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Nail trims are either tolerated or hated, but rarely enjoyed. Learn the 5 signs of stress in dogs, calming signals, and the best force-free response.
90% of the time, the signs of stress and calming signals your dog exhibits are so subtle they are easy to miss. Especially during a nail trim when the focus is often on the actual trimming of the nail, not the dog.
Paying attention to how your dog is feeling, particularly when he or she is uncomfortable, scared, or unsure, and responding appropriately can make all the difference.
You will learn in this post:
- 5 signs of stress in dogs that are common during nail trims
- How paying attention can help lead you to the result you want – a dog that is not stressed, but rather loves getting a nail trim
- The best ways to respond when you observe signs of stress in your dog
To prevent any confusion, there are many overt signs of stress like aggression, flight, and trembling, but I feel it will be more instructive to cover the less obvious signs in this post.
The things that dogs do that so often go unnoticed, but that are done very deliberately by our dogs when they are under stress.
Consider the following your dog’s indoor voice.
Now is our time to listen…
The Subtle Signs of Stress
Before we get to the 5 signs of stress in dogs, I heard recently that the best way to teach something is with a story.
Here is how my story begins….
On the drive to my destination I can feel my heart begin to beat a little faster. Blood pressure rising. Patience quickly waning before I’ve even reached the parking lot. Early stages of road rage developing. Sitting at the traffic light I can see the hoards of people turning into the parking lot. I see the building and get sick to my stomach. I anxiously bite my nails as I look away hoping, praying, maybe all of these people will just go away. It’s a Tuesday morning for crying out loud! Don’t these people work?! No. No, they don’t. They come HERE on Tuesday morning. Aimlessly driving the parking lot looking for an empty spot, I curse all those who beat me here. With antipathy, I join them. Finally…..
The Verbal Advantage
Dogs are no different than humans in this respect. We feel stress and have methods, both internal and external, to deal with that stress.
However, one thing that differentiates humans and dogs is our ability to talk. To share our feelings with our husband, sister or friend. To speak the words “I am completely stressed out” as a request for advice, support or words of wisdom from another person.
Yes, dogs can bark, and sometimes that can be an indication of stress, however, it’s not the same.
Dogs don’t come right out and tell us “Mom, when you cut my nails it scares me,” “Every time you pick up the nail clipper, I think you are going to hurt me,” or “I wish I didn’t have to do this.”
If they did, perhaps we could pull up the couch and a notepad and get to the bottom of it.
In the absence of being able to come right out and tell us, humans, what they are thinking and feeling, dogs exhibit signs of stress in less overt ways.
But before we tackle some of these more subtle signs of stress in dogs, I want to take a step back for a minute to talk about why this is important when it comes to cutting your dog’s nails.
Tolerate Does NOT Mean Stress-Free
In Top 7 Most Popular Myths about Cutting Dog Nails – Busted! I addressed some common beliefs about cutting dog nails. 7 of them to be exact.
In this post, we are going to do a deep dive into just one of these. Number 5.
“My dog tolerates nail trims so I have no problem.”
Because so many people mistakenly believe that because their dog obediently stays to get a nail trim, calmly takes treats, or otherwise seems fine with the process, that he/she likes it.
Even the idea of TOLERATING a nail trim bothers me. Is that the standard we are going for?
Remember what we talked about in the 7 Popular Myths post. What other aspects of our lives do we do because we have to, not because we enjoy it. A plethora of things, right?
Going to the grocery store, paying taxes, working at jobs we hate, and, did I mention going to the grocery store?
I do all of these activities with a smile on my face and a pleasant attitude. Except paying taxes. Those make me pretty cantankerous.
I tolerate them. I do not like them. And if given a choice, I would NOT do them. Especially grocery shopping and paying taxes.
So here’s what I want you to do before we get to the signs of stress in dogs.
Read the following descriptions and decide which one most accurately describes your dog. Think about the last time you cut nails and how your dog behaved or reacted.
- Dog hates nail trims. Runs away, bites, unable to cut them at home, won’t take treats at all.
- Dog tolerates nail trims. Takes more than one person. Have to trap, force or pin down paws to cut them. Will take treats.
- Dog tolerates nail trims. Will take treats, pulls feet away, has to be leashed or otherwise restrained to stay still.
- Dog tolerates nail trims. Will take treats, pulls feet away.
- Dog loves nail trims. Comes happily when the Dremel or clipper come out. Takes treats. Sometimes pulls feet away.
Once you have the description that best fits your dog, keep it in mind as you read the rest of this post.
Top 5 Signs of Stress in Dogs
This particular behavior can not only be a sign of stress, but also a calming signal to avert conflict with a person or another dog.
A head turn, avoiding eye contact, body position, or physically moving away are all examples of avoidance.
Often you will see a dog turn his head if someone or another dog approaches too quickly, or causes the dog to become uncomfortable. For example, when two dogs greet, they will often turn their heads to the side and not gaze eye to eye. This is ultimately done to prevent conflict, but it can also be a clear sign of stress or discomfort as well.
Avoidance can also be seen when it comes to a dog’s body position. A dog that comes to sit next to you, but with his head turning the opposite direction or body positioned for a quick exit is one that is either a sign of discomfort or a signal to you to calm down.
When it comes to cutting your dog’s nails, recognize that when your dog is avoiding you, either through eye contact or a turn of his head or body, pay attention.
Sometimes all it takes is for us to observe and let our dogs know we hear them through our signals back to them.
So in this situation, one thing you can do if you are sitting down to cut your dog’s nails and his body is positioned away from you is to turn the other direction. Mirror his body language back to him.
Let me know what happens in the comments below.
2. Pulling Paws Away
While this is not a calming signal per se, it is a sign of stress in dogs that is pretty obvious during a nail trim.
If you think about it, it makes sense.
For your dog’s entire life (most likely) his paws have been grabbed by force during nail trims.
Consider when you pull back on a leash how your dog naturally wants to push forward. The concept is the same with paws.
When you forcefully grab your dog’s paw, he naturally wants to take them back.
Can you blame him?
So, look, we aren’t going to solve this issue in this post. I have an entire course that does that.
I simply want you to recognize that if you selected numbers 2-5 above and have a dog that “tolerates” or “likes’ nail trims yet continues to fight you with this paw-pulling dance, you may want to reconsider your approach.
Here is what I do if either of my dogs pulls their paws away. I let them.
I allow them the freedom to make the decision. If they want a nail trim, we trim. If they don’t, we skip it for the day and try again.
No stress. No drama. No paw-pulling dance.
3. Biting and Licking
Have you ever seen your dog suddenly start nibbling at a random spot on his leg? Or what about licking himself for no apparent reason? You may also see a tiny lick within a tight, tense mouth. That last one is a warning!
All of these are considered signs of stress in dogs.
Additionally, lip licking and licking the nose would also fall into this category as calming signals commonly used by dogs to calm themselves or others down.
Think about the last time you cut your dog’s nails. Did you notice any random licking or biting? What about lip licking?
Observe your dog with another dog. Do you notice either dog biting himself or licking for no apparent reason?
The next logical question is why? What is triggering your dog to do this? Is there anything you can do to ease the stress or overwhelm your dog is feeling at that moment?
If you notice your dog doing any of these, one thing you can try is to give your dog distance from whatever is causing the reaction.
For example, with cutting dog nails, you can condition your dog with the nail-cutting tool at a distance before attempting to clip them.
This is often seen when your dog suddenly has a flea bite that must be scratched at that very moment.
The moment your dog meets another dog. The moment the veterinarian steps in the exam room. Or the moment you reach for a paw to trim nails.
Scratching is a common sign of stress in dogs. Yet it is one that is often excused or explained away as having nothing to do with the stressful event.
I have said more times than I can count, “Oh, it’s just his collar that’s bothering him.” Perhaps it is. But maybe it’s not the collar. But a sign instead.
Creating distance works with scratching as well. Allowing your dog space and freedom can help to alleviate stress or overwhelm.
Try this little experiment. Raise your voice at the radio. Pretend to get upset with your computer. Do something that is slightly more intense than a normal calm, friendly demeanor. Watch what your dog does.
Does he/she yawn?
Dogs yawn as a calming signal in response to everything from a stressful event (like cutting nails), to your kids getting in a fight, or simply anticipating your own behavior. I’ve noticed Junior and Sulley yawn in unison as well as one after the other depending on the circumstance.
Start to notice when your dog yawns. What’s happening around him that might have triggered it?
As it relates to cutting dog nails, yawning in anticipation might be a calming signal for your dog or directed at you.
Because yawning is used as a calming signal for dogs, you can use this as your own calming signal if you notice it during a nail trim.
Your dog yawns, yawn back.
Calming Signals and Signs of Stress DEMO
How to Respond If You See These Signs of Stress in Your Dog
- Do NOT punish your dog for communicating with you. I have heard this called “punishing the growl out of the dog.” If you do, your dog will eventually stop talking to you and the consequences can be severe.
- Don’t continue to push forward. Give your dog space, freedom, and never use force when you are trimming dog nails. The absolute BEST way to eliminate stress in your dog is to listen to what he is telling you.
- Recognize this is a problem and that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are dogs who love getting their nails cut. Genuinely.
- Ask for help. I am here to help you. Join the waitlist for Dog Nailpro™ – my proven step-by-step method for confidently cutting dog nails without force or frustration (and having your dog love it!).
- Watch the live workshop linked above. This was a live demo I did on Facebook that illustrates some calming signals and how I respond to them when cutting dog nails.
Now it’s your turn. Which of the above descriptions fits your dog the best?
Are there any signs of stress that you see in your dog that you would add to this list? If so, share them in the comments below.
The Rest of My Story….
Straining a smile to the greeter, I cross the threshold and enter my torture chamber. My patience is completely extinguished. Blood pressure at a breaking point. After another full hour of even more stop and go traffic, I am forced to wait some more with the hoards of meandering pleasure seekers who apparently come here for fun. What is wrong with these people?! While my internal dialogue consists of how much I loathe this place and everything about it, I force eye contact, a pleasant smile and courteous small talk as I approach the end. The end which occurs exactly 2 hours from when it began and days after I started to think about it. Finally. I am released from my torture chamber. Goodbye Costco.
Goodbye stress. Hello delivery.
Instacart grants me the freedom to choose a pleasant interaction with the beautiful person who magically appears with my groceries.
Let us give our dogs the same gift.
For more information on cutting dog nails, you might like:
- Top 7 Most Popular Myths about Cutting Dog Nails – Busted!
- 7 Best Ways to Stop Dog Nail Bleeding [DIY FAST!]
- Dog Nails Too Long? The Truth About Why Size Matters
- Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning: A Simple Guide for Dog Owners
- Trimming Dog Nails Like a Pro: Dog Nail Clipper or Dremel?
- How to Cut Dog Nails Stress-Free And Have Your Dog Actually Enjoy It