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Trimming toenails is always a HOT topic for all of us who live with dogs and want the best for them. I’ve blogged about this previously. In “Cutting Your Dog’s Nails: How Important Is it Really?” my friend, Dr. Leslie Woodcock DVM, shared a video lecture of how short a dog’s nails should be, and the best way to cut a dog’s toenails. For dogs who are not in love with their nails being trimmed, I show you how to make a game of it in “Does Your Dog Training Need a Shot of Joy?“.

But what if your dog HATES having his nails cut? What if he is terrified? What if attempting to do so is a danger to him and to you?

This is something I’ve experienced first hand with Tater Salad, a rescue Bulldog mix we adopted a bit over a year ago … and let me tell you, Tater let us know in no uncertain terms that nail trimming was SOMETHING BAD!

Recently in a coaching call for some of my mastermind dog training students, we shared footage of Tater’s nail trimming “before” experience. And then I did a live demo of what it’s like now … the “after”. That clip is below for you. The “before” footage is not the worst of Tater’s reactions … for my lecture I pulled out the video footage to suit the topic of that section of the coaching call which was the use of high value rewards and the transfer of value. What that short bit of film of Tater’s “before” does give you, is a good indication of his dislike of the process, because what I want you to note is all I had in my hand was a spoon, not a nail clipper in sight.

Patience, Shaping and Transfer of Value

As Lynda points out in the clip above, getting Tater to LOVING his nails trimmed so much that it is now one of the high value events in his life, took time and patience. And it was something we had to work at with frequent sessions. And by frequent, I mean daily, often several sessions. It was super important to help Tater become confident and comfortable with nail trimming. I used “transfer of value” … that is using something the dog loves to grow the value for something he does not love.

Transferring value for something like nail trimming needs to be done carefully, or you run the risk of the value transferring in a way you did not intend. An example is that if your dog loves to tug, and you used that for nail trimming, the association could go the other way and your dog ends up not liking tugging.

The KEY with using transfer of value for something like toe nail cutting is that the behaviour you are asking for initially MUST BE ACHIEVABLE for the dog. That means breaking toenail trimming down into elements and shaping your dog in each of those elements so that he has value for each.

In animal training lingo, we call this splitting the behaviour down. It means not overfacing your dog and setting him up for success with each element. Overfacing is when we ask our dog for more than our education has prepared him for … more than he is currently capable of giving us with the level of training we have given him.

Break the Elements of Nail Trimming Down

Break down all the elements of trimming your dog’s nails. Write them down. Take your emotions out of it so you can clearly see what you need to work on. What is your dog afraid of? For Tater, he clearly didn’t like his paws being held or the Clippers or the Dremel being brought towards him. What really put him over the edge and into orbit was the action of isolating one toe (and that is something I didn’t need to do). You need to dissect what elements of cutting nails your dog needs help with most.

Some of the elements of nail trimming I mention in the video are:

  • The sight or sound of the Nail Clippers or Nail Grinder (Dremel)
  • The vibration of the Dremel
  • Paw being held
  • Isolating a toe
  • Clippers or Dremel coming towards the dog
  • Nail being touched

What are the other elements you can think of? Let me know in the comments!

Considering all the elements of a nail trim for your dog is going to help you split the behaviour down for shaping success, so that you can create a transfer of value for your dog and put the trauma of cutting nails behind you forever.

Today I am grateful to my amazing team who have given my blog a fresh look for going into 2020. I’m also grateful to be sharing 2020 with you. I’ve got a lot planned for this year, so we can all have dogs that are happy, healthy and lifelong members of our families.