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Note: This post is intended to serve as a “last resort” in conjunction with a desensitization program for trimming your dogs nails. It is not a replacement for clipping your dogs nails, or getting a puppy used to handling. This is for dogs who are already traumatized by nails trims, it can help “fill in” for when the nails get too long and the vet is a stressful encounter, perhaps so stressful it is also detrimental to health. The reason we had to resort to this is we tried many different strategies for desensitization and trimming nails, at home and at the vets since adopting him 2 years ago, and while some progress was made it was still slower than his nails growth – and behavior was regressing in other areas. We hope that this can help traumatized dogs like Mort, but please also work with your dog on feeling more comfortable when trimming nails, with a behaviorist if necessary.
Is your dog scared of nail trims? Do you need to take him or her to the vet to get his nails clipped? Does she fear the Dremel? Does your dog fear his nails being touched, and panic, nip, or bite when its time to have them trimmed? This weeks post is about training one of my dogs, Mort, to file his own nails due to intense fear, and thus far it’s the most useful dog training we have done with him (other than perhaps his safety “Wait” or “Down” commands). There is quite an extensive reason why we chose to train him to do this, but he learnt the new behavior in about 5 minutes and it saved us a ton of… trauma when trimming his nails (to put it delicately). Read on for why we needed to teach him to file his nails.
Why did we need to teach Mort this behavior?
Mort has always been terrified of having his nails trimmed, but obviously they need to be trimmed so he doesn’t have problems walking or cause problems with his posture. Unfortunately his front nails grow quickly, and are hard, so do not file down much from walking on pavement. From when we first adopted him, he didn’t like being restrained. Having anything “done” to him didn’t work out well. He is a highly-strung, intense, quick, dog. Smart, alert, aware. Prone to nip when fearful (has never bitten, but has nipped very close to skin). “De-sensitizing” him to anything, such as restraint, tools to clip his nails, and more were not successful – even when we took things at a painfully slow pace. The second he clued in to what we were after (for example, that the Dremel I had been getting him used to for six weeks was actually for his nails?! YIKES!), he would instantly fear it and decide he was not going to have anything to do with the item or procedure.
While we managed to get him used to having us touch, hold, high-five, and shake his paws and restrain or at least hold him for certain things the nails were a lost cause. We ended up at the vets (our desensitization was going too slowly), and three techs couldn’t even restrain him to have them clipped so they told me that sedation was in order. In my upset state I agreed, because I had a terrified dog and the room was covered in glad secretion, puke, blood, fur, and drool. Mistake. I do not recommend sedation when a dog is still alert to what is happening, and he is in a state of panic. This experience may have set us back, or damaged the situation permanently.
After one more visit (again, we couldn’t clip at home – he struggles too much to even attempt it), I was exasperated. I refused sedation, and although his nails could be clipped that time he was stressed beyond belief. I was terrified poor Mort would have a heart attack at the office, not to mention his behavior around some strangers was getting worse. We needed to do something completely different. I heard some trainers taught their dogs to use sandpaper. So, I bought some sandpaper to make him a giant dog nail file.
Create a giant dog nails file
The first step is to make the nail file. It’s very simple (although I’m sure this simple design could be vastly improved!): you just need to affix some sandpaper to a flat surface such as a board. I used a recycled piece of wood, tape (duct or packing will do), and a piece of sandpaper from Lowe’s to make the embarrassment pictured here, but you could create something much prettier and better. I’m using 120 grit sandpaper, but I have also heard of people using 80 grit for this exercise.
The reason I did not use glue is I was concerned about Mort scratching through the paper eventually, having glue residue stuck to his nails that he then licks off. Yes, I’m rather paranoid by nature. If you do use glue, make sure you use something non-toxic that will not cause harm if your dog ingest a little of it from the back side of the paper if they file right through.
Training the behavior
This will vary based on how your dog learns, and what his main motivators are. The following is how I taught Mort (and Tig… kind of) this behavior, based on the specific ways that they learn. You may need to adjust this for your dog, or use a entirely different technique.
Training Mort’s nails trim
I started with a handful of treats and the board at an angle, and observed what Mort would naturally offer up as far as behaviors. Mort knows when we are going to do some “training”, so he generally starts trying things to get the food in my hand. With the board at an angle, he wasn’t too sure what to do so he offered sits, downs, and high-fives. Then paused to look at me, saying “well what the hell do you want?”. I tried to capture a high-five on the board, I tapped it, but all of this was clumsy and not “obvious” about what I wanted Mort to do.
I then lowered the board so it was flat on the floor. I placed his paw on the board, and that seemed to “click” for him – he was supposed to do things with the board. He started slapping his paw on the board (quick treat reward), and I started to raise it up incrementally so he naturally started pawing and sort of scratching it. I sometimes moved the board a bit to “capture” a scratch.
Each time he gave I good scratch, I immediately rewarded this. Proper timing is a little tricky once you’re holding the board (as you can see in the video), so if you prop up the board to keep your hands free for a treat or the clicker, you can be much more effective. Mort caught on when the board was propped against my knee, so timing wasn’t as essential once the board was held near vertical in my hands.
After it was very clear I was looking for a scratch, I started rewarding the better scratches and “jackpotting” (big party, lots of treats) when he rapidly scratches with both paws. Within 5 minutes (perhaps less), he was scratching the board – often fervently (both paws in a digging motion) – knowing it would produce treats. And he loves it.
The second video was taken after doing this for quite awhile to get the photos and video, so he was somewhat bored by this point. But as you can see, he’s still into scratching the board for treats.
So, in a nutshell:
- Use whatever motivates your dog, whether it’s treats, a toy, a click, or praise. Keep it fun, because you don’t want a negative association to begin with this paw-related activity! Also, timing will be key at the beginning.
- Start with the file board flat on the ground. Get the dog interested in the board, and place his feet on the board. Quickly reward when paws touch the board.
- Incrementally raise the board inch by inch. Quickly reward the paw/nails touching the board.
- As you are raising the board and rewarding, start rewarding when the nails scratch the board. Move the board slightly to capture this, if needed.
- Start only rewarding proper “scratches” when the board is on an incline. Add a cue (tap with finger, or command) when your dog clearly knows what to do.
This will hopefully capture the filing behavior, but there are further steps you can take to effectively file the nail, noted at the end of this post.
Remember to take breaks! You do not need to teach this quickly. Remember to keep things happy and positive – if your dog starts to get bored or frustrated, end the session for the day.
She watched Mort, and started offering the behavior after glancing at him for 5 seconds (by this time he was scratching the board). She scratched the board, then asked for the treat. I’m not exaggerating.
Does it really file the nails down?
Yes! At least for Mort, all four of his front nails are filed down to almost a normal length after a few sessions. His nails were extremely long and hard. The more vertical the board is, the better it seems to file the nail and the paw pads will touch the sandpaper less. We have only done this for three short sessions, and tonight to take these videos, and his nails are less half the length they used to be and filed most of the way to the quick.
You would not believe how long they were just a week ago. They were obscene.
And the most important thing is he loves this activity! The big con is that it sounds a bit like nails on a chalkboard. I recommend a pair of earplugs if you are sound sensitive.
What about the other nails – like the dew claws?
Mort is lucky: he chews his dew claws (he has both front and rear ones, and will take them right off himself – nice and clean little husk pops off), and his rear nails do not get nearly as long as the front ones probably due to our regular pavement-based walks.
Our ultimate goal is to be able to clip them of course, or use a Dremel, but for now the sandpaper may be the solution. If your dog doesn’t take care of his dew claws, you will need to get these trimmed another way. For the rear claws, you may be able to train a similar behavior with the sandpaper.
Things to watch out for
Watch the length of the nail, to make sure you stop just before you reach the quick of any nail being filed.
You will want to watch out for scuffed pads, due to the sandpaper abrasion. Watch how your dog is holding his paw, and adjust accordingly. I have been checking Mort’s paw pads, and they appear completely normal so this activity does not seem to affect them. I gather he manages to hold his pads in such a way they are not getting sandpapered.
Also make sure that you watch for uneven filing, watching for an entire paw or individual nails being filed more quickly than the others (for example, if one nail reaches the quick). With this in mind, our next sessions will start teaching “right” and “left” paws, and then I’ll work on sides of the paws if possible. This will help with certain nails being filed more quickly than others.
I will also try to adjust the tilt of the board to file his nails more evenly vs the quick. I think this will be more challenging than the above!
I will follow up in a later post about how this training proceeds.
Good luck! And remember to keep it fun and positive!