Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nail care is a part of responsible dog ownership!

Even before I had dogs of my own, I was a stickler on toenails. William Wegman's photos of his Weimaraners annoyed the crap out of me. "For a guy who has beautiful dogs and lots of money because of said dogs," I pondered, "they sure do have long icky nails! Can't he afford to hire someone to take back those talons?"

I've heard every excuse in the book...
1. My dog doesn't tolerate having his nails trimmed!
2. I'm afraid I'll make him bleed!
3. I nicked him with the clippers once and he hates it now!
4. He wiggles too much!
5. My dog is scared of the nail clippers!

To which I counter with...
1. Too bad, you are the leader and he is the dog - teach him to tolerate it!
2. Then get a dremel and teach him to accept it, silly!
3. So teach him through positive experiences that nail-time does not have to be scary!
4. Restrain him, make him hold still and teach him that wiggling is not acceptable!
5. Teach him that nail clippers (and ever better, a nail grinder) is not something to fear!

Notice the word I used in each counter? TEACH. For all the training we (collective we) do with our dogs, it seems like many people regard behaving for nail trimming as something that either happens or it doesn't - not that it's something that needs to be worked on, to be taught, to be trained.

I groomed professionally for nearly seven years. In that time, I learned that grooming dogs can often be like pushing a large boulder up a muddy hill after a torrential downpour - if you are methodical, calm and take it slow, eventually you'll get that boulder to the top of the hill. If you act like a nincompoop or get freaked out, the boulder will crash down the hill and you'll be covered in mud. The most important thing to remember is to never lose your footing and never let the boulder slide down that hill!

How does this crazy analogy apply to trimming nails on dogs?

1. Don't set your dog up to fail.
Don't ask more of your dog than you know he can give. Start small, go slow, offer rewards and encouragement. Don't be cruel, don't get mad.

2. Don't lose ground.
If your dog flails around, restrain him. If he tries to escape, restrain him. If he freaks out, restrain him. Do not let him win (i.e. slide down the slope) by letting him run off in the middle of a grooming session. If he does manage to escape, go get him and continue!

3. Don't let your dog win.
Once a dog knows he can escape nail trimming by acting like an ass, that will be his default behavior at nail-time! Just like letting that boulder roll to the bottom of the hill and having to push it all the way back up again, letting a dog "win" when you're trimming nails will mean that the next time you trim nails, the dog's behavior will be even worse. Even if you don't finish, always end a nail session with you winning.

I use a grinding tool instead of clippers. Mine is actually an ancient Black & Decker Wizard powered by Versapak batteries. I'd recommend this tool if it was still being made by B&D, but sadly it was scrapped from their product line eons ago. Instead, go with a Dremel - cordless or corded, it's your choice. Grinding has several advantages over clipping - shorter nails, no risk of gushing blood, no sharp edges, more comfortable for the dog, etc.

When I grind nails, I have the dog lie down on his side. I sit next to the dog and grind nails while we're both on the floor. If I don't completely trust the dog, I securely tie him up to a sturdy post and grind the nails with the dog standing up. I've never had a dog try to bite me for this, but one can never be too careful. With the corgis, I sit cross-legged and hold them in my lap, head between my side and my elbow, their cute little corgi tummies facing the sky. Mu husband calls this the "Welsh headlock." This is a great method for dwarf breeds as it puts very little strain on their shortened legs and joints.

Ronin says, "Are you going to grind my toesies, Mummy?"

Ada helps demonstrate the "Welsh headlock" position.

If the dog begins to get agitated, you need to turn to stone. Freeze. Do not squeeze down or tense up, but do not slide down that slope. Hold your ground. Sooner or later, the dog will realize that struggling is getting him nowhere, and the dramatic flailing will subside. Once this happens, briefly tell him - in a firm, benevolent and quiet tone - that he's being a good boy (I usually say "wise decision, my friend") and continue on. Do not stop until the job is done, or until you feel that you have "won" at this time. Once all the nails are done, hold him still for a few more moments and tell him again - in that same authoritative yet kind tone - that he was a very brave dog. Let him up and go to the kitchen to get a few yummy treats for his trouble!

If you're trying to work back long nails, grind every third day. If you're trying to maintain their current length, grind every 7-10 days. If you do a good job and grind often, you may end up with beautiful paws like this:

But I know what you're thinking. You're saying to yourself, "Yeah, but those are the feet of a show dog - not some everyday pet! Of course they're shorter than the average dog's nails!"

Let me show you something. The next photo is of our foster dog's nails. We have had this particular foster dog for about 4 weeks, and have been grinding her nails every 3-4 days. This dog has probably never had fastidious nail care up until 4 weeks ago.

This is the foot of a rescue dog, not a show dog. It is possible, folks - this is proof!

So the next time you look at your dog - the dog that eats the very best food, gets the very best training, wears the very best collars.... please do not turn a blind eye to the condition of his feet.


  1. Awesome post Leah! You've inspired me to start doing my own dog's nails.

  2. But it IS easy, Lauren! With the right hold and the right attitude, it comes down to a battle of wills - and no matter how awesome Frodo thinks he is, YOU are more awesome. WIN WIN WIN!

  3. I adopted a 12 yr. old Lab from the shelter. She snapped at me when I tried to cut her nails. Never happened to me before with my other dogs.

  4. I think my biggest problem (yes, here comes an excuse ;) ) is that he is genuinely scared of getting his nails clipped. And I hate causing him to be scared.

    When I was in PA my mom and I would double team him + peanut butter and we could get some done, but he is still scared during the whole procedure. I do realize that nail care is extremely important though, and I HATE the look of long nails more than just about anything (well...except severely obese dogs and dogs with back legs so straight they bow in *shudders*), I just wish I could make him feel more comfortable with it. I need to buy some clippers and have Ryan help me.

  5. I have been thinking about this post ever since I read it last week. I have a 9 yo dog who doesn't mind having his nails clipped at all, but his quicks are soooooo long. The white parts are hardly visible and I have tried to clip them closely to train the quicks back but it never works. Will the dremel work better on this front? Unfortunately my dog's nails are looking a lot like Mr. Wegman's dogs nails these days...

  6. Meredith - absolutely! By the time a dog's nails can have anything clipped off them with a normal set of nail clippers, they're already too long. Dremels can get much more of the dead nail off, and in a safer and more comfortable manner.

    Another "quick trick" - put a dab of Preparation H on the tip of each nail once you've dremeled down to the quick - this will cause the quick to recede even more. :)


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