Updated: Jan 22
Not all that long ago, I used to feel that keeping up with toenail trims was the most challenging part of the care of my 20 Maremma, give or take a few. Training is easy, and grooming is fun, but trimming toenails was scary for me. I finally got tired of feeling afraid of this necessary and important task and reached out for professional help.
Rheanna has been a professional groomer for 18 years. She graciously allowed me to hire her on one of her days off. She came to the ranch. Going from dog to dog across the ranch, she taught me tons. I’m still a work in progress, and still not completely comfortable with trimming toenails, but I am much more at ease about it than I used to be, and I become more confident as I go.
This blog is a combination of what I learned from Rheanna and what I have learned from my dogs over time as an owner and trainer. For Rheanna, in her shop, if a customer drops off a dog for grooming, he expects the dog to be fully groomed, head to toenails. For me, training is important and time is on my side; Rheanna learned some things about training and interpreting canine body language while we worked together. At the end of this three-hour or so visit, we were both better off.
So, below you will find listed what I believe are the necessary elements for a serene toenail trimming experience. At the end of the list, you’ll find two videos of me trimming the toenails of two of our dogs. Meadow and Benson are one year old. They have very different personalities, so watch how my management needs to make adjustments for them.
1. Excellent toenail trimmers:
When Rheanna arrived here at the ranch, she asked me to show her all my toenail trimmers. I lined up my accumulated array of tools on my Kubota seat. She took a quick look and told me to throw them all away. Ouch! Then she showed me the trimmers she had brought with her (the ones in the photo above) and talked me through why excellent equipment matters. According to Rheanna, improper tools for the job are the most common reason people have trouble trimming their dogs’ toenails and why dogs learn to fear the process. She let me know that large-breed dogs have special needs with regard to toenails. Their toenails are thick and often difficult to cut through. Inadequate trimmers can crush, and twist, the toenails rather than cutting them. This is painful for dogs – I did not know this!
2. Proper environment for working on the dog:
I have a stall I like to use to work on my dogs for grooming and toenail trims, but I also often just tie the dog outside his/her pasture, and that works fine too. The ideal area is free of livestock (across the fence is fine) and without the interference of the partner dog – across the fence is perfect.
Bribery works! Or, said more correctly, pairing something the dog enjoys with him giving you the behavior you are working towards makes VERY good sense. Some people think dogs should work for free, and sometimes they will, but when I am trying to train for a challenging behavior or just want to ensure my success, I reach for cookies. And I make this obvious to the dog! In the first video, you’ll see my favorite cookie jar. Sometimes I set that on the floor in front of the dog for added distraction. But my favorite method is to pack my front pockets with cookies. With my tall dogs, their nose is right at pocket height. When I kneel on the ground near them, they often drop so that their nose is STILL at pocket level. All this helps.
4. Proper restraint of the dog:
Please use a front attachment harness, as shown in the videos below. A harness of this type will assist in keeping the dog close enough to work with but does not have the possibility of choking or frightening the dog, as a collar can. Part of the point of training a dog to be comfortable with having his toenails trimmed is to create a sense of safety for the dog. The use of a collar will work against you with this. Also, don’t walk even two feet from the dog. I usually don’t take my hand off a dog that is tied. From the moment the dog becomes aware that I have toenail trimming on my mind, I want him to know that I am his partner in this: I will not leave him, I will listen to him and adjust my pace according to his needs, and lots of cookies are involved. A dog that is handled well during toenail trims can learn to look forward to them! Honestly, this is a realistic goal.
5. Your frame of mind:
Don’t decide to trim toenails when you are in a hurry, tired, or angry about something that has nothing to do with the dog. Dogs feel all this, and it worries them. Many dogs will take this on and decide that whatever your mood is, it is their fault. Be sure you are in a Zen frame of mind: take a deep, calming breath, slow your body way down, smile (really, dogs notice this), and go forth with your task, believing in your success.
6. Don’t ask for too much:
Read the body language of your dog. Slow down or take short breaks if the dog needs you to. Trim only one foot, and then give a cookie, or only one toenail if the dog is showing stress, and give a cookie. Stop and do a little body massage, and then pick up a foot and try again. Be prepared to do one foot today, one tomorrow, one the next day, and such. Always remember that what you do with your dog today is the training for tomorrow; build towards your long-term success and trust relationship with your dog. There is an absolutely excellent short little book about reading canine body language. It is: On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas. I have read it over and over. I seem to assimilate something new every time I read it as my own education and experiences with my dogs evolves. I highly recommend it!!!
7. Now to the “why it matters”:
Toenails that are too long, defined as coming into contact with the ground when the dog is standing, can become long enough to twist the toe (skeletal structure) of the dog. This can cause long-term consequences as that can remodel the conformation of the dog’s foot. This can cause arthritis. Dogs that can’t stand comfortably have a hard time doing their job – and it just isn’t fair to do this to a dog. The winter season causes added risks to the dog. Long toenails can trap masses of mud between the toes of the dog, spreading the toes apart and causing pain. In some cases, these masses of mud may accumulate at the beginning of the muddy season and stay there the whole winter. Not nice. In snowy climates, masses of snow and ice can become packed in between the toes of the dog. These masses can stay all winter too; in some cases, this causes frostbite. Check your dog’s feet often!
I hope all this is helpful! Go forth – one toenail at a time…..