Nailing it from the start!


The other day I visited the cutest 11week old puppy! At one point, when she was being held securely by her owner, I touched her little paw! Giving each toe a light squeeze in turn, I reflected.There was no pulling away and there was a complete absence of any kind of anxiety-related body language. There was utter trust and seemingly no learning history(good or bad). It struck me that we should be looking at this now and ‘nailing it from the start’!

In short she was a clean, blank slate!

That wee puppy had never yet had the experience of nail filing and I realized just how life changing ‘getting it right’ at this tender age really is.


Nailing it when its an up-hill battle


Most of the world is filled with dogs who have had at least one (if not more) negative events in relation to nail filing. When we start our training, there is already a lot of learning history to make up for.

We might need to go slowly and it might take a bit longer but how exactly do we Nail it right from the get go?


1. Consider a comfortable position.


– Your puppy may be small now and we might be able to work with her on our laps but thinking about her eventual size and the position you might be able to cope with later on needs to be a factor. Getting a dog cosy on their side might work for some or even choosing a slightly more restrained option on or between your legs as you sit on the floor could be a good option for solo nail trimmers (as I have been). Practice marking and rewarding for still and settled behavior in that position regularly.


2. Work on handling first!


– Once in a good position for you, work on handling the pups (or dogs) feet.  Mark and reward for still, calm behavior and for the dog allowing her paw to sit in your hand for a small duration. As she gets comfortable,  start to take each toe in turn and apply the lightest pressure hold with your fingers.
Increase the pressure until it reflects the secure hold you would need to do, to secure the toes when clipping or filing the nail


3. Positively condition your tools


– Whether you decide to use a nail board, a Dremel, a hand file, nail clippers or a combination of them all, introduce your dog to them all in a positive way. Pairing the tools presence with food, treats, play, etc. will induce a positive emotion in the dog when they see them coming out. When using a Dremel, also ensure the dog is desensitized to the noise by switching it on and off and offering the treat (or toy) right after.


Toto doing dremel nail file training

Toto learns that dremel noises bring good things


4.Check your dog’s body language


– If you go too fast you will notice a change in body language. The dog might start to shy away or walk away, may pull away or avoid you. If this happens you are moving too fast and need to back track and reduce criteria (ie. ask for less). Below are a few great resources on Canine Body Language.


5.  Fear doesn’t mean Manageable fear 


– When dealing with anxieties (or prevention thereof) we are looking to progress when the dog shows no fear at each level. No fear doesn’t mean slight fear or manageable fear, so be careful not to push on It will eventually mean that you ‘sensitize’ the dog rather than the opposite.


6. Giving choice!


– Allowing your dog the choice to walk away, will actually build trust and co-operation in the longer term. If you get one nail done and your dog chooses to walk away, let him and make a note that you may have pushed too hard or for too long. When dogs have the choice to participate and you take each step slowly enough, you will end up with a willing participant rather than a restrained prisoner.


7. I’m sorry but… (the ‘not negotiable’ cue)


 – What about when you simply have to just get something done and revoke that choice? We want the dog to have as much choice as possible but it’s not always practical. There will be times when the dog won’t have a choice due to an emergency or situation when you need to intervene even if training hasn’t progressed to that stage. Thinking of a cue for this early on and being consistent in delivering it on those unavoidable occasions will help to retain your progress during regular training. A trainer friend stated recently that in this situation, she always says, “I’m sorry, I love you but…”


8. Clipping the first nail


 It may seem daunting once you get to that first nail clip (or file) but remember the small steps. Before taking the first clip you will have…

  1. Practiced the nail hold
  2. Repeated ‘clippers touch to the nail’ many times
  3. Practiced ‘clippers clip air in front of the nail’
  4. Repeated ‘scraping the clippers over the end of the nail’
  5. Practiced applying pressure around the nail with the clippers


All these steps plus the fact that the first ‘cut’ can take the smallest slither of nail possible will allow for little to no reaction from your dog.
Ensure you follow each step with a yummy treat and don’t miss out steps!


9. Don’t go crazy!


 – You will likely be pretty pleased with yourself after your first clip or file touch (and so you should be!). However, don’t go crazy and think the job is done!
Stop after one nail and back track once more with some easy exercises before continuing another day with nail number two. I’d suggest doing one nail every 2-3 days to start with and only once you see utter comfort after one nail increase it to two at one sitting, etc.


10. Dog Nail Anatomy


 – Before you progress any further do a little research on dog nail anatomy.
Before you start trying to take larger chunks of nail, you need to be fully aware of where the quick is.The ‘quick’ is the soft bundle of nerves and blood vessels in the inner nail. If your dogs nails are white, then the quick will show up as pink and is easier to see. However if your dogs nails are black, then it’s much harder to locate. Many people find the Dremel file easier to use for this reason.For more info …


11. Teach your dog to file his own


nailing it on a nail board

Pax ‘nailing it’ learning how to file his own nails on a nail board!

 Lastly but not least! I find this an extremely useful option to incorporate early in training.
Make a Nail board by sticking a piece of sandpaper to a board.
Secure the edges with duct tape and fastening a handle to the rear.
It takes most dogs less than 5 minutes to start to get successful paw swipes onto a nail board. Working with them for 10 minutes (once or twice a week) can make a significant difference to their front nails. If nothing else this cuts your job down by almost 50% .

It also builds a valuable, positive association with the scraping feeling, so that they are more likely to be comfortable with manual filing on the back nails or dew claws if that seems necessary.

To learn more check out my grooming and co-operative care info page here… subscribe to my newsletter!