Pet Care

Trimming Your Dog's Nails

dog high-fiving human with paw

Nail trimming is an important part of a regular grooming routine. If your dog’s nails get too long, they can break, which is painful and sometimes results in infection. Long nails can also cause an irregular gait that leads to skeletal damage.

Despite its importance, many people can’t or don’t like to trim their dog’s nails. It’s a task that can make both people and dogs anxious. How do you know exactly where to cut the nail? What if you trim the nail too close and cut the sensitive quick? What if your dog seems worried? Although it can seem daunting, if you keep a few guidelines in mind and maintain a consistent schedule, nail trimming doesn’t have to become a stressful chore.

The Two Keys to Nail Trimming Success

No matter what age, size, sex or breed of dog you have, you can make nail trimming a pleasant part of your dog’s life if you keep two main ideas in mind:

  • Teach your dog to associate nail trimming with things he loves.
  • Take it slow and easy.

Associate Nail Trimming with Good Things

Many dogs find nail trimming unpleasant—and who can blame them? Some seem to naturally dislike the sensation of people handling their feet. Trimming can also cause discomfort when the clippers squeeze or slightly twist the nail. It can even cause pain and bleeding if you accidentally cut the nail too short and hit the sensitive quick.

Luckily, you can help your dog learn to tolerate, and maybe even enjoy, nail trimming. If he learns that it reliably leads to wonderful things—like special treats, brand-new chew toys, the start of a favorite game, a walk in the park or dinnertime—he can learn to love it. So whenever you trim your dog’s nails, immediately follow up with things he loves. For example, clip a nail and then feed your dog a delicious treat. Clip another nail or two and feed another treat. With repetition and a little time, your dog will probably decide that getting his nails done is fun, not frightening.

Take It Slow and Easy

If your dog isn’t used to getting his nails trimmed, the last thing you want to do is frighten and overwhelm him by rushing the process. Take a little extra time to slowly introduce the nail clippers, as well as the sensations involved in trimming. The first time you use the clippers, don’t plan on giving your dog a full pedicure. Instead, just clip one or two nails, and remember to give your dog treats or play a game right after trimming.

It will also help if you approach him calmly and speak in quiet, soothing tones. If you want him to relax while you’re trimming his nails, you’ll need to be relaxed, too.

How to Trim Your Dog’s Nails

Before You Start

Which Clippers to Use

There are two kinds of nail clippers:  a guillotine type and a scissors type. The guillotine trimmer has a stationary hole where the nail goes through and a blade that moves up to cut the nail when you squeeze the handles of the trimmer. The scissors type works just like a pair of scissors. You open them and put the tip of your dog’s nail between the blades to trim it. Visit a pet store to look at both styles of trimmers and then choose whichever you feel most comfortable with.

Preparing Your Dog

If you’ve never trimmed your dog’s nails before, spend a few days getting him used to having his feet handled first.

  • Pick up one of your dog’s paws and gently touch his toes and nails for a few seconds.
  • Release his paw and immediately give him something delicious, like a small piece of cheese or chicken.
  • Repeat steps one and two for a couple of minutes.

After a day or two of practicing steps 1 to 3, if your dog seems comfortable with you touching his paws and nails, get out the nail clippers and move on to step four:

  • Pick up your dog’s paw and touch the clippers to one of his nails. (Don’t actually trim the nail yet.)
  • Immediately feed your dog a treat.
  • Repeat steps four and five for several minutes.

Getting Started

After another day or two of practicing steps 4 to 6, as long as your dog still seems relaxed when you handle his paws, try trimming a nail or two. Start your nail-trimming session when your dog is sleepy or well-exercised. Remember to give your dog a tasty treat after trimming each nail.

How to Trim

Get some treats and your clippers, and take your dog to a quiet area. Keep a clotting powder, such as Kwik Stop® Styptic Powder, close at hand when you trim your dog’s nails so that you can quickly stop the bleeding if you accidentally cut the quick. Choose a nail to trim. Take your dog’s toe and hold it firmly but gently between your fingers. If you’re using a scissors-type trimmer, hold them at a right angle to the nail with the tip of the nail between the blades. Quickly squeeze the handles to close the scissors and cut the nail. If you’re using a guillotine-type trimmer, insert the tip of your dog’s nail into the hole, holding the trimmer perpendicular to the nail so that you cut from top to bottom, not side to side. To be absolutely sure of where you’re cutting, you can face the cutting blade toward you rather than your dog. To produce a cleaner cut, you can face the cutting blade toward your dog, but you won’t be able to see exactly where the blade will make contact with the nail. Choose whichever orientation makes you most comfortable. When you’ve positioned the trimmer in the right place, squeeze the handles to cut through your dog’s nail.

Where to Trim

Knowing where to trim a nail takes some skill. If your dog has clear nails, you can see the live quick, which looks pink. Cut the nail no closer than about two millimeters from the quick. If your dog has dark nails, you can avoid cutting into the quick by trimming one little sliver of nail at a time, starting with the tip. As you cut slices off your dog’s nail, look at the exposed edge of the cut nail. Eventually, you’ll see a gray or pink oval starting to appear. Stop trimming when you see the oval. If you don’t, you’ll cut into the quick, causing pain and bleeding. Another option with black nails is to have an assistant use a flashlight to back-light each of your dog’s nails while you trim. The light from behind the nail allows you to clearly see the pink quick.

Don’t forget to trim your dog’s dewclaws as well. Most dogs just have dewclaws on their front legs, but some dogs have one, and sometimes even two, sets of dewclaws on their rear legs. If your dog doesn’t have dewclaws on his front legs, he had them surgically removed earlier in his life.

Finishing the Job

As long as your dog doesn’t seem upset when you trim a nail or two, you can continue to trim nails over the next few days until you’ve trimmed them all. Trim two or three at a time, always delivering a treat after trimming each nail. The next time your dog’s nails need trimming, you can try trimming more nails per sitting. Eventually, you’ll be able to trim all of his nails at one time. To make sure your dog continues to feel comfortable with nail trimming, keep delivering treats during and right after trimming time.

Tips and Troubleshooting

If You Make a Mistake

If you do trim your dog’s nail too short and cut the quick, which contains live blood vessels, the nail will bleed and your dog will likely yelp and pull away. The bleeding can be profuse and long lasting. Stay calm, talk in a soothing voice and immediately feed your dog a bunch of tasty treats. Then apply your clotting powder directly to the exposed bleeding edge to stop the bleeding. Then stop the trimming session and try again in a day or so.

Cutting the nail this short would cause bleeding. If you look closely, you can see that the quick, where the nail is pink, is too close to the blade of the clippers.

If Your Dog Seems Upset

Some dogs show fearful or aggressive behavior when their pet parents attempt to trim their nails. Watch carefully for signs of distress, such as panting, drooling, trembling, jerking his paw away, trying to escape or hide, whining, freezing, crouching or cowering, tucking the tail, growling, snarling, showing teeth, snapping or biting. If you notice any of these signs, please see our article called Fear of Nail Trimming. If your dog is aggressive, you’ll need help from a qualified professional, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find one of these professionals in your area, you may be able to find a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). If you elect to hire a CPDT, be sure to determine whether she or he has professional training and experience in treating fear and aggression as this treatment is beyond what CPDT certification requires. Please read our article Finding Professional Help for information about locating an expert near you. 

Should You Take Your Dog to the Vet for Trimming?

Some people prefer to take their dogs to the veterinary clinic for nail trimming because they don’t have the time, tools or experience to properly trim nails themselves. As long as you remind the veterinary staff not to cut your dog’s nails too short, this option might work well for you and your dog. However, keep in mind that the veterinary environment can cause many dogs significant anxiety. If you take your dog to the vet for nail trimming, watch for signs of distress, such as trembling, panting, drooling, trying to escape or hide, crouching, cowering or whimpering. If you see any of these signs, ask a vet to show you how to trim your dog’s nails so you can do it yourself at home to spare your dog unnecessary anxiety.

An Alternative to Nail Trimming: Using a Dremel® Tool

Instead of trimming their dogs’ nails, some people use a special tool, such as a Dremel, to grind them down. Because this kind of tool sands the nail, much like an emory board you’d use to file your own nails, you can avoid sharp edges and split nails, which are two disadvantages of using clippers.

What NOT to Do

  • Do not physically punish or yell at your dog if he resists nail trimming. Doing this will only make him feel worse about the activity, and it will probably worsen his behavior.
  • Do not force your dog to submit to nail trimming if he’s obviously frightened. Refer to our article, Fear of Nail Trimming, or contact a professional behavior expert for help instead. (See our article Finding Professional Help to locate a qualified professional in your area.)