How to Trim a Dog’s Toenails

Liz Palika

dog nail trimming

Your dog’s toenails are a vital part of his paw anatomy. Made of keratin, much like our hair and nails, his nails protect his paws. When running hard or turning quickly, the nails dig into the ground to grip, protecting his pads from slipping, being sliced by hard ground, or otherwise being harmed. His nails also allow him to climb and hold on to toys and chews.

The nails continue to grow, and if they’re not worn down by vigorous activity, they need to be trimmed. Very few dog owners enjoy trimming their dog’s nails. In fact, most people wince when the subject is brought up. But it doesn’t need to be torture for you or for your dog.

Anatomy of Canine Toenails

Your dog’s toenails are oval, wider towards the top of the toe and narrower towards the bottom side (towards the ground). They are also wider towards the nail bed of the paw and are narrower, sharper, and pointier as they grow towards the ground. They curve from the nail bed towards the ground.

Your dog has a nail at the end of each toe on all four feet. He may also have a dewclaw on the inside of each front leg at the ankle. This is like a thumb. Some dogs, depending on the breed or mixture of breeds, may have a dewclaw on one or both of their rear legstoo. A few breeds, such as the Great Pyrenees and Beauceron, may have multiple dewclaws on the rear legs. All of these toenails need to be trimmed.

Active dogs can keep the nails worn so there is no longer a pointed end but instead a dull, flat end. Other dogs, especially those who are more sedentary or who spend most of their time on soft ground and grass, may not wear the nails much at all.

If his nails touch the floor when he stands upright, they are long. If you hear a tick, tick, tick sound when he walks on the floor, the nails are too long. Long nails can eventually deform the paws, causing his toes to spread or straighten. Sometimes even the act of standing can cause pain if his nails push into the floor.

If your dog’s nails are clear, you can see the pink color inside the nail towards the paw. This is called the quick and you want to avoid it when you trim. The nail will bleed and your dog will cry; it’s just as painful as it is for us when one of our nails breaks into the quick. It’s harder to see the quick in black nails, but if you look at the underside you can make it out sometimes.

Don’t Just Start Clipping

If your dog isn’t used to having his nails trimmed, don’t just jump right in. He will be frightened and it will turn into a wrestling contest. Instead, go about it systematically and thoughtfully.

It’s important to teach him that touching his paws and nails isn’t scary. Have some good treats and invite your dog up on your lap or sit down next to him. Let him smell the treats and give him one. Then run your hand down one leg to his paw and gently touch that paw. Praise him and give your dog a treat. Repeat on all four legs and paws.

As you touch his paws, handle each one – touch the pads, in between the toes, and each toenail. Praise him and give him a treat for each paw. If your dog shows anxiety at any time, slow down and let him relax, then repeat the handling. Don’t trim your dog’s nails when he’s scared; you want this to be a calm, stress-free grooming experience.

How to Trim Your Dog’s Nails

After a few handling sessions when your dog is calm as you touch his paws and toe nails, you can begin trimming his nails. Have some great treats at hand, treats you know he likes. Let him sniff your toenail trimmers just so he knows what you have.

Invite your dog to lie down on your lap or next to you on the floor. Offer him a treat. Gently hold one paw and, with your fingers, separate one toe. Pull all the hair up to the toe, making sure none is around the nail. Look at the nail to figure out where the quick is and, using nail clippers made for dogs, cut the nail below the quick. Praise your dog, pop a treat in his mouth, and tell him what an awesome dog he is.

Take a deep breath, calm yourself, and do it again. After trimming all the nails on one paw, stop, give your dog a massage as a reward, and quit for the moment. On your first few trimming sessions, just do one paw at a time. It might end up being too stressful for both of you otherwise.

If You Hit the Quick

If you trim a nail and your dog cries or jerks his paw away, and you see a drop of blood, don’t panic. It hurts, but your dog will survive.

If you have some styptic powder in your first aid kit, dip the bleeding nail in it. Hold the paw still until it clots. If you don’t have any styptic powder, scrape the bleeding nails across a bar of bath soap. The soap will seal the nail until it clots.

Keep your dog calm for a little while until all is well clotted. It’s much like our nails, it will bleed because there are a lot of blood vessels there but it will clot and heal.

To regain your dog’s trust, do some more gentle handling of that paw as you did initially with much praise and a lot of treats. You will both be fine.

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