Bark All About It!
Just like you, your dog has nails that grow continuously. And just like your nails, your dog’s nails can cause problems if not properly maintained. Regular nail trimming is an important part of a healthy dog’s regular grooming.
While the prospect of cutting your dog’s claws can be unnerving for human and canine alike, it can be done safely and effectively, as long as you patiently train your dog to calmly tolerate trimming. There are a lot of aspects of nail trimming that can trigger a fear response in a dog. Having their feet picked up and touched, toes tugged and pulled, a hard metal thing touching, scraping, and grabbing their claws, and most especially, the startling sound and sensation produced by the snip of the nail clippers. The combination of vulnerability and unusual sensations (as well as the occasional unfortunate and painful accident) requires a lot of care and attention to overcome.
To help you along, here is a guide to properly training your dog (or ideally, your puppy—start early if at all possible) to not be afraid of the clippers. (Please note, we also recommend having a professional groomer or veterinarian guide you through the process, especially if your dog has dark-colored or black nails).
A well-loved dog associates its owner’s hands with pleasure and comfort—a pat, a head scratch, a lowered hand opening to reveal a ball or a tasty snack—there’s a reason why your dog gets all slobbery and excited whenever you reach down to their level. That’s why you should use your hands to get your dog used to having his feet, toes, and claws handled. Have your dog lay down. You can kneel on the floor next to them, or have the dog lay down on a bed or other raised surface, while you stand beside them.
Initially, just touch each of your dog’s paws and toes for a few seconds, without picking them up. When they tolerate this (lots of treats and praise!), start picking each paw up for a couple seconds. Slowly extend the amount of time you hold each paw, and start moving your fingers as if you were trimming the claws of each foot. Hold each toe firmly between your thumb and forefingers for a couple of seconds, and then move onto the next toe. Practice for two or three days. Once pup handles having all of his toes and paws manhandled (literally), then it’s time to introduce that much feared object…
There are a couple basic types of dog nail clippers: (1) guillotine style, where the blades form a small opening for a claw to be inserted, and (2) scissor style clippers, which look a lot like the nail scissors that many humans use. Either one will work fine, as long as you take the time to get familiar and comfortable with the handling and operation of the trimmer. If you find yourself fumbling with it, then you might want to shop around and find one that’s easier for you to use. If you aren’t comfortable and confident, then your dog won’t be either. As you may expect, dog nail trimmers are available at pet stores.
It’s time to make the introduction! Follow the same process that you did before, handling each of your dog’s paws (and toes) in turn, but this time, touch the clipper to each nail as you go. Don’t actually do any cutting or trimming. Just familiarize your dog with the sensation of their nails coming in contact with the clippers. After a couple of days, if your dog seems pretty calm with the whole affair, then it’s time to get down to business. But first…
Dog nails aren’t like human nails. For us, any part of our nails that extends beyond the nail bed can be hacked off with no problem. However, a dog’s toes are quite a bit different than ours. Essentially, the nail bed of a dog’s claw extends beyond the end of the toe and well into the nail. This tissue is usually referred to as the quick. The quick is living tissue, with a dedicated supply of blood, and a lot of nerves running through it as well.
If your dog has white claws, the quick can be easily seen, making the nail appear pink, red, or even black towards its base. If your dog’s nails are darker, try having someone help you by shining a flashlight through each nail, so that you can see the shadow of the quick. If you can’t see the quick at all, look at another dog’s nails, or at least examine a few photos on the Internet. Get a feel for how far out the quick extends. (As we noted above, it’s also a good idea to get the assistance of a groomer or vet as well). You don’t want to cut any closer to the quick than about 1/10 of an inch, or a couple millimeters.
If you cut through the quick, it will cause your dog some pain, and it’ll bleed. It’s possible that at some point you may accidentally nip the quick, so you should always have a jar of coagulating powder to stop bleeding quickly, such as Kwik Stop or Blood Stopper. If this happens, don’t panic. Sooth your pup, be calm, pet them, and put the clippers away for a while. But as long as you’re careful, you’ll likely do just fine. Which means…
Remember how you were touching the clippers to your dog’s nails, one at a time? Now it’s time to actually start cutting a little. Be sure to carefully follow the instructions that came with your clippers, as to the proper orientation for cutting your dog’s nails. First, trim just the tip of one nail. Give your dog a treat. As long as your dog remains calm, continue on, cutting just the very tip of each nail. It’s advisable to do no more than one paw at a time, at first. In a few days, you’ll have trimmed all of your dog’s nails. Don’t forget to get the dewclaws on each foot. These don’t wear down, so it’s very easy for them to grow long and cause injury to the feet.
When it’s time to trim your dog’s nails again, try doing a few more claws at a time. If the last time you trimmed their nails you did three or four per day, try doing six or seven per day. As they grow more comfortable, you can do more nails at once, and you can cut a little farther back on each nail. Just remember to never push your dog beyond his or her comfort level.
If your dog has dark nails, cut cautiously. It’s okay to trim your dog’s claws a couple times a month, instead of trying to trim off as much as possible.
Pro tip: if you look closely at the tip of a trimmed nail, you’ll notice that when you get close to the quick, you can see a small pinkish spot near the center that is lighter than the area around it. Once you can see that, do not trim any further. This technique can be especially useful for dark-colored nails that are difficult to see through.
If your dog ever gets panicky, fidgety, or tries to pull away, stop immediately and put the clippers away. It’s better to move too slowly than too quickly. Do not force your dog to submit to having its nails trimmed. Only use positive encouragement for good behavior, and stop when your dog has had enough. Besides, if your dog pulls away or fidgets, it’s more likely that you’ll cut the quick, and then your dog really won’t be thrilled about the process. Negative reinforcement will only increase their anxiety, and the risk of injury to you or your dog. Invest the time up front to make your dog comfortable, and the process will likely be a smooth one for years to come.
Ultimately, most dogs will become okay with having their nails trimmed, sooner or later. However, there are always exceptions. If your dog seems to be particularly fearful about having its nails touched or trimmed, consult with your vet in order to determine how to best handle the situation.