Frankie is my Issue Dog. He lived a hard knock life on the streets (or something to that effect) until he was 5 months old and came to me a completely shell-shocked little dude. Three and a half years later, strange people are still scary. Most other dogs are still awful. The world is just a scary place for a dog who never learned how to cope with society early in life. Thankfully, Frankie and I have found a nice system of management for his intense behavior setbacks and he adores me. I am usually the most awesome person in his life… until I try to clip his nails.
It’s not all that unusual to have a dog, especially one you acquired after those critical first puppy months, hate their feet being touched. Add in a nail clipper that puts pressure, or a loud dremel file, and the results are often disastrous. Being a dog trainer, my first step to solve this problem with Frankie was counter conditioning. I reached to touch his paw, he got a click/treat. Then we advanced to being able to hold his paw for a split second, click/treat. After a couple of weeks of that, he got to see the dremel then click/treat. So on and so forth until the day we were (finally!!!) ready to do his first nail. My extra high value treats were on hand, the dremel was fired up, I gently took his paw… and he flipped out.
That’s my boy. Many training paths that “normal” dogs accept perfectly fine are still not okay with him. Well, what were my options then? The first was that I continued to counter condition with yummy cookies the act of touching his paws and showing him the dremel/clippers, but in the meantime he still has overly long nails!
Sure, I could have taken my dog to a groomer and have them deal with the fighting, biting, and screaming… but he is already a nervous dog who isn’t sure of strangers. Not to mention the stress that he would have to endure to have complete strangers muzzle him and hold him down. No, thank you.
I decided to try out letting Frank do his own nails by teaching him how to use a board with sand paper on it. This is actually a very easy behavior to teach your dog, and one that I’ve found very helpful to wear down those awful long nails in a way that is both fun and rewarding.
First you will need the board and either some sand paper or my preferred choice, the rough material that is used to give texture to outdoor stairs. This stuff holds up much better than regular sand paper so you will get better bang for your buck. It also has super strong adhesive so you won’t need to worry about glue or anything to adhere it to the wood you choose. As far as the board goes, you want your dog to be able to comfortably scratch so a piece of wood that is at least your dog’s shoulder width is ideal. Just go to any hardware store and they will typically have a section of cheap scrap wood that works well or they can cut one for you.
There are a couple different ways that you can teach your dog how to use the board. With Frankie, I free shaped the scratching behavior. This involves click/treating for any interaction with the board at first, then building upon any paw motions on the board until the dog offers a new behavior: scratching. This tends to be a fairly natural behavior for a lot of dogs so it isn’t too difficult to shape a consistent scratching motion. Frank has quite a bit of experience interacting with novel objects to earn clicks/treats, so it only took him about 5 minutes before he was scratching away at the board with his front paws.
For dogs that aren’t used to shaping, like my boy Owen, a simple way to get them to start scratching the board is to put it in front of you while sitting down and then ask your dog to “shake” while your hand is above the board. Do this a few times then stop saying shake but still offer your hand so they will give their paw. Click/treat, or use your marker word to let them know this is still what you want. Over a few repetitions, start moving your hand up before their paw hits you so that eventually their paw comes in contact with the board instead of your hand. From there you can keep clicking for paw contact, and eventually their nails will scratch the board. Now only click for their nails touching the board. Once they get the idea, reward for deliberate scratching and nothing else. Add in a cue and voila! Your dog is doing his own nails!
A note on back paws: this tends to be more difficult to free shape, unless your dog already knows how to target objects with his back feet. What I’ve heard of others doing is capturing their dog’s post-potty back foot scratch, then putting it on cue before putting the board down. Other dogs don’t really need their back paws done because they get naturally ground by walking on cement.
You can play around with the board’s position after your dog knows how to use it. Both of mine like the board to be flat on the ground, but others like it to be propped up against a wall. Frank still needs constant cookie reinforcement for scratching, so I usually just grab his dinner and feed him pieces while he files his nails. You might find that some dogs REALLY love this cool new game, so be careful that they don’t wear their nails down to the quick. A once dreaded task can easily become your dog’s favorite pastime!