Teach Your Dog to File Her Own Nails

This article was originally written in 2015 when my Weim girls were still alive. I have also taught my current dog, Nova, a German Shorthaired Pointer to file her nails. During the current COVID-19 era, when veterinarians and groomers are not working or only seeing dogs with true medical issues, having a dog who can file her own nails is a valuable skill!

Many of us have struggled over the years with trimming our dogs nails. While it’s completely possible to train dogs to like having their nails done, most of us don’t have the time and energy required to get our dogs to that point. So I clicker trained my girls to do their own nails which has greatly reduced the anxiety they have about the process. They scratch a sandpaper covered board which files down their nails.

To teach this, you’ll need a couple supplies. I started with an old piece of counter-top that I was going to throw out. Any board about 2′ x 3′ will work. When I make boards for my Nailed It class, I use 3/8″ plywood. Purchase the highest quality medium grit sandpaper you can find, 100 grit to start. The sandpaper lasts several months. The next time you have to replace the sandpaper, you can try the next coarser grit. If you started at 100, go down to 80 grit. I wouldn’t go lower than 80 grit.

Flat scratchboard

Put spray adhesive on the back of the sandpaper (4 full pieces) and adhere to the board in a square so the pieces butt up against each other. You must use spray adhesive, which you can get at any hardware store, not glue which gets lumpy. I use 3M Super 77. Put extra spray on the corners and edges of each piece of sandpaper because those are the areas your dog is most likely to rip up when scratching. You can add a rope handle if you like, but it’s not necessary if you are not carrying it around. Sand the edges of the board to eliminate any potential splinters.

At a Pat Miller seminar, I learned the following tip: afix a couple sheets of sandpaper to a cardboard construction tube. These tubes are available at home improvement stores and are used to pour concrete footings for decks. Cut the tube both lengthwise and again horizontally so you end up with 4 curved pieces of equal size. Keep one and share the others with your dog friends! Using a curved surface as the scratch board base gets all the nails filed down more evenly. I used an 8″ tube, but would try a 6″ tube if I need to replace my 8″ tubes at some point.

Cardboard concrete footing form
Completed scratch tube

You will have to rough up the surface of the tube with sandpaper to get the sandpaper to adhere to the tube well.

There are several steps to teaching your dog the process, but overall, it’s quite easy. I tried to show the steps in my video, but my girls are experts at this now, and they weren’t cooperating when it came to trying to get them to go backwards to show the early steps. They just love to do this and shoulder each other out of the way to get a turn at the board. Even my scaredy girl Hope loves it, although it took a little longer to teach her.

1. Get an old plastic lid (a throwaway lid from a deli container works well) and lots of tiny, yummy treats. Put a treat under the lid and put it on the floor. Hold the lid in place on the floor so the dog can’t move it much. Your dog will probably try different ways to get the treat out from under the lid. At some point they will touch their paw to the lid. The second that happens, click and treat. Repeat several times.

2. Add a cue to this for the paw touch, something like “TAP” or “SCRATCH” would work. Say the cue just before you are 100% sure the dog is going to do the behavior on his own. Repeat many times.

3. Now, lay the lid, again with a treat under it, on top of your sandpaper covered board. Cue the behavior, always clicking and treating each time the dog touches the target. You will notice that your dog is beginning to hit not just the target, but is getting some minor scratches in on the sandpaper too.

4. Cut your target in half, continue with the process described above. By making the target smaller your dog will be hitting more and more of the sandpaper when he/she paws at the target. When your dog is doing well at this step, cut the current target in half, so now it is 1/4 of the size of the original target. At this stage you can eliminate putting the treat under the lid. Just place the smaller target on the board. Cue TAP and click and treat from your hand when the dog paws the target.

5. Elevate the board on one end by propping it up on something secure. Don’t elevate it too high at first, about 6-8 inches is good to start.

6. Place your target on the elevated board and do a couple trials. Then try eliminating the target all together. Point to the board or touch the board with your finger and cue the SCRATCH behavior. Click and treat for any contact with the board. Repeat until the dog is scratching the board regularly.

7. Gradually increase the height of the elevation until the board is close to vertical, continuing to click and treat for TAP each time you raise the elevation. I prop my board along a sofa, sit right next to it and use my foot to anchor it in place. You could also prop it between your legs, using both legs to anchor it in place, leaving your hands free to click and treat.

8. You will find that most dogs tend to paw at a slight angle which results in the nails not getting filed evenly. You will have to experiment with putting the board at different angles so the entire nail can get filed.

9. This is the only tricky part. Start waiting for your dog to TAP on her own without the TAP cue, click and treat when she does. Repeat several times. Then stop clicking and treating each TAP and wait for your dog to paw it two times, click and treat. Wait for the dog to paw multiple times, up to 3-4 times before clicking and treating.

Do this about twice a week to keep your dog’s nails short. If you keep up with this once or twice a week with a 2-3 minute scratching session, you will be able to keep the nails very short. If you slack off and your dog’s nails get longer, your dog can do this every other day until the nails are at the proper length again. Your dog will love to do this, guaranteed!

Occasionally, I have to do a little touch up with the Dremel tool grinder, but not normally.

This technique is only for the front nails. I haven’t taught them to do their back nails, but those seem to get worn down more easily on their own. So have fun teaching this and watch the video of Cassie and Hope manicuring their nails!


Sally Bushwaller, CPDT-KSA, CNWI, © May, 2020

A State of Mind

By Sally Bushwaller, CPDT-KSA, CSAT, CNWI

Separation anxiety has many “roots”. One of those roots is that when your dog is overly stressed because of your absence, they stop thinking clearly and may make irrational decisions.

All separation anxiety dogs I work with are started on what I call the SPONTANEOUS BEHAVIOR PROTOCOL. This concept evolved as I worked with 100s of dogs over the years. Along the way I absorbed info from brilliant trainers, seminars and from books and videos I watched. It really started to formulate in my brain after watching video of zoo trainers doing clicker training with dangerous animals at the first The Art and Science of Animal Training Seminar hosted by ORCA at the University of North Texas – empower the animal to learn to make decisions on his own, without compulsion or commands.

The coalescence of these ideas rolling around in my head became the SPONTANEOUS BEHAVIOR PROTOCOL (wish I had decided to call it something shorter and catchier!). I then discovered that there were many other trainers around the country doing versions of this same thing. Continue reading

Good Behavior Spontaneously!

Wouldn’t it be great if your dog naturally offered you good behaviors all the time? Just think about life with a dog that you didn’t have to nag to get them to sit, down or watch you. Is that an elusive dream? NO! It’s all possible and quite easy to achieve.

To start this process, you can do a couple of things. The first way is to capture the behavior when it occurs. This basically means catch your dog in the act of doing something good. Mark that behavior by saying “yea” or clicking a clicker, so your dog knows he did it right, and giving him a treat (or another reinforcement). I prefer to use this technique whenever possible. An example – wait for your dog to sit on his own, say YEA as his butt hits the ground, then give him a treat.

The second way is to lure the behavior. With this technique, one would use a food lure to get the dog to do the behavior, say YEA, then reinforce him.

Once the dog understands how to do the behavior, you can begin to teach him to offer the behavior on his own.

For sits, begin by asking for or luring a couple of sits to “prime the pump” and then reinforcing. Now move so the dog will get up and just stand there and smile at your dog. You can talk to him, but don’t cue the sit in any way. The second he sits, say YEA then give him a treat. Repeat every time he offers the sit. The more you reinforce the spontaneously offered sit, the more ingrained it will become, until your dog begins to offer it as a default behavior any time he wants something or doesn’t know what else to do.

For eye contact, carry some non-perishable treats around with you or stash them around your house. If your dog spontaneously gives you eye contact, say YEA and give him a treat. Repeat often.

For downs, repeat the same process you used for the sit. Lure a couple downs, then just wait for your dog to offer it on his own. Be sure to reinforce it when he does it. If he doesn’t offer the down on his own, help him out by shaping the behavior. If your dog glances at the floor, say YEA and give him a treat. Repeat, gradually waiting for longer or lower glances before reinforcing. Your dog will be laying on the floor in no time.

Now that your dog is offering a SPONTANEOUS SIT WITH EYE CONTACT (or DOWN WITH EYE CONTACT), you can begin to wait for him to offer that behavior before you do anything for your dog. Examples are waiting for him to sit before feeding him, putting on his leash, access to furniture, going out the door, coming out of a crate, to start play, to get petting and going down stairs, etc. Basically, anything your dog wants can be earned. Be as strict as you need to be depending on your dog’s behavior. If your dog is always jumping on you, is pushy and getting into trouble frequently, then you would be strict about waiting for a sit. If your dog has stopped being pushy, you can relax your standards about having him sit for everything.

By working through this process, you have enabled your dog to grow new neural pathways in his brain and learn to make better or good decisions on his own without your constant input.

Don’t forget, reinforcement doesn’t always have to come in the form of a treat, although using a treat at first will speed things up. It can be a toy, a kind word, a smile, petting, a walk, chasing a squirrel, etc. Be sure to ALWAYS REINFORCE good behavior ALL THE TIME in some way.

A word about petting your dog. 99% of dogs do not like to be petted on top of their heads initially. They usually don’t mind if you come back to their heads, but most do not like the sight of your hand coming down towards their head, it’s intimidating to them. You can tell whether your dog likes it or not by how he reacts as you reach your hand towards his head. Does he look away, back up, lick his lips, yawn, duck his head or run away? If you answered yes to any of these questions, your dog does not want you to pet him on top of his head.

Additionally, in the winter, when it’s dry and there’s a lot of static electricity, if you pet the top of his head and shock him, you’ve not only NOT reinforced him, but you’ve punished him too! REMEMBER…reinforcement must be reinforcing for your dog, not YOU! If your dog doesn’t like it, it’s not reinforcing!

It is not necessary to tell your dog to do everything. Just get into the habit of observing your dog and then reinforcing him for doing good behaviors. When you are in the habit of reinforcing his good behavior, he will no longer feel compelled to do bad things to get your attention, because doing good stuff will always pay off for him! Train yourself to be more in-tune with your dog and you and your dog will be well on your way to a loving, well-mannered and respectful relationship.

Reprinted from Gray Ghost Stories, the newsletter of the Weimaraner Club of Northern Illinois
© 2018 Sally Bushwaller, CPDT-KSA, CNWI

Engaging Your Dog

As a professional dog trainer teaching anywhere from 7-10 classes a week, and working with countless behavior issues, by far the most common issue I see is lack of attention to the owner. The dogs learn that they can get more reinforcement from the environment than they can from their people, and that’s where all the trouble starts.

When the dog gets more pleasure from engaging with the environment than the person, I know the relationship is damaged. The damage is almost always NOT a result of harsh punishment, but usually a result of old fashioned thinking, “I must be in charge all the time and dominate my dog.” This simply isn’t the case and in fact, the opposite is true.

Continue reading

Marking Good Behavior (the secret of dog training)

Dogs in general are easy to explain— “How can I get what I want now!” Now it’s not that they are sitting around your house, twiddling their paws, planning ways to thwart you. But they do experiment with behavior—barking, jumping, chewing, nipping, playing keep away, etc., all to get your attention. It works and you pay attention to them. They’ve got you perfectly trained.

Even if you tell them no, glare at them, or push them away, that’s attention and reinforces the undesired behavior.

You can reverse that trend by paying more attention to them when they are being good. Don’t ever take good behavior for granted, especially calm sits and downs. If you don’t pay attention to them when they are being good, what do you think they’re going to do????? Be bad of course, because you’ll absolutely pay attention to them then. Continue reading

Mental and Physical Winter Exercise for Your Weim

Winter is tough on our weims. Not because they don’t want to be outside, but because we don’t much of the time! So you have to get creative about how you are going to stimulate them mentally and physically so they don’t go stir crazy.

Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you have to give up your training. If you’re made of tougher stuff than I, you can continue with your hunting training. I’m sure our active hunting members would be happy to help you with that. Continue reading