Nail Trimming Tips

by Jess The Dog Lady

ATHFAR Kennels

Depending on your dog's feelings about their feet, nail trimming can be a easy duty, or a job requiring tranquilization and restraint. Working on the problem first is easier than just "feeling the nails need to be done today, no matter the cost!". This guide will help you step by step in teaching your dog to trust you around his/her feet, and is written as if for a beginner with a problem dog.

Desensitizing those feet... This is easier to do when the dog is asleep. Start by resting your hand on the paw. If they wake up, simply remove your hand and act as if you didn't notice—don't even look at the dog. After a few nap interruptions (again, depending on the dog), you should be able to rest your hand on those paws indefinitely. Some dogs this takes from 1 time to a few weeks depending on the level of anxiety associated with getting their feet handled.

Once they sleep through this, start lightly moving their toes apart, touching the toe nails, lightly tapping against the ends of the nails, expressing the nails forward from the nail bed, etc. Move in slow stages and it'll go faster in the long run.

Cutting the nails... I leave nail trimmers out where they can be sniffed and checked out at will. When the dog is asleep, start off by holding the foot, then your normal light tapping against the nail. With the paw in your non-cutting hand, gently press your thumb against the top of a toe as your fingers under the paw pull back slightly, so that it rocks the nail forward a bit. You can use the other hand to push away hairs if they are obscuring your vision of the nail. Look at the nail carefully. On dark colored nails, the quick usually ends where the nail starts a downward curve and becomes more slender. On light colored nails, the quick will appear pink, while the free edge (part to remove) is white or yellow.

Use your nail trimmers to only remove a small amount of the free edge at first. You can always remove more nail later. If the dog wakes up, ignore it and discontinue cutting for now. If the dog sleeps through it, try to remove a little more of the free edge. Some dogs you'll be able to only get a little off of one nail in the beginning, but by pretending like you weren't involved in the nail cutting experience when they wake up, you help remove a dog's anxiety. As the dog gets better about having a little more taken off, start trying to clip 2 nails normally (where the quick ends, not just the tips). Once you can do a few nails in succession, we move on to the next step.

When the dog awakens, continue holding paw, but stop the nail trimming. Let them smell the trimmers. Trim one nail, just the tip, and praise your dog! Ear rubs, petting, maybe a treat. If the dog seems calm about what just occured, take the nail down to the quick all the way (be careful not to draw blood). Praise, ear rubs, maybe a hug. NO CODDLING VOICE, be happy and upbeat. If they weren't happy about the proceedings, they just need a little more time, and you can always leave it at the tipping when awake part for another couple of days.

Once they allow you to handle and trim a few nails, it's on to doing 2 paws at a time, and finally all 4 feet at once. They will be awake, and getting praise only when the entire job is done. When weaning them off the praise, I usually start by praising only after I get 2 nails done, then 3, then the whole paw. Then 2 paws, 3 paws, and finally only when I complete the job. I really tell them what a brave dog they were, and by this time, they think getting their nails done is an o.k. and safe thing.

When you and the dog are ready, try a few nails when the dog is in the down position and awake. You may need to go back to a few paws at a time, but as your dog's confidence improves, it will get easier and easier. Don't forget to praise your dog! They try to please us, and this is the fastest way to inspire that trust. Don't get into a battle with the dog, but don't let them decide when the nail trim is over with, either.

Nail trimmer types:

Guillotine trimmers are for small dogs and some cats only. They don't have the strength or stamina to hold up under long term use on large breed dogs.

Scissor/snip type trimmers are what we use here. They cost about $13, are tempered and VERY sharp. They will last a very long time, and can be resharpened. They are recommended for large breed dogs due to their cutting strength and ease of use.

Nail grinders (Dremel, Craftsman grinders) are great if you can find one with variable speed settings (use low speed only). Use the sandpaper drums, not the stone ones. When using these, the noise may bother some dogs. Also, be careful not to heat up the nail bed by grinding too long on one nail. You can burn the dog and cause considerable pain. A big advantage to grinders is their ability to take off and shape the nail precisely. Very little shredding should be seen if used properly.

Nail files are nice for shaping and keeping the nails to a decent length as well. The Diamon Deb Foot Dresser brand holds up well. It can be found at at Beauty Supply houses in the pedicure section. A similar product is sold by Groomer Direct, 1-800-551-5048. Pet-i-Cure Nail Dresser File, #N05-15878. To use a file, steady the nail and file in one direction until the nail is smooth to the touch. The cheap metal files with a curve, often sold in a set with a nail trimmer, do a poor job as they do not have enough cross-hatching on the file to work. Thanks to Judy at PecanLady1@aol.com for the nail file information!

Other important stuff to know

Styptic powder / kwik-dry / kwik-sorb / cornstarch all do the same thing. They stop the nail bed from bleeding if you accidentally cut too deeply. Use your fingertip to gather up a wad of the powder and press it against the bloody end of the nail. Use moderate pressure, and it will help the powder work to staunch the flow of blood. Your dog isn't bleeding to death from a little nick on the nail bed. I know it looks like a lot of blood, but it really isn't.

Those dew claws can grow back into the pad if they curl around far enough. If you find a nail has entered the pad, take the dog to the vet to have it cut and the pad treated for infection. This is very important.

Early summer months cause our hair and nails (like a dog's claws) to grow faster than normal. Keep an eye on your dog's nails weekly to ensure that the nails are are a decent length.

Dogs that have a hard surface to exercise on regularly will wear their nails down naturally, and you may not need to trim any but the dew claws.

Over time, you will get more comfortable and know your dog's nails. You'll get quicker at trimming them, and as your confidence improves, a nail trim should take less than a few minutes on all 4 paws.