How to Handle Your Dog’s Feet

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Recently, for the first time in more than a year of having them, our two young dogs became muddy, necessitating a vigorous foot wiping. As it turned out, they were both highly aggravated, struggling and nipping as I worked to get them house-worthy. It was a good reminder for me about how critical it is to teach every dog to accept handling of its feet, ears, and legs.

There are many reasons why dogs may not like to have their feet touched. The simple loss of freedom to move feels threatening. Dogs also have a lot of sensory receptors in their feet, and some may be more sensitive than others to input here. And of course, there are some dogs who have been mishandled in the past and simply don’t trust any restraining motion.

At the same time, the handling of a dog’s feet is essential. Nail trimming is the most obvious. Many of us depend on our groomers or vets to perform this task because our dogs struggle too much. But just because groomers and vets have experience with restraining dogs doesn’t mean that it isn’t more pleasant for them to work with dogs who remain calm while having their feet handled.

Examining injuries and, as I found, routine cleaning are other areas in which feet must be handled. You may be blessed with a dog who has no issues about having her feet touched (I had a few of those, which is why I was somewhat complacent about getting these two used to it!) Even so, you should still practice handling them regularly to ensure that this remains the case. Similarly, this type of handling should be done with all young puppies before they can develop a strong negative reaction.

Training your dog to accept handling of his delicate areas depends on establishing trust that you aren’t going to hurt him. Don’t let him learn that growling and biting will get you to stop, though. As much as it’s possible, wait for a lull in the growling, then let go (rewarding the calm quiet).

Start slowly. Casually pick up a foot and drop it again. Gradually expand the amount of time that you hold a paw, and work your way up to picking up all four feet in turn. Be sure to do this at various times of day and in different situations. Let your dog learn that this could happen at any time and for any reason.

Using treats can be a great way to make a new association with foot handling and good things. Just be sure not to overdo your dog’s daily calorie needs, and use a variable reinforcement pattern. That is, after the first few times, don’t give the treat every time, but on occasion. Greater anticipation of the treat leads to greater effort.

As your dog becomes more comfortable, begin to spread toes and jiggle nails. Talk to your dog calmly and gently; you’re not trying to reassure her, just give the impression that this is all perfectly natural and normal.

Once you’ve got a dog who is able to remain calm as you handle his feet, you’re not done. Continue to handle them regularly so he doesn’t backslide into a negative reaction. You will be rewarded with a much easier situation whenever you need to wipe muddy paws or trim nails.

NR Tomasheski is a dog trainer who spent seven years as co-owner of a canine daycare, boarding, and grooming facility in Sherman Oaks, California. She has competed with her own dogs in agility, obedience, and rally.

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