Nail Jail! Do Not Pass Go!

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

In the game of Monopoly you sometimes get a “go to jail” card.  This card tells you “Do not pass go. Do not collect $200”. You are simply stuck in jail until you get released.  While you are in jail nothing good happens, you are just in limbo. In the All About Nails class I’m teaching right now I have purposely put my students in “nail jail”.  The students in my class are there for a variety of reasons, but they all have one thing in common. Their dogs will not cooperate when they want to trim their toenails. They have all tried a wide range of solutions and approaches, but have not yet been successful.  My approach is to put a stop to all of these unsuccessful attempts, tell them to avoid doing anything with nails unless absolutely necessary, and take them back to the beginning to build a solid foundation. This is not a quick fix because there is no such thing. This is the beginning of a lasting fix.  

I am deeply dedicated to the process of teaching others how to find ways to shorten their dog’s nails without stress or frustration.  Doing nails is by far the #1 husbandry issue for most people. The main problem is that nails keep growing and throughout your dog’s lifetime and you will need to do them over and over and over and over again.  

No matter why your dog dislikes having his nails done, the way to begin solving the problem is the same: back to baby steps.  The only way to make forward progress is to go back and strengthen your foundation work first. You may not even realize that you skipped over some crucial foundation work; but my educated guess is that you did.  That’s what got you to this place.

The really good news is that it’s possible to make positive changes, no matter how unpleasant things are right now.  However, in order to make that progress you must be willing to take a step or two or ten or one hundred backwards before you can move ahead.  

When you think about trimming your dog’s toenails you likely think about the end result and not all the little steps necessary to get there.  That’s perfectly normal! You know what you want but you don’t realize that there are a large number of small nearly invisible steps that are necessary first.  That’s where you need a good trainer! We think like that. We are constantly considering how to break things down to make them clearer and easier for our animals to understand.  

The first hard truth that you’ll need to accept is that you MUST go much further back in the training process than you want, or think you need.  This is the “go to jail” card in the Monopoly game. You are now at the point where you are being told “do not pass go, do not collect $200”, meaning you have no choice here if you want things to get better eventually.  Trying to patch up a behavior that has a shaky foundation, or even gaping holes in the foundation, is not ever going to get you where you want to go. Go backwards in order to move forwards again! Going backwards isn’t failure; it’s the first step towards success.

Below are a series of videos showing some of the initial steps that you should master long before you even consider bringing out the nail clippers or dremel.  These are not suggestions; they are a necessary foundation for success.

*I do realize that my camera angle was too low and I apologize for being headless in these videos.  But the actual training steps themselves don’t suffer from that.  

Step 1: Table Conditioning:

Determine where you are going to do your nail trimming work and make it a comfortable and enjoyable place for your dog to be.  Set up a dedicated space for this. I’m demonstrating in this video with two Klimb tables covered with a thin non-skid bath mat.  Your table or grooming area can be on the floor using play tiles to delineate the space or even on your sofa with your dog in a specific position.  The important thing is to determine where it will be and work on making your dog really really really want to be there. See video here.

Step 2: Zen bowl:

A zen bowl serves a number of purposes in this type of training.  First, it teaches your dog that stillness is desired. It also teaches him that waiting for permission to get what he wants pays off while trying to take it himself does not.  And it’s a very convenient tool to be able to leave out an open bowl of food while doing your husbandry work. I teach 2 verbal cues for the zen bowl. One, the calm marker (good) tells my dog that I will bring the cookie to him.  Two, the active release (get it) tells my dog to go ahead and take the cookie. Once I have trained these then I combine them with the table. See video here.

Step 3: Touching legs & feet:

Before you can cut your dog’s nails you need to be able to handle his legs and feet without issue.  If your dog is not comfortable with this then he is definitely not going to be comfortable with an even more invasive procedure.  Most people with problems cutting nails actually have problems handling legs and feet. That needs to be addressed before moving ahead. See video here.

Step 4:  Touching nails

Once your dog is comfortable with the previous steps then you can working on touching nails, isolating them, squeezing them, and so on.  Think about how you will need to hold the nail in order to cut it and simulate those actions. See video here.


Once you have worked through all 4 of these foundation steps then it’s time to consider bringing out the tools.  If this has been your starting point (approaching your dog with tools) then I hope you can now see why this is an issue, and also now have an idea of where to actually begin your work.  If you’d like some guidance through this and the rest of the process here are a couple of options you might consider.

See full article here.