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The Ace Files: What to do when your dog won’t let his claws be trimmed

Ace was born and raised a city dog, and however mean one might consider the streets of Baltimore, they (and its sidewalks) always did a good job of keeping his claws filed down to a less than deadly length.

That was a good thing, because, when it comes to a toenail trim, Ace will have no part of it.

Groomers, vets and I have all attempted it, only to receive the clear message from him that — as much as he likes to have his paws played with, as much as he likes to hold hands — bringing any sort of grooming tool near his claws is a declaration of war.

Ace’s claws, for that very reason, have always been too long.

That poses problems, to himself and others. Ace is quick to shake hands, and sometimes does so unsolicited. In Baltimore, when he was working as a therapy dog, I feared he might inadvertenly and with all good intentions rip apart the small children reading to him, and I monitored him accordingly.

They were too long when we pulled out of the city, for a year-long, John Steinbeck-inspired tour of America. But by being constantly on the go, his claws remained at least at a tolerable length during our travels.

They were too long, despite daily walks around the block, after we ended up in Winston-Salem, N.C. and moved into the apartment of my birth.

ursula 053And since becoming a country dog, when we moved to a little house in tiny Bethania, N.C., they’ve only gotten worse — to the point they may now be described as a tad freakish, if not lethal weapons.

Once again, I went out and bought some expensive clippers, having  misplaced several old and never-used ones. But the latest attempt didn’t work either. No brand, no style, no method of claw trimming seems to work on Ace.

He doesn’t snarl, or bite, he just bucks and flails and, at 115 pounds, overpowers anyone attempting to trim his nails. What’s much scarier is the immense stress it seems to cause him. His heartbeat speeds up. He pants and drools and squirms. His eyes get a frightened look. Maybe I just imagine it, but he even starts to exude an odor. The smell of fear?

Once, back in Baltimore, I asked Ace’s vet to trim his nails. Ace resisted. The vet muzzled him and tried again. Ace resisted more. Then the vet called two burly men into the room to usher Ace upstairs.

From below, I heard the ruckus. It sounded like a professional wrestling match was underway, and about two minutes later they brought Ace back down, saying they’d been unable to accomplish the task — despite their muscles and whatever implements of restraint were upstairs.

It was concluded then that the only way to do it would be by sedating him. The idea of that scares me at least as much as how stressed he gets.

For my my most recent effort, I bought the most expensive professional nail clippers I could find. I let them lay around the living room for a week so Ace would get used to them. Then I recruited a friend, and had her feed him treats as I attempted the deed. Despite even that incentive, he balked. By the time it was over, I was almost fully sprawled atop him while whispering sweet nothings into his ear. He bucked me off, and not a single nail got trimmed. (Anybody need some expensive professional nail clippers?)

I described all that to Ace’s most recent veterinarian, here in North Carolina, at his check-up last month.

He suggested we start jogging on sidewalks. Then, seeing my reaction, he suggested I find a young and energetic friend to jog with Ace on sidewalks.

He also suggested a complete blood work-up that, in addition to checking for any health problems, might also help determine how well Ace would handle sedation.

We didn’t take him up on the second offer, deciding to wait until Ace turns 9 for that.

We did consider his  other suggestion — though not to the point of taking up jogging.

Since moving to historic Bethania, and having our own back yard, Ace doesn’t go for a walk every day. Bethania doesn’t have a lot in the way of sidewalks.  Three or four times a week we take a short walk — mostly on the street — to the little post office where I pick up  my mail. Two or three times a week we walk the dirt trail that meanders through Black Walnut Bottoms, behind the visitor center.

Once in a while, Ace will hear a hunter’s gunshot there, prompting him to turn around and head home. Ace also fears loud, cracking noises — anything from a bat hitting a ball to the crackle of the fireplace. His fears, as he grows older, seem to become more pronounced, but then maybe that’s true of all species. Whatever little fears we have turn into big looming nightmarish ones. Probably, there is a drug to help deal with that. But I am increasingly fearful of pharmaceuticals.

Given the lack of options, I decided Ace needed to spend more time pounding the pavement — and at a pace quicker than the slow one at which I prefer to move along.

So we took some of the vet’s advice, and reshaped it to fit our lifestyle (OK, my lifestyle). We headed down to the golf course where I work as a bartender a couple of nights a week. (Ace not having appeared in a movie in a while, I took my new camera along, too, to test out its video capabilities.)

I’m thinking of making it a twice-a-week routine. The mile-long trot seemed to make an immediate difference. His claws weren’t really any shorter, but they were much less sharp and pointy.

Ace slept great that night, but then he sleeps great every night, with only occasional scary dreams that makes his paws flutter as he emits little whimpers. I don’t think he’s chasing rabbits in his dreams. More likely, he’s running away from scary monsters that want to clip his nails.

(Ace has appeared in one professionally made movie, and several unprofessional ones. You can see some of the latter here.)


Comment from Tammy
Time November 20, 2013 at 7:21 am

I feel for you. We’ve never had a dog that we couldn’t find a way to trim, but we have one now. And though he’s only 25 lbs, somehow he manages to turn himself into something twice that size and a whirling dervish, to boot. We had a tiny bit more success by putting a big wad of peanut butter on the roof of his mouth, but even that didn’t quite do it. Pavement’s a good call!

Comment from Anne’n’Spencer
Time November 20, 2013 at 9:00 am

Spencer doesn’t mind having his nails trimmed, but he really HATES the scale in the vet’s office–the platform thing they always insist that he step on.

I do have a suggestion. Try some emery boards–the same kind ladies use to shape their nails. The brown side is the rough side. It might be tedious, and it might take a while, but you could eventually get the nails down to a reasonable length. They don’t make noise, and they don’t have sharp blades. It sounds like Ace might have had a bad experience in his former life.

Comment from Lynn (in Louisiana)
Time November 20, 2013 at 10:37 am

Good idea. I loved how Ace kept checking in with you along the way. He’s so handsome!
I guess you tried a Dremal?

Comment from Judith Pannebaker
Time November 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm

When Ace’s little fears turn big, looming and nightmarish, try Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic calming liquid. My 14-year-old pittie, Darla, swore by it!!!

Comment from kathryn
Time November 22, 2013 at 7:03 pm

3 x weekly or as needed

Comment from vida
Time November 23, 2013 at 9:20 am

I feel for you, we have one dog who sees nail clippers as weapons of mass destruction and is too big to restrain. Luckily my lazy habit of finding his digging holes in the yard kind of adorable fixed the problem. Now I just need fifty pounds of soil on a semi weekly basis and it’s all good.

Comment from cathy
Time November 27, 2013 at 7:54 am

I don’t remember if Ace likes to chase after balls but my friend’s dog would get his nails “trimmed” when they played fetch on the asphalt. Maybe you can try that! Good luck! P.S. My dog doesn’t like her nails trimmed by me either.

Comment from jwoestendiek
Time November 27, 2013 at 8:24 am

With Ace it’s like, “OK, I’ll go get it once.” He, having no retriever in his mix, sees no point in doing it repeatedly.
john / ohmidog!

Comment from Chad
Time November 27, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I’ve been lucky so far, my dogs don’t seem to mind having their nails trimmed. Wonder doesn’t like it when I take my time though. I have to help a friend trim their dogs nails because she doesn’t like it. She has made a lot of progress though.

I have seen plenty of dog’s that spend a lot of time on concrete, and their nails seem to stay short. So hopefully Ace’s nails start to get shorter!

Comment from Stocking stuffer
Time September 26, 2014 at 4:39 am

Highly descriptive post, I loved that bit. Will there be a part 2?