Dog nail trimming options: EXTREME edition
June 26, 2015 5:57 AM   Subscribe

So. Our dog will not let anyone trim her nails. The groomer can't do it, the vet can't do it, and we can't do it. Her reaction is so extreme that she's seriously a danger to herself, and as a result, she only has her nails clipped when she's under sedation for something else (teeth cleaning, for one). Looking at this older Ask Me post, I'm considering trying a Dremel, once we've talked to the Vet (time for another dental cleaning). Is there anything newer, or further advice that fearful-dog owners can add?

A few details:

At the moment she will let us (only us) hold her paws – very briefly. The groomer can barely (and often, not even) trim just the hair around her paws because she starts completely freaking out.

I'll try this after the teeth cleaning when the vet will next trim her nails, and discuss with him to make sure there's no danger from overgrown quick or any other concerns.

If we go forward, my plan is to have the Dremel around her, not running for a bit, and try to get it in the general area of her paws (maybe stroking her with it a bit while brushing, which she enjoys), then run it without touching her with it for short bursts coinciding with treats, so she will associate the sound with treats, and hopefully come to us when she hears it (this is complicated slightly by the fact that my husband uses the Dremel for other things, but I'm hoping having it in a different room than his outside work space will help there), then running it while briefly holding a paw + giving treats... and finally, trying it very, very briefly on only one nail, and building from there. If possible. Which it may not be.

(In other matters, we've had no problems training her with positive reinforcement in the form of treats, usually very, very quickly, and she doesn't have this kind of insane fear about anything else.)

Any advice or concerns related to this, or newer ideas for this issue? I'm up for other suggestions, but don't want to use tranquilizers.

Also, it's not a great thing, but I'm afraid that at this point we're nearly as traumatized as she is, which is a very bad space to begin with when dealing with doggy fears, and I don't think we can try again with guillotine or scissor-type clippers. I'm dearly hoping that the Dremel or some other alternative will soothe all of us a bit.
posted by taz to Pets & Animals (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My dog is the same. I just gave up and don't trim his nails. There have never been any problems with them, they're just kinda long. Vet said as long as he's being walked enough they'll naturally wear down to the correct length, which is what's happened. Only annoying thing is the tic tac tic tac noise in the house wherever he goes.
posted by stevedawg at 6:01 AM on June 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

We used a Dremel on our previous dog's nails when he was older which he tolerated better than the clippers. I think our dog's hearing had started to go from old age by the time we started using the Dremel. I'm guessing with your dog's paw sensitivity plus the noisy Dremel, this method will fail also. Just let it go.
posted by LoveHam at 6:07 AM on June 26, 2015

I have a cat, not a dog, but Icarus had similar issues with his paws. When I first got him he would FREAK OUT if you even just *touched* his paws. (he burnt his paws as a kitten on a stove top that, while turned off, was still very very hot. I think that made him super-sensitive). 16 years later...I can hold his paws and trim his claws (if I'm quick and do them one or two at a time). Nobody else can do it. He still flips out if anyone else tries.

It took patience and time. I started by just work on touching/holding his paws, making sure that he could tolerate it (if not actually enjoy it). Then I started in on just trying to trim one claw at a time. Sometimes it took a whole week to do one paw.

I know cats and dogs are different, but yeah. Patience and time and persistence.
posted by sandraregina at 6:08 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

We got my wife's dog over his irrational fear by slowly working on him. It's taken a couple of years, though, but he lets us trim them without much fuss anymore.

What we did : When we are lazing around the house, we play with his feet. Easy at first, and as he gets more comfortable, we handle them more and more. Eventually, he gets used to his feet being handled. Then we started touching his feet with silverware, and then human nail clippers, and finally, just the clippers them selves. Eventually, it got to where we could trim a nail or two before he figured it out. Then it was a whole foot. Now, he lets us trim them all, and it's barely a fight at all.

But, as I said, it was a long process.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:10 AM on June 26, 2015 [10 favorites]

I think Pogo_Fuzzybutt has the right idea. Add treats to that process, and I bet you can work up to it. Our dog isn't as fearful as yours, but it takes two of us to trim her nails: one to do the actual trimming, and the other to hold her still and feed her copious amounts of pepperoni. :) If you can afford it, consider getting some help from a professional dog trainer.
posted by Shoggoth at 6:15 AM on June 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

Given the extreme fear, it's probably not worth it. Longer nails won't harm your dog. I actually file my dog's nails with a regular emery board to get the sharper bits off and leave him be otherwise because he also freaks out. Sometimes if we're just hanging out on the couch together I can get a few swipes in.
posted by juniperesque at 6:18 AM on June 26, 2015

Our dog also hates nail clippers but tolerates the Dremel. The key was finding a good groomer (rather than just whoever was at Petco/Smart that day) and letting them know about his fear. They started by letting him sniff the dremel for a little bit, then putting it on him while off, turning it on in front of him, etc etc to warm him up to it. He still struggled a little, but it was about 5% struggling with the dremel vs. 95% struggling with the clippers. See if there's someone in your area who will work with you on this.
posted by Flamingo at 6:46 AM on June 26, 2015

You seem to have a good plan to get the dog acclimated to the Dremel, but how skillful are you at using it? I suggest practicing so that you know which way to hold it and how much pressure to apply, especially if you are a bit fearful yourself. The faster you can get it done, without you starting and saying oh wait I should hold it the other way and oh no fluffy don't move yet omg stop wiggling and dammit now I dropped it and it rolled under the couch and etc., the better it will be for everybody.

Maybe ask your vet or a friendly local groomer (or carpenter?) for a lesson or two? Honestly, when I tried using one on my dog, I felt like I had suddenly lost any motor skills I ever possessed.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:47 AM on June 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

The goal of reducing the fear is worthwhile by itself. I have used the method Pogo_Fuzzybutt described on a dog and on a cat. It is gentle desensitization where the key is gentle touches over the long term combined with desired things like bellyrubs. Introducing the dremel, if you choose, can be a later step.
posted by zennie at 6:48 AM on June 26, 2015

As said above, with dremel. A very long process to get pup used to it. Treats, yes. And you being skillful in using it. AND, do not approach this with expecting a stressful event. You must be at ease so the pup will be at ease.
This worked with my Great Dane. I can now do two paws at a time before he stops me, but I can get all four done in one day.
posted by donaken at 7:00 AM on June 26, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you everyone so far; this is all very helpful (including advice to let it go, which will most likely be our option if we can't make this work)!

SuperSquirrel, your point is well-taken, and I would not be very confident, but my husband works with tools doing extremely fine / meticulous work on sensitive electronics, etc., all the time, and he would be the anointed one for this task (he's also our dog's #1 sweetheart).
posted by taz at 7:02 AM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

squeeze cheese - the kind that comes in an aerosol can is a favorite at my vet's clinic. They have to take a few licks to get it all so it is distracting.

I mentioned nail trimming troubles to a friend with labs and she looked at me like I was from outer space and said "trim their nails??!! we just throw a ball down the road" Haha, so concrete can help. Concrete stairs might really help!
posted by txtwinkletoes at 7:04 AM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Frisbee + an empty parking lot.
posted by kris.reiss at 7:16 AM on June 26, 2015

Response by poster: Ah! I should note that she will run when let off the leash, but we do it only rarely* because we're in an urban center, and also she won't chase a ball, stick, frisbee, etc. Sometimes she scratches her front-paw nails on our terrazzo terrace. Our courtyard is concrete, but I haven't noticed her scratching there. We walk on various surfaces: asphalt, concrete, stone, brick, dirt. There are no empty lots anywhere nearby.

* Traffic, and uncertainty about her reaction to other loose dogs we might encounter; she once ran away after being charged by a loose dog when she was off-leash in a usually dog-calm park, and it was the closest we came to losing her.
posted by taz at 7:50 AM on June 26, 2015

My dog (Shadow) was weird about his paws but not this bad. I did something much the same as you describe, a long process with gradual acclimation to the Dremel. He still doesn't love it but he tolerates it now; it probably took a year or so. The one step I did that you left out is briefly touching the Dremel to the dog's paws while it's off and unplugged.

To kris.reiss's point about letting them grind down by exercising the dog on hard surfaces: I played a lot of fetch on a fenced-in tennis court to try and grind the nails down, with bad results: The nails stayed unaffected and there were raw spots on the pads of his paws. Be careful if you do this and make sure you check your dog's wheels frequently.

And seriously, this thread needs more pictures, folks!
posted by Dilligas at 8:04 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have the same issue with my dog, so we decided to just do nothing. It's largely been fine but just last week, one of her side nails got too long, cracked, and started bleeding underneath surface. She had to be sedated and have the nail lopped off. At this point I'm probably going to try getting her used to the Dremel, at least for that one nail alone, because it doesn't get worn down like the rest of them. Just a precautionary FYI!
posted by thebots at 8:44 AM on June 26, 2015

Valium? Seriously, my guy takes it for thunderstorm anxiety. Ask your vet about getting her some anti-anxiety meds.
posted by BoscosMom at 8:55 AM on June 26, 2015

Have you tried DAP?

We've used it to help Rufus with travel sickness, hordes of new people invading the house, and fireworks. It might help your dog get over her initial panic about people touching her feet, and get you over that first hurdle.

Also, txtwinkletoes' suggestion of squeezy cheese is a great one. It's our go-to distracto-treat for unpopular treatments.
posted by dvrmmr at 10:37 AM on June 26, 2015

I have a dog with similarly violent reactions to getting her nails trimmed (by others, and I'm too chickenshit to do it myself because they're opaque black) - I was discussing these woes once with a blind friend who manages her guide dog's nails just fine, and she told me that she uses a dremel and also disclosed the following tips for accustoming the dog to the dremel:

-when you first get the dremel apparatus, leave it around for the dog to inspect. Treat the dog for approaching it, sniffing it, showing interest in it.

-practice bringing the dremel to the dog's paws - treat. Repeat as necessary.

-treat the dog in conjunction with the dremel being on.

-same as above, but with the dremel on.

-apply dremel to dog's nails, treat, until nails have been managed.

This all actually worked quite well on my flighty beast although now I mostly let the pavement take care of it. Even so her nails do look somewhat like talons but they aren't so long as to give her any problems.
posted by Aubergine at 10:56 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

PetCo's groomers dremel my dogs, so that's a cheap and easy way to try out that theory.

However, the extreme reaction you describe mandates that you should really hire a professional trainer to help your dog get over this issue. I suspect it would not take more than a session or two with the right trainer.

There are various videos on youtube with different techniques for desensitizing your dog to having its feet touched, etc. If you can't afford a trainer, browse through and see if any make sense to you. As long as you don't yell at your dog or hit your dog I don't see any harm in trying various things.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:12 AM on June 26, 2015

If the dog is fit, long walks on sidewalk pavement/concrete can really help to keep the nails down. No need to run, but regular and long sidewalk walks have been key for us. Brick, dirt, and tile don't really work to wear nails down.

As you may have guessed, our dog also hated nails trimmed. So, we just cut one at a time. Both of us would hold him, one cuts and then that's it for a few days. Lots of treats after. Repeat. Yes, it takes a long time to get all nails trimmed, but it's what worked. Over time, the dog got a bit less freaked by it. We also got him used to paw massages with no trim so that he'd become desensitized over time.
posted by quince at 11:15 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been Dremeling my dog's nails for years and successfully coached my mom via e-mail to get her Golden past a similar state of hysteria to accepting the Dremel so feel free to me-mail me if I can help once you get down to it. Four other tips:

1) Get the extension accessory for the Dremel, the one that makes it like a pen, then hang the motor part from a hook on the wall. The pen thing gives you way more dexterity and therefore safety.

2) I take raw liver, put in the blender with some water to make a sludge, then freeze this in the tiniest Rubbermaid containers. At nail time my husband holds this for the dog to lick while I do his nails. Totally takes his mind off of what's going on and is a good way to get his face out of the way so you don't accidentally get face hair/whiskers caught, which would be disastrous. An important point is to turn the Dremel on *before* letting the dog have the liversicle, so he starts to want to hear it come on.

3) Getting fur caught in the Dremel is no fun. To prevent this, I take an old t-shirt and cut a little hole in it just big enough for a paw, then clip the body of the t-shirt around the dog's neck, like a smock, so all the hair is covered.

4) You get the most bang for your buck by using the Dremel to take off the top of the nail. So hard to describe in words. If you are just Dremeling the very tip of the nail, you will get to the quick in short order. But if you also use it to angle off the nail just above the quick, just on the curved part of the nail toward the end, then as the dog walks that part of the nail will more readily wear down on its own and the quick will recede much farther back. I hope that made sense. Basically you are taking the roof off of the nail along the tip of the quick.

It's generally thought that having too-long nails can cause problems in the toes and even in the iliopsoas, because it changes the dog's posture. If your dog will wear them down by walking, fine (my other dog does but the one apparently has super hard nails that don't wear down at all). But if not, it's worth taking as long as you need to work on it. I've seen some pretty persuasive before and after photos of changes in posture due to having nails done.
posted by HotToddy at 12:05 PM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also, nails heat up FAST under a Dremel. I just kind of tap it to the nail, in short bursts, and put my finger on the nail in between both to cool it down and check how hot it is. As you can tell I use a real electric Dremel, not the battery operated toy made for dog nails. That thing is nowhere near powerful enough to do the job. But the real Dremel does create some risks.
posted by HotToddy at 12:12 PM on June 26, 2015

Also also, the whole thing goes faster if you use it at an angle, so first diagonally on the left, then diagonally on the right, now you have a point so use it on the top and downward to grind that off and de-roof, repeat until you start to see pink at the the tip.
posted by HotToddy at 12:15 PM on June 26, 2015

Then afterward, check for any jagged bits and smooth those off, if necessary with an emery board, because otherwise they can splinter off.

I sure have a lot to say on this subject!
posted by HotToddy at 12:17 PM on June 26, 2015

One more, if it's the dog in your profile photo then you are going to want to trim the hair on her feet first. I have to do this too, otherwise it's almost impossible to avoid getting it caught in the rotating head of the Dremel.
posted by HotToddy at 12:21 PM on June 26, 2015

I mostly Dremel my dog because it's faster, but if she's upset by the noise of the Dremel or doesn't like it touching her feet, you could also try making a doggy scratching post and teach her to file her own nails. Cheap, easy to make, and my experience is that because the dog is controlling her own feet and no one is making her do anything, they're much less upsetting to some dogs than actively having their nails handled. It does require a little more time from you than dremeling, but for a dog who is really upset about having her feet touched it might be perfect.
posted by sciatrix at 1:56 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is probably not a very satisfying update, but I'll say that we recently had our dog anesthetized for some dental work, and her nails trimmed during that knock-out period, and asked our Vet for his assessment of her nail condition, and he said he didn't really find it problematic and that our regular walks on asphalt, concrete, etc. surfaces seem to have kept them okay enough (long, but not actually a health problem or concern). Given how extreme she is about it, we probably won't pursue it unless something changes.

posted by taz at 12:05 PM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

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