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.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s