Scratching Posts: they aren’t just for cats anymore!

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.

The completed board

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!

Scratching boards are serious business.

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!


15 thoughts on “Scratching Posts: they aren’t just for cats anymore!

  1. I’ve heard this kind of thing mentioned before, but never seen such wonderful pictures of its implementation! I’m thinking maybe I’ll do a scratch board for my Elka, as her front nails can get awfully long, and are black, and I’m afraid to cut them now that I quicked her once >.>

    • Black nails are definitely the worst! It’s slightly easier if you have smaller clippers and know how to look at the shape of the cut nail to see if the quick is close, but a scratch board is a great idea for them :)

  2. We’ve been doing this with one of our dogs for about a year now and I love it! He would have a level 100 freak out about his nails and they go very Howard Hughes-esque while we tried and tried to progress with more common nail clipping training advice.

    He still has long quicks and longer nails than I’d like but they are safe and he stays calm – and that’s the most important point.

    • Frankie still has pretty long quicks and nails as well (he came to me with quicks down to the end of his nail, ugh). It’s one of those things that I just have to let go about – otherwise it drives me NUTS. Thankfully he doesn’t have any issues walking around with them due to the way his feet are shaped. The scratch board was such a good option for him and I’m glad it was for your boy too!

  3. Thank you so much for the article, I never thought of a scratch board for dogs. Funny due to Maggie use to use the cats scratch board, I think this was because as a puppy she was raised with four cats and liked to do the same things that they did.

  4. “the rough material that is used to give texture to outdoor stairs.”

    where would one purchase this stuff? i’m interested in making one for Molly who still very aversive to nail clipping.

  5. This is pure genius! Luckily, I’ve been able to train Dolce to hold still (when he’s already calm) for nail trimmings by laying him on his back between my outstretched legs. However, the cut is always really rough and painful if he scratches at me! Getting him to file his own nails will be GREAT.

  6. My dog was having the exact same problem, along with scratching the snot out of my back door. So, I combined the problems. She now has a removable scratch board (much like you describe here) mounted to the back door. When she scratches to be let in, she files down her nails, and I let her in without having to worry about my door being dug through!

  7. Its awesome idea, my dog scratches my carpet consently and he has long nail, poodle mix. I can make anything like that is there one for sale someplace?

  8. My daughter’s Yorkshire terrier loves to roll over and squirm on her back to scratch her back and often arranges several tennis balls on the carpet before attempting to roll on them.Sadly the balls seldom stay under her for more than seconds. a mat simaler to the car accessory back rests which had wooden balls woven into it would probably give her a much better itch relieving sensation.

Leave a Reply