Clipping Walter’s Nails

One of the things I neglected to do when Walter was a puppy was to desensitize him to the nail clippers.

Getting him to sit still so I can clip his nails has always been hard, but now that he’s close to 2 years old and nearly 100 pounds it’s damn near impossible to get the clippers anywhere near his paws.

The fact that he tends to be a pretty handsy pup doesn’t help things.

When he wants something from you he’ll start with a little nose bump, but if that doesn’t get your attention the next step is always to put his paws on your arm, or leg, or feet, or face… whatever the paw happens to land on.

Once those razor sharp talons touches your skin you end up with some pretty gnarly scars. Growing up I was always told that “Chicks dig scars”… but I’m married and I couldn’t care less what chicks dig anymore 🤣. I don’t dig getting lacerated by dirty doggy claws!

So, the claws gotta go - but that’s easier said than done with 100 pounds of fur, teeth, and claws that don’t see the problem with long finger nails.

How did this happen?

A couple things sort of collided to make me slack off on conditioning Walter to be unafraid of the nail clippers when he was younger.

  1. His nails are black, which means it’s nearly impossible to see the quick inside his nails. Which makes it hard to know if you’re cutting too short till it’s too late.
  2. For some reason he always seemed to suspect that I didn’t know what I was doing with those things, and would run off whenever I came within 3 feet of him with those clippers.

So I needed a good plan.

The brain washing plan

With that in mind I’ve developed a brain washing plan to get Walter to not just be unafraid of the clippers, but to be excited to see them and play the “paw” game when they come out.

Most days around lunch time I take a few minutes to do some simple training with Walter. Sit, Stay, Down, Touch, Play Dead, Pick up your toys, etc.

Since Monday last week, I’ve started each of these sessions by getting the nail clippers out with the treats and the clicker.

Walter knows that when he sees the clicker and the treats, we are about to play some games.

So now when I say “sit” I’m holding the clippers where he can see them. When I say “down” I put the clippers down near his feet.

The clippers come out only when we are playing these games and they go away as soon as the games are over.

Now, you remember how I said that Walter can get pretty handsy when he’s frustrated? I’m going to use that to my advantage here.

Walter already knows the cue “High Five”, I put my hand up and he bumps it with his paw. I’ve transformed that “high five” into the cue “paw” over the last few days.

Here’s how it works

First, I cue Walter to sit

Next, we do a “high five” because he knows that one, and is guaranteed to get a reward.

Then I change things up and put my hand out flat and just look at him.

Why click at this stage? Well because he showed interest in my hand which is part of what I want. Walter (being a dog) doesn’t speak English so I need to give him clues about what I want.

This is called “shaping” we start with a general behavior and then shape it into what we want.

Anyway, back to the brain washing plan.

Once we’ve done this exercise a few times, and Walter has figured out that bumping my hand gets him a click, I stop clicking when he does it.

Remember something else I said about Walter? When he wants something he’ll bump you with his nose, and then if you don’t get the picture he punches you with his sharp ass paws.

I know this, but he doesn’t know that I know this. So I wait, with my hand out flat and eventually he smacks it with his paw. CLICK! and LOTS OF TREATS!

At this point, he’ll probably give me a puzzled look. WTF was that human? A little head tilt maybe. It’s fun to see the wheels turning in head “why would that make the bearded bald man click?”

Then I do it again we start with “high five”. Easy click treat.

Again, I hold out my hand flat. Walter looks at it, maybe whines, hits it with his nose, no click.

Frustration!!! Paw slap CLICK! TREATS!. AND I SAY “PAW”.

Associating the cue “Paw”, with the click and treat.

All the while I’ve got the clippers lying next to him.

Over the last day or two I hold one hand out and the other has the clippers where he can see them. Now instead of getting a click as soon as he slaps my hand, I make him rest his paw in my hand for a few seconds, then:


Starting tomorrow I’m going to add in placing the clippers on his paw before he gets a click.

One thing to note though is that when you do try to progress between more specific behaviors when you are shaping a complex task like this, is that you have to be paying attention to your dog. If they aren’t getting it you need to think about what exactly you are asking them to do, and all the steps that might take.

Even something as simple as getting a dog to put his paw in your hand on cue isn’t simple. Remember they don’t speak English, and I’m lucky in the case because my dog loves to hit me with his paws and I can use that to my advantage.

You might consider that you are asking too much too soon and need to continue to reinforce earlier behaviors in the chain until the dog gets it every time, or even better is anticipating it.

So if touching him with the clippers tomorrow results in a sudden pull back or breaks his sit, then I know I’m asking for too much and I’ll dial it back. I’ll reinforce what he knows. Put paw in hand and wait. Then maybe put paw in hand and see clippers.

All the while I’ll be shoveling out treats much faster than you think I should.

I’m not sure when I’ll get to the point where I can clip one of those daggers he calls finger nails, but I’m sure the first one will be done when I’ve got some spare meat balls, and he’ll get a good reward after each and every nail he lets me clip.