Cooperative Care for Toenails (and Grooming/Handling in general)

Fear free, low stress nail trimming with a dog who would previously struggle, snap, and attempt to bite. MY dog!

The clip shown here was my end goal. It might not be yours, but I am thrilled with my little guy. Since I first published this video, we’ve made even more progress–I generally can clip his back feet in one session, and the front feet in another–pretty good! I’m still happy with where we were in this video. We might not have continued to make gradual, organic progress if I had gotten frustrated or put pressure on Pinot.

No, I can’t necessarily clip all of Pinot’s nails in a row, but I also don’t feel that I need to do so. I also haven’t really reduced the amount of food I’m using. I made a deal with my dog, and I’m sticking to it. He gets a cookie (or a few) for each nail, and lots of “easy” reps with no trimming. I use the “clip” sound as a marker signal, as well–clip/treat. I am happy with this! I break his trims up into several sessions, over the course of the week. This means I’m often trimming his nails every other day or every few days. That might sound nuts, but I like this routine for two reasons:

1) I no longer avoid clipping or put it off. It’s just a habit now. It’s also a habit for Pinot, without any big drama around it.

2) There’s little to no risk of burnout or getting bored/frustrated/grumpy around nails if you only work on it for 2 minutes at a time.

With Cooperative Care, it’s important to break things down into manageable chunks in separate sessions, over time. This article is focused on toenails, but the same “rules” apply to all grooming/handling skills.

Teach Stationary Positions

Teach your dog to maintain a position, while you do “weird” stuff. I first taught Pinot to lay flat on his side, braced against my leg. This is a natural position for him, and it also puts me in a good spot to see his feet without looming over him too much. It’s a good idea to teach your dog to hold a variety of positions/stations, and to flip to both sides as well. Pinot also has two upright stationing behaviors: a chin rest on my arm or leg & a muzzle hold while he sits up on his hind legs (so I can see his tummy/neck/undercarriage). For a large dog, doing a chin rest on a chair while standing may be a great position for nail trims. Find what works best for you and your dog.

Here are the Upright Muzzle Hold + Lay Flat positions:

Chin Rest:

Counter Conditioning

Build up a good desensitization & counter conditioning routine. This is the process of building a shiny new Conditioned Emotional Response to something the dog is either neutral or worried about. This is done by systematically pairing something the dog loves with the “trigger” or negative stimulus. I do this in short, sweet, easy sessions—it should feel easy to both you and the dog, not hard. The neutral or negative stimulus should always come FIRST, followed by something your dog loves.

Start with something neutral, NOT something your dog already hates. If touching or holding a foot is not going to happen, start with pointing at it, then feeding. When that’s easy, see if you can lightly touch a toe (boop!), feed a cookie. Pick up a foot, toss the frisbee! Clip a toenail, give a lick of peanut butter. This is NOT a way to distract your dog–this is a way to create a positive association between two previously unrelated things.

Build in consent

If the dog seems stressed, stiff, concerned, struggles, pulls away, the session pauses or is ended. If he leaves, let him leave! The next time you come back to the training, make it much easier. Using pressure, even social pressure (calling him back) can create a dog who doesn’t feel like he has a choice. I want my dogs to actively choose to work with me.


Stay at each level of training until it feels easy. If your dog still gets stiff, pulls away, or winces when you reach out to a paw, you’re not ready to move up to clipping toenails! Training will take the time it takes…shortcuts aren’t worth it.

Be Honest

No bribery, distraction, and tricking your dog. I always show my dogs the tools I will be using, and what I’m doing, so they know what to expect. You might “get away” with a few sneaky nail trims, but eventually you’ll create more problems. Using food to distract a dog won’t allow them to notice and therefore accept (or disagree with!) what you are doing. I want them to pay attention to the clipping.

Go Slow

Act like you have all the time in the world, and it’ll take two minutes. Act like you need to get something done quickly, and it’ll take all day.

Be Generous

Reward often and be grateful for your dog’s cooperation. I’d rather dole out 10 treats to clip two toenails than have to muscle my way through clipping all four feet. Which way would your dog prefer?

Keep It Short

Keep sessions to 10-15 repetitions, or even shorter for young dogs. I prepare my treats in a little cup, and when we’re done with those cookies, we take a break! This keeps the training fresh and prevents frustration, burnout, and working for too long.

Warm Up & Cool Down

Start with easy repetitions and end with easy repetitions. Stick a few “challenge” reps into the middle of your session. If the training always gets harder, your dog will feel demotivated. Start each session by warming up and practicing your position.

Take Breaks

If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, just stop. Take a day off. Take a week off. Take a MONTH off. It’s only toenails. You’re doing your best and you’re doing enough. Take pressure off of yourself and your dog. Teach your dog to use a scratch board in the meantime. It’s fun, and helps take some nail off at the same time.




Rainy Days

…It’s raining, my puppy/dog won’t potty outside!

This is really common, especially with puppies and small dogs. I rarely hear this from owners of Labradors, Goldens, and other water-loving, big, hairy breeds. Usually, this is just a “substrate preference”…a technical term for not wanting to get your feet wet. Often, we accidentally create this problem because WE don’t really want to go out in the rain, do we? So, we send Fluffy out into the yard alone, in the cold, wet rain. Or, we run outside with Fluffy, wait a few seconds, get frustrated, and head back in the house. Pretty safe bet that Fluffy’s going to start to avoid going out in the rain…so what should you do instead? First, we’ll talk about prevention, then we’ll cover how to train a rain-averse pup.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

You can usually prevent any substrate preferences early on by consistently braving the elements with your dog, in a no-nonsense manner, and rewarding your pup with something tangible like food for going out in the rain. If you behave as though you don’t mind the rain, your dog will follow your lead! Grab some treats, and wear good rain boots, a coat, and a hat, so that you don’t have to fake it. If you’re standing outside in your soggy bedroom slippers, you won’t be very happy, and your dog will know it! You’ll probably also be impatient to go back inside, and you may unconsciously be rushing your puppy along. Behave the same way you would on a nice, bright, sunny day. Reward your puppy with food immediately for pottying, especially in yucky weather.

Unless the weather is absolutely atrocious, try to linger outside a bit after your dog potties. After rewarding them with food, you can encourage your dog to explore, meander around and sniff, and maybe do a little training. This is desensitization (gradual, repetitive exposure to something) at work: exposing your dog to the weather and helping them become comfortable with it. If they never spend any time in the rain, then they won’t be very comfortable with it.

But…my dog already hates the rain!

Look at this issue from your dog’s perspective. Is it the wetness that your dog doesn’t like, or the fact that he’s outside alone in the rain? Maybe both? If it’s just that your dog doesn’t like being alone, that’s easy to solve. Put your rain gear on, and go outside with him consistently for a while. Then you can gradually start only going out halfway into the yard with your dog…and then standing on the porch, and then standing right outside the door. FInally, see if you can stand in the door, with it just cracked open.

If it’s the wet ground your dog hates, break that down into an actually training exercise. Get a wet towel, and lay it on the ground or on a tile/linoleum floor. Teach your dog to stand on and then walk over the wet towel! You can use a food lure or hand targeting to do this, or you can free shape it with your marker signal. For many dogs, this is surprisingly difficult. Once it’s easy for your dog to walk over the wet towel, see if you can ask him to walk through a small patch of wet grass or a shallow puddle after the rain has stopped. Use patience and gentle guidance. If you’re frustrated, your dog will know that right away and will start to stress down.

If your dog dislikes the actual rain falling down, wait for a day when it’s a very gentle, drizzly rain (…not a hurricane). Put on your rain gear, and stand with your dog at your open door. Have GREAT cookies in your pocket. Face out the door and just wait. The moment your dog shifts any weight toward the outside, say good, and toss a cookie out into the rain. Continue this until your dog starts to see some value and fun in going out in the rain. For some dogs, getting out of their home base is a good way to build confidence in the rain. They might not want to go out in their yard, but they might want to go for a car ride to the park! Build bravery, confidence, and comfort with the rain. If your dog is genuinely afraid of the rain itself (or the sound of rain), please seek the help of a trainer and/or a veterinary behaviorist.

One final note to owners of very small, thin-haired dogs! Yorkies, Maltese, etc. They may actually need a rain coat to keep them warm from the elements, if you plan on going for long walks in the rain. All dogs are individuals! If they are shivering and looking miserable, but willing to follow you outside, they won’t stay willing for long. Keep them comfortable with something to wear OR keep the walk/potty outing very brief.




When you’re working on a complex training project, such as cooperative care, leash reactivity, or off-leash reliability, you may encounter roadblocks. It might feel like you’re going nowhere or going around in circles. It can be frustrating to see others making huge leaps in their training…this is like FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) for dog trainers. When that happens, try taking a break from training, at least from that specific project. A day (or a week, or a month) off can change everything!
If you still don’t see improvement when you start back up again, consider these:
–Is my dog distracted/tired/bored?
–Is my timing off?
–Am I even rewarding the right thing???
–Is my reward actually rewarding?
–Is this environment too much for my dog?
–Have I broken this task into small enough pieces?
–Is my dog physically up to this task? Is he strong/agile enough?
How I troubleshoot training issues:
  • Take a LONGER break. Work on something else!
  • Set up a phone or GoPro to film while I train. Video is always honest and may show you something you can’t see.
  • Go back to an easier stage of training.
  • Increase the volume and/or the value of rewards.
  • Work in shorter sessions.
  • Work in a quieter/calmer area.
  • Evaluate your expectations. Is my dog ready for this?
  • Phone a friend! Get a fresh perspective from someone who doesn’t see your dog every day.
When you do start to make progress, keep it slow! Only increase the difficulty when your training sessions feel easy. Rushing things often ends up slowing things down. Progress is progress. Pay attention to every step in the right direction, and be positive with yourself as well as your dog. Look back to where you and your dog were a year ago, or even two, three, or four years ago. Think about how much you’ve both learned, and what you’ve accomplished. Remove any pressures or deadlines you’ve placed on yourself–while goals can be helpful, stress isn’t. Keep calm, reward your dog, and take a break.