Nailed It: a Groomer's Guide to Preparing Dogs for Nail Trims
nail trims

Nailed It: a Groomer’s Guide to Preparing Dogs for Nail Trims

By Melissa Viera

Cutting the nails on some dogs is as easy as picking up a paw and trimming or Dremeling each nail, but there are too many dogs that do not take to nail care that easily.

Long and sharp nails can cause injuries to people, scratch floors and furniture—as well as cause dogs discomfort and even pain if the nails become too overgrown. Pet owners don’t like their dog’s nails to become overgrown any more than groomers do, but maintaining short nails on dogs has its challenges, especially if the only time the nails get trimmed is at grooming appointments every few months.

Over time, long nails can change the structure of a dog’s paw and throw off their natural movement. If the nails continue to grow without maintenance, they can curl and grow into a dog’s pad, or splay out sideways and get caught easily on carpets or furniture, only to be painfully torn off. Long nails are not just a cosmetic concern, they are dangerous and uncomfortable for the animal. Some animals may naturally wear down their nails when they walk, run and dig, but it is the job of pet owner to ensure that their pet’s nails are healthy.

Cutting the nails on some dogs is as easy as picking up a paw and trimming or Dremeling each nail, but there are too many dogs that do not take to nail care that easily. It is a challenge for groomers to trim and shape each nail on dogs that are pulling away or trying to bite. Some dogs just seem more sensitive about nail trims than others.


The dog’s anatomy and structure might have something to do with the way they protest when their paws are handled, but there are many other reasons as well. A dog that has had negative experiences with having his nails trimmed can become very difficult. In some cases, it just comes from a lack of experience. When there is no reinforcement history associated with nail trims, who could blame a dog for disliking such an awkward way of being handled? Let’s face it…it is kind of weird.

As groomers, we can prevent some of the problems we face with dogs that misbehave during nail trimming by reaching puppy owners and educating our clients, and providing creative solutions for at–home nail care. Giving clients homework to help their dogs become more comfortable with nail trims can be very helpful when it comes to making dogs less nervous about the procedure.

The problem is, even if a dog loves having his paws handled when laying on the sofa, it doesn’t mean they will be fine for nail trims. We have to work with our clients so that they understand that dogs don’t generalize well, and that they can help their pet have stress–free nail trims, leaving the nails short and smooth with some work.

Reach Puppy Parents

Whenever possible, an important step we can take as groomers to give dogs a life of positive nail trims is to reach puppy owners before problems arise. If we can start working with a puppy when they are young, and get them comfortable with nail trims as well as all involved with grooming, we can prevent future problems. Offering workshops for puppy parents, sharing information with vets and rescues, and targeting puppy owners through marketing can help.

Train a Focus–Target

Young and old dogs can learn new things, and training behaviors that can be used in the grooming salon can transform the grooming experience for dogs as well as groomers.

One thing that can help with grooming in general, including nail trims, is a focus–target. A focus–target is something that the dog learns to focus on during grooming. Instead of touching the target with his nose, the dog learns to watch the target, which can be set up a few feet from the dog.

Any object can be used as the target. You could train the dog to focus on a bowl or a cup, a lid, a snow globe or even a Rubik’s cube. The target itself does not matter, as it just gives the dog something to look at. One idea for a target is to use a cup with the dog’s treats in it so the reinforcement comes from the target.

To train this behavior, move the target around a bit to get the dog to glance at it. Do not push the target into the dog’s face. Wave the target like a toy so the dog notices it on his own. As soon as he does, mark the behavior of making eye contact with the target by saying “good,” “yes” or using a clicker, and then feed the dog a reward. Repeat until the dog understands the game.

You can then add duration and an end cue so the dog watches the stationary object until you tell him to look away. Once he understands the end cue, you will know that if he looks away before you give the cue during grooming, he might need a break from whatever you are doing. It’s also important to keep the focus time very short; focus for a few seconds while you work on a paw and reward, for example.

Examples of cues for this behavior are “focus” and “break.” The word “focus” starts it, and the word “break” ends it. This behavior gives the dog something to do while being handled, and eventually it can be used with nail trims. The dog’s eyes are on the target, keeping him distracted and keeping his head and body steady. If you have clients willing to give the focus–target a try, you can have them train it and bring the target to the dog’s grooming appointments. One important tip is to fully train the behavior before pairing it with nail trimming, and to pair the two very gradually so that the dog does not have a negative association with the focus–target.

Assign Pet Owner Homework

While handling a dog’s paws at home might be as easy as petting a dog behind the ears, handling a dog’s paws in a way that is more similar to how they will be handled for nail trims is more of a challenge. Show your clients the ways that you would hold the dog’s paw while trimming the nails.

At home, clients can practice holding their dog’s paws, applying pressure to each individual nail with their fingers and holding nail trimmers next to each paw. Another thing that is easy to do at home is to pretend to clip the nails by holding something next to the nail that will make the same noise when clipped, such as an uncooked noodle. Instruct your client to pair all of these activities with rewards so the dog has a positive association with paw and nail handling.

Pair Nail Care with the Dog’s Favorite Activities

If your clients are finding it difficult to make time for working with their dogs on nail care training, or they just don’t think of it between grooming appointments, have them try pairing other activities with training for nail care. Keeping a pair of nail clippers next to the dog’s leash and food bowl, for example, will serve as a reminder to spend a few minutes handling the dog’s paws and nails, as well as holding the nail clippers next to each paw during everyday activities like going for walks and feeding time.

Train the Dog to File His Own Nails

A dog’s front nails can become sharp even if they are kept short. This is a problem for many pet owners. To keep a dog’s front nails short and smooth, you can show your clients how to train their dog to file his own nails. Don’t worry—this sounds much more complex than it really is. A scratch pad can be made by sticking sandpaper to a block of wood. To train a dog to use it on cue, put a treat under it and encourage the dog to get it. Most dogs will use their paws. As soon as the dog makes contact with the scratch pad, a reward should be given. Soon, the dog can learn to use the scratch pad on cue. The scratch pad should only be used as a trained behavior with human supervision so that the dog does not over file his nails.

Use a nail File for At–Home Maintenance

Keeping the nails short between grooming appointments is very helpful for both the groomer and the pet owner. When pet owners prefer to leave nail trimming to the professionals, they can still maintain their dog’s nails between appointments using a nail file. When the nails are already cut short, a nail file is a great way to gently smooth out the nails and keep them short between trimming, and dogs can get used to having their nails filed with practice.

Talking with our clients about the problems we face as groomers is the only way we can create changes. As groomers, we see dozens of dogs that are difficult for nail trims on a weekly basis. When we can’t get the nails short enough because the vein has grown with the long nail due to lack of maintenance, or the dog is too difficult, we want our clients to understand what can be done to prevent these problems. Working with clients and providing them with the tools and education that will help them with their pet makes our jobs as groomers even more rewarding. At the end of the day, we are doing more than grooming pets and sending them home. We are becoming a part of their lifelong care. ✂

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