Dogs have more ticklish and sensitive feet than we do. Their feet have nerve endings that can detect the speed, direction and surface a dog is running over without them needing to watch exactly where they tread. Consider that, and now consider how many people dislike their feet being touched. Is it surprising that many dogs don’t like their nails being clipped.

Making daily, positive associations with feet handling should ideally start when dogs are young puppies. Work out what your dog thinks is a very special treat. Offer something small, soft and smelly such as pieces of cooked chicken, processed meat roll or cheese and determine what they prefer. This is their strong motivator and the aim is to have them associate feet handling with eating their favourite food reward.

The aim is for your dog to associate the treat with the touch. Touch =OMG I’m getting my favourite food! No touch =no yummy treat.

Begin with touching a part of their leg they are comfortable with and at the same time as touching the leg offer them constantly their special treats. Touch/treat, then stop both touch and treat, then repeat.

A relaxed dog looks “floppy” and does not tense. Observe for early signs of anxiety such as yawning, looking away, ears positioned back and flat to the head, stopping eating and flicking their tongue to the nose. This is your dog’s way of telling you they are uncomfortable and you should stop handing them.

For an older dog you may find they are first only ok with being touched over the shoulder or hip. For an 8wo puppy you should already be able to start with touching their feet.

Train for only a few minutes a session and within your dog’s limitations. Pick a time of day when your dog is hungry such as before they are fed their dinner. Have a set of scissor or guillotine nail clippers next to you as you start training. It is important with dogs that are very anxious with foot handling to take baby steps. Finish sessions on a positive note, even if this means moving your touch up the limb and further away from the foot for the dog to eat with being touched. You can coordinate treat=touch with one person touching whilst another treats the dog but you must get the timing together exact.

Begin touching the limb with a stroke then then progress to a light squeeze of the limb. Over time you will be able to move down the leg and hold the foot. You should be able to resume the next training session from where you left off last time if you have worked within the comfort limits of your dog. Alternate touch=treat with both front and back legs. 

When your dog is comfortable having their feet lightly squeezed progress to touching in between their toes and touching their nails. Remember touch always =treat.

Feel for any grass seeds that may have become embedded between your dog’s toes in the webbing and remove them before they track under the skin to cause an infection.

The nail clippers can then be used to lightly tap each nail = treat. This is when a second person treating whilst another clips is helpful. Use the clippers to take off only 1mm from the tip of one nail initially. Use one hand to hold the foot and nail and the other to clip. The vibration of clip will be dampened by your finger and not be so noticeable to your dog. Progress to clipping all the nails on that foot. You can remove the portion of the nail that is growing beyond the quick (blood vessel). Use any unpigmented nails as a guide to how short you can trim black nails.

Most young and active dogs keep their nails worn down and won’t need trimming, all except for their dew claws which are higher off the ground. Older dogs or those that spend a lot of time indoors will have longer nails that would benefit from regular trims to enable them to stand and walk properly. Once your dog is less ticklish and able to have their nails clipped remember to continue doing small, regulars clips each week. This ensures that they remember that nail clips are ok and you don’t forget your technique.

It is possible to clip a nail a bit short and expose the blood vessel. This is not a serious concern but your dog will feel some discomfort so remember to continue offering treats. Pressure should be applied with a tissue for a few minutes. There are various home products such as baking soda or a damp bar of soap dabbed on the nail that may stop the bleed but if bleeding persists after 10 minutes call the veterinary clinic for advice.

Please note: If your dog is distressed having their nails clipped and their nails are causing difficulty walking it may be advised that they have them cut short under a light sedation as a veterinary procedure. This is safely and quickly done, without your dog having a fear memory of the nail clip. It also allows you a few months to gradually desensitize your dog, as described, to having their nails clipped in the future.

Dr Marika Ley MANZCVS (animal behaviour)

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