Nail-biting stuff

31st Jul, 2017

Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. – Counselling Psychologist and Dog Behaviourist

Dogs need their nails trimmed on a regular basis. As with our own nails, left too long, they can break or even curl into the dog’s pads (or with dew claws, into the leg.) Over-long nails can also affect the gait, causing an imbalance that can affect the skeletal structure and cause health problems. Walking on hard (roads) or rough (surfaces, trails) helps to keep nails from growing over-long, but even then, trims are necessary.

The nail of a dog consists of the hard keratin outside that covers nerves and blood vessels. This latter part is called the “quick”. On white claws, it is easy to see; harder with black claws. Cutting into this area will cause a blood spurt that may be frightening to you and your dog.

First and foremost, you need to get your dog comfortable with having his/her paws handled. You can start by including light touches around this area when you are petting the dog. If the dog dislikes having his paws handled, you can set up a process of desensitisation using positive reinforcement. With treats at hand, you touch the paw lightly, and if he does not resist, mark (clicker or verbal) and treat. Start slowly with one paw, and move on to the rest as he begins to see that having paws handled doesn’t hurt and is rewarded with yummy treats. Include handling often so that it is not only a prelude to nail clipping!

At this stage, if you’re biting your nails at the very thought of moving on to clipping, you can arrange for your vet to do this for you. But if you are feeling brave, move on. Introduce blunt scissors (kid stuff) to trim the hair that grows over and between the paws – this helps avoidance of burrs and seeds becoming embedded as well as making it easier to clip. Again, start with one bit of hair, reward and treat.

Tools of the trade:

  • High-quality clippers. There are special ones available from vet shops – buy the best you can afford because when they are blunt, they either have to be resharpened or thrown away. Some have a guard that controls the amount you can clip. While some people prefer the circular drill (Dremel), the noise and vibration may well upset the dog, so try to borrow one to see the reaction before you buy. Some dogs can be trained to use scratch boards – wood covered with emery paper.
  • Cotton wool can be useful to separate the pads as we would use it to separate our toes for pedicure.
  • Styptic pencil. This is used to stop blood flow should you cut into the quick. Hopefully, you’ll never need it.
  • High-value treats (biltong, for example).

Collect a couple of small, dry twigs. When handling the paws, accustom the dog to the sound of clippers clipping the twig. Once you and your dog are comfortable, move on to clip one nail, taking off a very little bit (1-2mm). That’s enough to begin with. Should you attempt to do all the claws in one session, you may over-stress your patient. As you progress, you move on to two nails and build up to being able to do both front and/or rear paws in one session. Remember to include the dew claws as well.

When the nail grows, the quick grows too. However, as you start to trim claws, the quick starts to move back slowly. Each time you clip, examine the underneath of the claw – eventually a soft grey circle will appear – that’s when you stop because you are as close to the quick as you can be. This is particularly important when working with dark claws, as you cannot see the quick from the outside as you can with white claws.

If the claws are damaged or broken, rather work with emery boards until the damage is corrected.

Less is more. Done slowly and carefully over time, your dog will have feet on which he can move comfortably, resulting in better gait and general health.

Oh, and if you must bite your nails while doing this, remember that your dog will pick up on your anxiety, and become anxious in turn. Take a break.

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