Trimming a Dog’s Nails – a 2016 Update


In August of 2011, I wrote an article titled “The Nail Wars, about the value of a “grinder” (also called a Dremel, but that’s a brand name) when trimming a dog’s nails. I’m updating and revisiting it here, after a friend mentioned that nail trims were a big issue at her house. Now that I have three sets of nails to trim, I find myself thinking about it again too.

Right now I am using the clippers for Tootsie and Maggie, and the Dremel for Willie. Tootsie came (at age 7 or 8, from a puppy mill) hating the clippers, and acting like my Lassie used to ((“I’M DYING!” her face said to me) when I got out the clippers. I used the conditioning method so well described by Sophia Yin in this great video, and Tootsie now tolerates nail trims, although I won’t pretend that she likes them.

I know nothing about Maggie’s experience with nail trimming (she came at about 14 months of age), but she was wonderfully easy to condition when I got her. I used a simple step-by-step procedure, linking food with holding her paw (which many dogs dislike by itself, no hand holding in the dog world), then the appearance of the clipper, then touching the clipper to her nail, then an actual clip. Each action occurred either while getting treats or right before a treat.

Maggie got a treat as I held her paw. As she ate the treat I’d move my hand down to expose a nail, then stopped when she was done eating.

Treats also come as the clipper is introduced. I take it way when she's done with the treat.

Treats also came as the clipper was introduced. I took it away when she was done with the treat.
















Nails 2016 - Look Away

Notice Maggie looking away as I am about to trim another nail. This is a critically important signal–I suspect that she dislikes the “click” sound of the clipper as it clips off a nail.

Because I have no "assistant" as illustrated in Dr. Yin's video, Maggie gets the treat immediately after one clip. (The treats are visible to her, on the other side of my leg.

Because I had no assistant as in Dr. Yin’s video, Maggie got the treat immediately after each clip. (The treats are visible to her here, on the other side of my leg.) Notice she is calm and compliant, but I’d much rather her mouth be open with a more relaxed expression. (FYI, that’s my finger behind her paw, not her tongue.)

















This all got me thinking again about why so many dogs dislike nail trims with clippers, especially in relation to sound-sensitive dogs like Maggie. But surely there are at least three reasons:

1) They don’t like their paws held. We can counter that by starting as early as we can to counter condition it. When we first got Maggie I would hold and massage her paws while we cuddled. On occasion I’d give her treats for paw holds. She became totally relaxed about paw holding in just a few weeks.

2a & b) They don’t like the feeling of their nails being clipped. Even if they are not being “quicked,” which is painful, perhaps the feeling itself is simply aversive. Thus, they need lots of conditioning–linking tiny clips of the nail, barely visible, with high quality treats. Of course, 2b) is that once a dog has had the clipper cut off too much and go into the quick, it hurts. Dogs seem to remember being “quicked” as well as just about anything I can think of. Once it happens it’s critical to go back to the early steps of conditioning and work your way back up slowly

3) They dislike the sound of the clippers. This is exactly what I think is going on with Maggie. As time has gone on, she seems less comfortable with having her nails clipped. The click even sounds loud to me, and no one is messing with my paws. This is what I wrote about the topic in 2011:

Here’s why I think some dogs get worse with a clipper: the “click” of clippers actually makes things worse for some dogs. I first wondered about this when several clients told me that their dogs hated having their nails trimmed until they went deaf, and then didn’t care. Wow. Really? But I noticed the same thing with Pippy Tay; starting around the age of 15 years, about when her hearing started to go. When she was younger, Pippy was never aggressive about nail trims, she just acted as though having her nails done was a nightmare beyond belief. Oh yes, it was easily managed and we got through it fine, but Pippy clearly found it extremely aversive, even with the best conditioning and tons of treats. Once I switched to the grinder she completely relaxed, and would lie on her side as if being massaged when  I’d say, “Let’s go to the spa!” She’d lie down and practically raise a paw. It was all I could do to not ask her to select her color and pay up before I finished the manicure.

Lassie never liked having her nails done, but appeared to be much less stressed with the grinder than the clippers. Luke and Tulip didn’t seem to mind much, so I clipped their nails because it’s faster and easier, but the device was a godsend for both Pippy and Lassie. Willie didn’t mind his nails being done at first, but after I cut into the quick once (*&$%#)  he seemed to hate it. He’d tense up as if expected doom, and flinch each time the clippers made their ‘clipping’ sound. That, and my client’s dogs, got me to thinking: Could the click of a clippers condition dogs to expect something aversive as easily as something good as in Clicker Training? Why not?  After all a ‘click’ is extremely effective at getting a dog’s attention. A clicking sound has an instant onset, abrupt escalation from no power to full power, and a full range of frequencies  (the better to light up more acoustic receptor neurons), and few sounds are better at getting at becoming meaningful to a mammal.

That’s why I switched Willie to a grinder, and why I think I might do the same for Maggie. (I doubt I will with Tootsie, see point #3 below.)

Here’s Mr. Willie getting a treat as I turned on the grinder. I did have to get him used to the sound of it, but it seems far less aversive than the click. In part because of the structure of the sound, but also I suspect because the noise is not limited to the moment of the ‘clip.’

Nails 2016 Dremel Willie

My interpretation of this face is: “Why don’t you just give me the treat right now instead of waiting for the digital camera that Jim has in his hands gets ready to take the next picture?”


Here are a few things I’ve learned about using the Oster grinder (dremel is a brand name, who knew?). It is adapted from my article in 2011, but still relevant and important. Be forewarned, I’m not a groomer, so groomers please, please jump in here!

1. Obviously, start slowly. First I sat down with a bowl of treats on one side, Willie lying in front of me and the grinder in the other. Holding it behind my back, I’d turn it on, give Willie a treat, turn it off. Repeat about 10 times. That was Session One. Session Two was moving the device toward Willie, as he got the treat, eventually holding a paw and moving the grinder to within an inch of a nail. In Session Three I ground 2 nails down just at tiny bit, giving him a treat between ‘grinds'(would have given them during but needed 3 hands). Then we did some more ‘Turn dremel on, Give Treat” with no contact. In session Four I trimmed an entire paw, although again only doing about half of what needed to be done. In Session Five I tried to do two paws, with lots of treat between, but that was too much. He scrambled to get up once I started on paw # 2, looking all panicky. I gently restrained him so that I could end the session rather than he, but touched the Oster to one nail, gave him 5 treats and then let him up. The next session I did one paw, took a break and did one more nail… etc, etc.

2. Be sure that the grinder spins in the direction of the nail growth, not against it. You can figure this out easily just by touching it to the nail. If it spins in the other direction it pushes the nail back into the bed and it clearly is uncomfortable for the dog. It almost bounces off the nail. If I hold my device in my right hand and move it away from the dog’s paw it seems to be best.

3. Watch out for hair, yours or your dog’s, getting caught in the rotating head. If that happens, it instantly winds up around the base of the area with the grinder on it. Not good. Although my Oster is an electric one (you can get battery operated ones too), when this happened when I first started using it shut itself off (or did I just turn it off instantly? Eeeps, not sure now!) and it never hurt anyone, but it did surprise Lassie and I a few times. Basically you need to be ever alert about keeping hair away from the rotating head. Once you get used to it it’s easy to do, but you do need to pay attention!

4. Just as in clipping, don’t take too much off at a time. One advantage of a grinder is that it is much harder to cut into the quick… you can see exactly how close you are getting, even on dogs with black nails.

5. Keep supplies handy. Keep your supplies handy, so that you can clip a nail here, and a nail there.
Some dogs may love nail clipping, buy many just tolerate clipping it, so why do every nail each session? if your supplies are close by, it’s much easier to do one nail one night, and another the next.

6. Never forget the always handy “Take your dog to the groomer or vet to get his/her nails clipped” option. For me that’s just more time and expense, so I don’t use that option, but it’s a great one if you are having trouble AND if you know a groomer who you totally trust.


Groomers? I’d love to hear your comments about nail trimming. I know some dog lovers on Facebook mentioned that your dogs love having their nails done. That’s fantastic, good for you. If your dog doesn’t, don’t feel guilty. Each dog is different and will react differently to the exact same methods. There are also at least two brands out there for medium size dogs: Oster grinders and Dremel. (I thought dremel was actually the name of the tool, but it turns out it is a brand name. See, I told you I’m not a groomer.) Any comments from groomers about which brand or method they like best?


MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Wow. Spring. Wow. What can I say. It’s crazy wonderful out here right now. There’s no better illustration of that than these photos taken on Saturday by our friend Robert Strieffer, philosopher, ethicist and kick ass amateur photographer.

Here are Lady Baa Baa’s lambs frolicking, after being let out of the barn for the first time ever. They are about a week old.

Leaping Lambs Small Rob S

The little girl is the leaper again in this shot, with grandma Lady Godiva and two of her triplets in the background.

Leaping Lambs 2 Small Rob S

Between lambs and spring flowers, it was pretty much a perfect weekend! Here are the leaves of wild ginger plants, unfurling in the warmth of the sun.

ginger leaves apr 2016