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Grooming Your Dog's Paws Stress-Free

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

Being able to handle your dog's paws is essential.

Being able to handle your dog's paws is essential.

Do I Need to Worry About My Dog's Paws?

Paw care in dogs can be easily overlooked by pet owners, especially in short-haired breeds where there is no need to regularly trim their feet. Often, the only time an owner tries to look at their dog's paws is the moment when there is an emergency—a torn nail or cut pad, for instance. At which point, the dog is stressed and in pain, and if it is already sensitive or not used to having his or her paws handled, then this can only add further tension to the situation.

Dogs that are worried about their feet being touched, when suddenly thrust into an emergency situation, will yank their paw away and maybe try to hide, snarl, growl and even bite. They are not bad dogs, they are simply scared and hurt.

Such a situation need never occur if you have taken the time to train your dog to be happy with his paws being handled. It will not only make your life and your vet's life easier, but it will also be so much better for your dog.

A dog's paws go through a lot of wear and tear over the course of a lifetime, and at some point, most dogs will suffer an injury to a paw. These are usually minor but will need treatment to prevent the problem from developing. For instance, a ripped claw, if not treated swiftly, can turn into an infected nail bed, and chronic infection can result in a toe having to be amputated.

Whether your dog has long hair or not, whether he only walks on a lead or runs free, whether he has dewclaws or not, it is important you can handle his feet. Here are some of the reasons why you may need to touch your dog's feet:

  • Fur-trimming
  • Claw-clipping
  • Thorn in paw pad
  • Snow, ice, or mud clumping on feet
  • Broken claw
  • Torn, cut, or split paw pad
  • Sores or lesions between toes (this is one to be highly aware of, as it can be the first stage of the deadly disease Alabama Rot)
  • A broken or sprained toe
  • Arthritis in toes
  • Infection in toes/nails
  • Grass seeds (these can burrow into a paw and travel up the leg. They often need to be removed under anesthesia if not caught in time)
  • Burns to the paw
  • Toxic substances (i.e. paint) that need to be removed from the paw before the dog licks and ingests it
  • Environmental or food allergies that cause the dog's feet to itch
  • Drawing blood (requires a vet to hold the dog's paw if they are taking blood from a leg)
  • Lameness
  • Symmetrical lupoid onychodystrophy (SLO), an autoimmune disease that affects the dog's nails
Snow clumps are just one reason you may need to handle your dog's paws.

Snow clumps are just one reason you may need to handle your dog's paws.

But My Dog Hates Having His Paws Touched

Many dogs are sensitive about their paws being handled, some can even be ticklish, just like humans. Sensitivity about their paws does not necessarily mean they have ever suffered a bad experience, or that they have not been handled as puppies, though with a rescue dog that could be a factor.

Some people's response to a dog that does not want its paws to be touched is to force the animal to comply, arguing that they just have to get used to it. While this may work with some dogs, who will end up tolerating the situation, maybe even accepting it, with others it can make things worse. Dogs may bite grooming tools or even the person handling them.

Equally, handing the problem off to a professional groomer is not an adequate solution. While they may be able to groom your dog's feet for you, they will not be there if an emergency arises, such as a cut pad.

A far better solution is to use positive reinforcement to make paw handling something your dog enjoys. You can even reach a stage where your dog willingly offers a paw to you and will be so relaxed about them being handled, that you can do anything you need to.

Using the games listed below, you can teach your dog to be happy having their paws touched. Remember, be patient and kind during these games and let your dog learn at their own pace. You are aiming to grow trust and confidence in your dog, and that takes time.

Teaching a puppy to give paw.

Teaching a puppy to give paw.

Paw-Handling Game 1: Give Paw

To teach a dog to be comfortable with having his paws touched is not as difficult as it might seem at first, but the time it takes will vary depending on the nature of the dog, how sensitive they already are about having their feet touched and if they already have a problem with their feet. If a dog already has sore paws, then they are going to resist them being handled, so take that into account when training.

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For this game, pick a reward that is super high value for your dog. For most dogs this can be food—try cooked chicken or cheese. It needs to be something more exciting than kibble. For dogs that are not keen on food, find a toy they really love and use that as their reward. Now you are ready to play 'give paw'.

Clutch a piece of food in your hand (or a small toy) and fold your fingers over it so your dog cannot immediately eat it. Hold your closed hand low and wait to see what your dog does. He may press your hand with his nose to reach the treat, what you are looking for is him to scratch at your hand with a paw. As soon as he does this, open your fist and reward.

Work this on both sides of the dog, so he offers his right and left paw. Most dogs will have a dominant paw (like us being right or left-handed) and you will soon notice which paw he prefers to offer. Encourage him to offer the other paw by holding your hand nearer that one.

Once your dog is scratching your hand with both paws as soon as you offer your closed fist, remove the reward from that hand, and in the future, only reward with food from your free hand. This is to teach the dog to continue the behaviour, even though the reward is not in the hand they touch. Be patient with this and still offer your closed fist, rewarding each attempt to scratch at your hand.

Next, start to slowly open your hand. If you fully open your hand at once, your dog may not understand the game anymore, so take your time. Reward always with your free hand.

Once you can offer your open hand and your dog will place his paw in it, increase the time before you reward him. This needs to be done in small increments, or your dog will pull his paw away. Start by counting to 1, then giving the reward, then count to 2, then to 3. Vary how long you ask for them to keep their paw in your hand, sometimes going right back to 1 second. If your dog pulls his paw away before you have finished counting, then you are asking for too much.

The final stage is to close your fingers around the dog's paw and hold it. Again, take this slowly, closing your fingers a little at a time. When you first fully hold your dog's paw, make sure the pressure is only light, he may pull his paw away—let him. You want him to have confidence in you, so never force this.

Ultimately you can build this game up to examining the paw, looking between the toes and even gently wriggling them (this is a good warm-up exercise for sports dogs). Practice this regularly, at least once a week, and you will have a dog that offers their paw as soon as you show them your hand.

Tips for Success

  • If your dog always uses his nose to touch your hand, then put your hand down by his paw. Any movement of his paw open your fist and give the reward. Gradually wait for more movement of his paw before you reward. Aim to only reward when he moves his paw towards your hand, not away. You might also find that the second game idea (below) works better for your dog.
  • If your dog scratches too hard at your hand, try rewarding as soon as they start to touch your hand, and don't reward when they scratch hard.
Dog paws suffer a lot of wear and tear during your canine's lifetime.

Dog paws suffer a lot of wear and tear during your canine's lifetime.

Paw-Handling Game 2: Touch My Paw

Give paw is great for front feet, but working with the back feet can require a different approach. Also, for dogs that are very sensitive about their feet, or perhaps have a problem that makes their paws sore, it may be necessary to take things back a step before trying to ask them to give a paw.

If your dog hates hands near his paws, this game will help to build trust. Remember, if your dog is in discomfort, he will need to see a vet to resolve the problem before attempting to touch his paws.

  1. Start with high-value rewards, food usually works best for this, but you could use a tug toy or ball. It will just take longer as you will have to reset the dog between each reward.
  2. Sit down on the floor near your dog and place your hand near their paw. Make sure it is not so close that your dog moves their foot away as a result. Toss them a piece of food. Do this a few times, then move your hand closer.
  3. Over the course of several short sessions, move your hand nearer and nearer, until it is just touching the dog's paw. You are always aiming for success, so don't push your dog to the point where they move their foot away. Be patient.
  4. Work up to rubbing a finger lightly over the dog's paw, touching each claw, or stroking their leg. Eventually, you can try gently cradling a paw, working up to lifting and holding it, and then examining it as mentioned above.

Tips for Success

If your dog is so sensitive that even a light finger touch is too much, try using a soft paintbrush, or a feather to lightly stroke their paw to begin with.

This thorn had to be pulled from a dog's paw. The dog was unable to put down its foot.

This thorn had to be pulled from a dog's paw. The dog was unable to put down its foot.

Paw-Handling Game 3: Distraction Toys

Sometimes it is not that our dogs dislike their paws being touched, but they dislike grooming tools being near them, such as scissors or clippers. They might not like the sound these tools make, or they may have had a bad experience, such as a claw being cut down to the quick. In this case, a distraction toy may help to build their confidence.

Distraction toys are usually something you fill with food and that engages the dog while you work. This might be a snuffle mat which is covered in strips of cloth you can hide treats among or a plastic lick mat that you can coat with soft food like squeezy cheese or peanut butter. It could be a Kong or a similar toy that can be stuffed with food.

Find an item that works best for your dog and then fill it with high-value treats. Offer this to your dog and give them a chance to focus on it before you do anything. The next step is to gradually introduce tools around your dog's feet. With very sensitive dogs, who react to the sound of the tool, it may be necessary to begin with the tools to one side. Open and close scissors to make their noise and let your dog get used to it. Turn on clippers or claw trimmers and let them adjust to the sound.

Slowly come closer with the tools and work up to trimming fur (it may be easier for your dog if you start with the back feet first). Initially, avoid handling your dog's feet, or lifting them, just try trimming around the edges. With a claw grinder, you can gently touch the claw for a couple of seconds, then take it away. What you want is for your dog to be so focused on their distraction, they take no interest in what you are doing. If your dog pulls its foot away or looks at what you are doing, take a step back.

Once you can trim around a dog's paw, it is time to try gently lifting it up. Again, don't hold the foot for long, build up the length of time your dog is happy with being handled.

Claw clipping or grinding is often easier to do when a dog is resting on its side or sitting in your lap. If your dog is allowed on the furniture, you can work on claws when they come for a cuddle. Still offer the distraction toy, and begin by only cutting a small piece off one claw. If they are ok with that, try doing another. With hind feet, it may help if you can have a second person petting the dog and offering them the distraction toy, while you handle their rear paws.

For smaller dogs, you can employ a grooming table so you are in a better place to see what you are doing with their claws. With big dogs, you may need to remain on the floor with them and work on lifting up their paws so you can cut their claws.

When a dog gets comfortable with the process, you might be able to teach them to lie down on their side while you trim their claws, but this will take time and patience to achieve, and some dogs may never be confident enough with their paws being handled to do this.

Tips for Success

Clipping nails can become a nightmare for dog owners, especially when a claw gets 'quicked' (it is cut too short and bleeds). Switching to a claw grinder can reduce the stress of this process. There are many on the market, but I suggest buying one that is low noise, as the whine of a grinder can sometimes worry dogs.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2020 Sophie Jackson

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