Orly’s Pedicures

a yellow nail grinder, a plastic plate smeared with peanut butter, blunt scissors and styptic powder are gathered for the pedicure
Prepare your tools before you start the dog pedicure

What’s the best way to trim a dog’s nails? That’s a common question, since most dogs have experienced painful or unpleasant nail trims and loathe the entire process. I have had to find an answer; the secret is peanut butter.

Orly’s nails grow so fast! Cali’s need attention occasionally, but if I let Orly’s go for a couple of weeks, they get unbelievably long. So, it has been important to get her cooperation for frequent pedicures.

I’ve never liked using dog nail clippers. First of all, they all seem to be designed for right-handed people, and I don’t feel like I can get a good grip on the nail and clip it. Second, all of my dogs have either had entirely or mostly black nails.

With black nails, it is really hard to tell where the “quick” is. This is the tip of the blood vessels that feed the nail. In dogs with white nails, you can see the quick (it’s pink). If you cut it, the dog bleeds. A lot. And squeals in pain. It’s horrible.

That leaves a dremel-type tool to file down the nails. It’s pretty easy to do … if the dog cooperates.

With Jana, Cali, and, most recently, Orly, I started dremel training early. Turn it on, let them hear it while getting great treats. Let them sniff it thoroughly when it’s off. If possible, let them watch other dogs get pedicures (and treats, always lots of treats). Things like that.

Jana spoiled me. She loved pedicures. She loved anything that made her feel like a pampered princess. She’d sit still, hold up her paw, and accept my attention (and treats!), looking bored by the whole thing.

Cali is good, but she doesn’t like the nail trims. She cooperates, but pulls her paw away if I spend too much time on it. I rarely do hers, so it hasn’t been an issue.

Orly … needs her nails done nearly every week.

Fortunately, she’s very cooperative. Even better, she loves peanut butter. I mean really loves peanut butter. So I have come up with the perfect pedicure process:

  1. Get dremel, styptic powder (in case of bleeding), and scissors from the grooming kit.Golden puppy Orly licks peanut butter off of a plate
  2. Smear a small plate liberally with peanut butter.
  3. Find a comfortable corner where the plate can be pushed up against a wall and not escape.
  4. Put the plate down and let Orly start licking the peanut butter.
  5. Push Cali’s nose out of the peanut-butter dish.
  6. Turn on the dremel and pick up first paw. File each nail.
  7. Put down the paw.
  8. Turn off the dremel, and push Cali’s head out of the peanut-butter dish.
  9. Move the plate back into place.
  10. Turn demel back on and pick up the next paw.
  11. Repeat steps 7, 8, 9, and 10.
  12. If 4th paw is finished before the peanut butter is gone, use scissors to trim the fur between Orly’s paws.
  13. Give Cali some peanut butter as a reward for being (relatively) patient while Orly had her pedicure.

She doesn’t seem to mind this at all. I’ve never had any accidents (no blood and no pain), and she seems happy to participate in this activity every time I get the dremel (and the peanut-butter plate) out. It actually only takes about 10-15 minutes.

The trick is figuring out how much peanut butter is needed to keep Orly busy long enough to do all four paws. As she gets bigger, her peanut-butter-licking skills are improving rapidly, so the layer of peanut butter gets thicker and thicker. I might need a bigger plate soon. She’s pretty active, so I don’t worry (yet) about the large amount of peanut butter she’s eating. If we get up to half a jar at a time … well, let’s hope that doesn’t happen!

Golden retrievers Orly and Cali lick the last bits of peanut butter off of a yellow plastic plate
Cali is happy to help with post-pedicure cleanup


Stinky Dogs

Golden Cali and Lab Koala sniff deeply at the grass and leaves
Cali and Koala explore the neighborhood with their sensitive noses

When I last took Cali to the groomer, I noticed a row of bottles of dog perfume near the checkout. Clients could choose a scent and spray their dogs when they picked up their clean and trimmed pups.

Eeewww, I thought, that’s a terrible idea.

Then I saw an article about “the best” dog perfumes. Promoting them to cover “wet dog” smell.

We need to be clear on why this is a terrible idea.

Dogs’ sense of smell is hundreds to thousands of times more powerful and sensitive than humans’. If you spray something on your dog in a significant enough quantity that you can smell it from any distance at all, even snuggling distance, your poor dog is being overwhelmed by the scent.

That’s bad enough if it’s a scent that dogs like, such as, say, dead fish or fresh deer droppings. But a fake chemical scent intended to smell like, who knows, a floral bouquet or clean linen (whatever that smells like) or mangoes … just no.

The dog’s primary and preferred method of exploring the world is scent. This is how dogs recognize friends, potential friends, and for dogs other than Cali and Orly (for whom there are only those two categories) potential foes; it’s how they decide where to lead me on our smell walks and which disgusting (oops, I meant delightful) dead things to roll in at the dog beach.

I’ve always thought that the reason nearly all dogs race outside to roll in the grass (if you’re lucky) immediately after a bath is that they are trying to get rid of the scent of the shampoo. I look for unscented dog shampoos — and rinse really, really well. I think dog shampoos should smell like freshly cut grass or sea breezes… or nothing. Cali would choose other scents, I am sure.

Adding a sweet, fruity, floral, or other scent — “sugarcane island” and “cookie crush” are real options — on top of that is torture for the dog. It overwhelms her sensitive nose and interferes with her most basic means of experiencing the world. Like the annoying tag jingle, she can’t escape it. And it’s completely unnecessary: Your clean dog smells great just as she is — once her fur is dry, that is!

Still a Hero

Cali, a golden retriever, smiles happily and wears a colorful bandanna after her grooming.

Cali’s annual exam takes place in late June every year, but she’s only recently completed this year’s visit. Cali is a “hero,” one of 3,000 golden retrievers in the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

Cali’s Montana doc is not part of the study, but, fortuitously, we were in California in late June. Her beloved Sonoma vet did the exam. Everything seemed to be fine. Cali’s nails were long, for a change. She also needed to have a large section of her dewclaw removed, which provided an additional large sample. Cali obligingly provided more than enough hair and other biological specimens.

Then the study people lost her samples. Not all of them, but the packet that included the nail clippings, those precious and rare clippings.

They told me that I had to send more samples within four weeks.

I told them that there were no toenails to be clipped.

They granted me two additional weeks.

We drove back to Montana. I got the sample collection kit in the mail. It said I needed to have my vet do the collection. Seriously? I pick up poop several times a day. I can’t be trusted to collect that, trim some fur … and clip nonexistent nails?

They agreed to let me do the collection.

The stern letter threatened to kick Cali out of the study if we missed the deadline. This was serious. Cali’s life’s work was hanging, literally, by a toenail.

I checked her nails daily, deadline looming ever closer.

With about a week to go, I walked Cali around the corner to meet the groomer in our new neighborhood. She got lots of cookies and attention. The groomer thought she could get some clippings. We made an appointment.

Cali wasn’t too sure about this, but the cookies helped.

The nice groomer agreed to save the nail clippings. I left Cali in her capable (I hoped) hands.

A couple of hours later, I retrieved Cali, freshly washed, trimmed, and bandannaed — and that all-important baggie of nail clippings.

I collected the remaining samples and dropped it all off at FedEx.

A couple of days later, I got confirmation. We’d made it. Cali is still a hero.

Don’t Let This Happen!

Cali carries a newspaper
It’s easier to teach a puppy to retrieve than to teach her to let you trim her nails.

A headline a few weeks ago caught my eye: “PetSmart, groomer are sued in death of dog.” Obviously, this should never happen. Reading the article just made me sad, and angry.

The dog, Henry, a year-old dachshund, went to the groomer to get his nails trimmed. He emerged, bloody, with two broken ribs and a punctured lung, struggling to breathe. He died soon after.

The owners’ lawsuit seeks more than damages for their suffering and Henry’s. They want change. They want the state (it happened in California) to license groomers. Grooming is not regulated. And this was not an isolated incident.

I want change, too, but I’m not convinced that state regulation is the only or best answer. States are not doing a great job of preventing or punishing a lot of other cruel and horrific treatment of animals, including pets.

So, how can you prevent this from happening to your dog?

Most pet parents struggle with nail trims. It’s a tough sell with most dogs. I did everything by the book with both Jana and Cali: lots of gradual exposure, a ton of treats, and they never once got nicked. It worked with Jana, but not Cali. She still hates having her nails done. She’ll let me do it, but she’s not happy about it. It’s a lot harder to teach a dog to accept nail trimming than to teach her to sit on cue or even to pick up a newspaper, both of which Cali does beautifully.

But here’s the thing. Even though Cali does not like it, she doesn’t struggle. I get down on the floor with her, hold her paw firmly, and she lets me do it — then collects a very yummy treat after each paw.

I know that many dog moms are going to have someone else do the nails, but that’s even more reason to work on it. If the dog is not terrified, she won’t struggle, and the groomer won’t do … whatever that horrible groomer did to poor Henry.

Puppy classes should all include some basic grooming and conditioning to a nail trimmer or dremel-type file. Adult classes, too. Nail trimming is scary, especially the noisy dremel. Most dogs dislike having their paws handled. But the classes usually don’t even mention it. That’s too bad. But pet parents can do this on their own. Slow, gradual, exposure. Lots of encouragement and treats. The Whole Dog Journal has articles explaining step-by-step what to do. Or ask a trainer for help. You can do it at any age, but the earlier you start, the better.

And, if you do take your dog to a groomer, ask lots of questions. Try to find a place where everything is out in the open and you can see what they are doing to restrain dogs. Ask them how they restrain dogs. Do it for Henry. No dog should have to go through what he experienced.



Cool Cut Beats a Close Shave for Hot Dogs


Jana is looking spiffy and cool with her new summer haircut. I was careful to have just a trim done, though, mostly of her thick “feathers,” the long hair that golden retrievers have around their back legs. As you can see from her photo, she still looks like a golden. While it might be tempting to shave your dog to help her beat the heat this summer, don’t!

Dogs’ fur provides protection from the sun and, though it seems counter-intuitive, from the heat. The fur acts as insulation and is a part of each dog’s natural cooling system. It is also a barrier against sun exposure, protecting dogs’ skin from those harmful rays. Dogs can get skin cancer, just as we do — and if you live in a sunny climate or have a sun-worshipping dog like Jana, you might want to get some pet-safe sunscreen for her nose, belly, and other exposed areas.

Trimming long hair is OK, and frequent brushing is a great way to remove excess and loose hair. And there are other ways to cool your dog — a kiddie pool, a romp under the sprinklers, or a cooling mat, for example. Our dogs love ice — I call Cali the “tax collector” for her diligence in appearing out of nowhere to collect her cut every time I so much as look at the freezer door. If plain ice doesn’t do the trick for your dog, try some cool treats, like these or these, for stuffing Kong toys. Find more tips on keeping dogs cool here: The Uncommon Dog.

So, back to Jana’s new ‘do. (Before I shamelessly promote a local business, I’d like to mention that the Thinking Dog Blog never gets paid to endorse products or businesses!) While Jana was getting her stylish trim, Albee was enjoying a bath. We were at the Salty Dog, a cute (recently remodeled) do-it-yourself pet wash and grooming salon. I did not trim Jana myself, though. Owner Stephan will bathe or groom your dog if you make an appointment. His prices are reasonable, he uses wonderful, organic pet cosmetics, and the standard poodle who manages the place is a sweetheart. What’s not to like?