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

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