Clipping nails needs positive reinforcement | All About Pets

You finally mustered the nerve to carry out the task you’ve been dreading all week. Brush in one hand, nail clippers in the other, you hunt for Fido throughout the house. “I got him. He’s over here!” shouts your significant other or perhaps your roommate or a friend over to help with the task.

  • Wednesday, October 23, 2013 8:31pm
  • Life

You finally mustered the nerve to carry out the task you’ve been dreading all week. Brush in one hand, nail clippers in the other, you hunt for Fido throughout the house. “I got him. He’s over here!” shouts your significant other or perhaps your roommate or a friend over to help with the task.

Many pet parents are afraid or unable to trim their dog or cat’s nails and some are even unable to brush their pets. You might think it’s not a big deal; however, these are essential pet care tasks that may need to be performed on a regular basis. Untrimmed or worn nails can snag on objects and tear as well as cause abnormal walking gait. They can even grow so long that they curve around back into the foot causing lameness and pain. Long nails can also cause damage to furniture and can scratch folks who are playing with their long-nailed pets.

Luckily it turns out that both dogs and cats can be trained to allow and even enjoy grooming and toenail trims.

The trick is to pair the event with something positive and to train in systematic steps.

For instance, to train a pet to tolerate toenail trim we want to associate the procedure with good things like food or treats. Start with whatever the pet can handle easily. For instance for pets who bolt at the sight of toenail trimmers you don’t want to start by pairing a toenail trimming with food. Rather, pair the sight of the trimmers with good things – place them near their food bowl so the pet has to be near it every day when they eat or put a treat like canned food, peanut butter or spray cheese on the nail trimmer handles so the pet can lick the treat off every time they walk by. Alternatively, for pets who eat inanimate objects with food on them, you can hold the trimmers with treats on it and remove the trimmers once the food is all licked off.

Once the pet consistently acts as if she’s about to get treats when she see the trimmers you can go on to the next step of pairing foot handling with treats. The easiest variation uses two people – one to give treats and one to handle the feet. First have the pet sit in a comfortable position. Start by giving treats and once the pet’s in a happy state start rubbing the feet lightly. The goal is for the pet to focus only on the food, so if he acts like he notices his feet are being touched you’ll need to make the handling even easier, by handling higher up the leg instead. After several seconds of handling and feeding, stop and remove you handling hand and then the food-dispensing hand. Wait about five seconds then repeat the procedure.

The timing can be crucial because we want to make it clear that handling the foot equals treats, no handling equals no treats, and we always want the pet in a positive emotional state. When the pet’s good at this step go to pairing more vigorous handling with treats. With each step handle the feet more vigorously, but only go to the next step when you’re sure he associates the previous step with good things. In later steps, practice putting the clippers over the nail so your pet gets used to the feel paired with treats. And the final step is pairing the actual toenail clipping with treats. Beyond this, you can also progress to clipping the nail and giving the treats afterward, too. Just be sure that when you clip, you avoid clipping into the pink part of the nail that contains the blood vessel and nerves or you’ll set the process back.

Sometimes the process takes just minutes. Sometimes it takes a week with twice daily, short sessions. You may also need coaching from a veterinary team trained in these techniques and you may want to find a hospital or groomer trained in these low-stress behavior modification techniques. Education is key. We welcome you to set up a technician appointment to have one of our team members trim your furry family member’s nails and show you how to trim nails if you’d like

Special thanks to Pet Health Network and to our readers – we welcome you back next month. As always, send questions, comments, or suggestions for future columns to us at

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