), you'll become more comfortable doing it and you'll be able to keep the nails at a reasonable length. As you become more skillful and your dog more cooperative, you'll be better able to estimate the amount you can safely cut and decrease the sessions to twice-monthly.

Accidents happen once in a while and even the best groomers occasionally draw blood. Nails can bleed heavily and it's wise to have something on hand to stop it. A pinch of flour applied to the end of the nail will work but more effective is a product like Kwik Stop that is designed especially for that purpose. You can find it at your local pet supply store and a tiny container will last a long time. It does sting a little when applied to the nail but stops bleeding almost immediately. It's normal for the dog to be a little offended when you've hurt him and while I don't baby them, I offer apologies and treats. “See, that wasn't so bad!” Since some dogs will be reluctant to allow you to cut another nail near the wounded one, I usually leave that foot for a moment and work on another, going back to the first when I'm through.

These methods work well on dogs of all sizes. For extremely small dogs, I like to lay them on their backs in my lap. If the dog isn't cooperative, I ask a helper to steady their heads, rub their tummies and talk to them while I cut. As with the larger dogs, lots of praise and treats will help them understand that while nail cutting is a fact of life, it's not a torture session and can even be enjoyable!

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Vicki DeGruy

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