Nail Trims- Really Shouldn't Be Scary
By Colleen S. Koch, DVM, KPA-CTP, Featured in Veterinary Technician Magazine
Nail trimming is one of those dreaded tasks that many owners prefer to defer to professionals of some sort. Some dogs go to the groomer, some get their nails trimmed once or twice a year, whether they need it or not during their annual or biannual veterinary exam.
Nail trimming does not have to be, nor should it be torture for anyone. Trimming nails should not be painful unless there is some underlying pathology. At our practice we promote positive nail trimming. Our goal is for your pet to believe that only wonderful things were performed.
We start all puppies out on a nail trimming protocol in the clinic. We encourage you to follow up by touching or playing with the feet in a kind manner. Make it fun, choose the time to practice carefully, and reward good behavior with lots of attention, playing and/or treats.
What about the older fearful dog that has learned to bite when you come near their feet? The answer lies in desensitization and counter conditioning. The process is simple and involves gradually introducing the fearful stimulus (nail trimmers) in the presence of a valued reward (toys/treats/attention). The "evil" nail trimmers are now a predictor of something good. Timing is important; you want the nail trimmers to predict something "good," not the "good thing" to predict nail trimmers.
In the past, it was customary to hold dogs down, muzzle, or whatever it takes to get the nails trimmed. Very rarely does the behavior improve to the point that the dog will allow one person to trim their nails while the dog is unrestrained. Generally, it takes more and more restraint to accomplish the same goal.
Trimming nails is not an emergency. If your dog will not take treats it is because they are very fearful and anxious. In this heightened state of anxiety, in your dogs mind, everything seems a lot more traumatic than it is. If we trim your dog's nails when they are in this state, even if it is performed without incident, we decrease your dog's trust in us, as well as in you. We certainly do not want to contribute to your pet's anxiety.
If you would like us to continue to trim your pet's nails without desensitizing and counter conditioning, please note that we will use a sedative in the future. This will be an increased expense, but it will decrease the anxiety your pet experiences. Our ultimate concern is for the long-term health and well being of your pet.
Alternately, you could start a desensitization and counter condition program to teach your dog that nail trimming is a good thing. There is a step-by-step video on our website that shows detailed instructions on how to train your dog to accept nail trimming. If you still do not feel confident or would prefer that we train your dog we can make arrangements to do so.
If you try the desensitization process at home and do not feel you are making progress, please contact us. It could be that you are trying to proceed at a faster rate than your dog is comfortable with, or that your pet has other anxieties and needs a behavioral consult to address their issues.
Remember, there is no rule that says all feet must be trimmed at one time. Take small steps and stop BEFORE your pet gets upset. Your dog really should think of nail trims like a mani/pedi spa experience, not torture.
Check out our desensitization & counter-conditioning nail trim video