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Do-It-Yourself Nail Maintenance

January 5, 2012

The importance of nail maintenance

It is a common misconception that dogs that do a lot of walking and running on pavement do not need to have their nails trimmed. While it is true that the repeated contact with the pavement will help file the nail to some degree, it is important to perform regular nail trims to keep them nice and short. If a dog’s nails are allowed to grow too long, it can reduce their traction on slick surfaces because less of their pad’s surface area is in contact with the ground. More importantly, over time it can contribute to structural deformities in your dog’s foot that can make it painful for him or her to walk. In addition to the important health benefits, keeping your dog’s nails short will also save your furniture if your dogs are allowed on the couch, as mine are.

As a general rule of thumb, your dog’s nails should not touch the ground when standing still.

A good example of short nails on a dog

How often you need to trim your dog’s nails is entirely dependent on how fast they grow, but I recommend performing a nail trim weekly. Many people hire a professional to trim their dog’s nails for them, but you can save yourself a lot of money by learning to do it yourself. Trimming your dog’s nails yourself is also a good time to inspect your dog’s feet for any abnormalities such as cuts or abrasions to the pads, or unusual growths or lumps.

I am not a professional groomer, nor do I represent myself as one. However, as a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind, one of the important things we learn is how to trim our puppy’s nails. Through my many years of experience as a puppy raiser and dog owner, I have learned a few tips and tricks that I want to share with you to help you become confident in trimming your dog’s nails yourself.


Many dogs do not like having their feet handled, let alone their nails done. The best way to teach your dog to accept this is by teaching them when they are young. However, I’m sure many of you reading this have adult dogs and are thinking it’s a hopeless cause. Wrong! Any dog can learn to accept having their nails done… it will just take time and patience.

The first step is to teach your dog to lay calmly on his or her side. In the puppy raising world we call this a “layover.” This can be difficult with young, squirmy puppies, but should be easier with calmer adult dogs, especially if they like to snuggle. Your goal with the layover is to have your dog remain in that position until you release him or her. Keep your duration short in the beginning, and gradually progress to longer time intervals.

Lizzie prepares for her pedicure by doing the layover

Next you want to get your dog comfortable with you handling their feet. This can be done throughout the day as you interact with your dog. If your dog is not comfortable with this, be sure to use a calm, reassuring voice. Food is also a great motivator and reward for calm behavior.

Tools of the trade

There are two main methods of trimming your dogs nails: using standard nail clippers or a dremel. Either method works fine, and depending on the length of my dogs’ nails, I may use both. Many people prefer the dremel because there is less chance of “quicking” your dog. “Quicking” your dog simply means cutting into the quick of your dog’s nail, which is not only painful for the dog, but messy as it tends to bleed profusely. I recommend having some styptic powder on hand just in case.

Tools of the trade

Important tip!

Never call your dog to you for a nail trim, or any other “punishment” for that matter. This is the quickest way to ruin your dog’s recall. Instead, go to your dog. It’s best to choose a time when your dog is calm and relaxed, perhaps after a run or good play session. I like to sit with my dogs facing away from me, but find the position that works best for you. I start every session with a few hugs and a good long belly scratch. Remember, you want to make this “unpleasant” experience as enjoyable as possible. If you’re just starting out, food is a great motivator and reward, and you can give your dog a piece of kibble in-between each nail for good behavior. If your dog is particularly reluctant, you may need to use a higher value food reward, such a pieces of hot dog.

If you’re starting out, let your dog see the equipment you’ll be using, and use a food reward to make a positive association. Touch each toe with the tool, again using a food reward in between. If you plan to use the dremel, turn it on and let your dog get used to the sound first. Gradually touch the bottom of the dremel to your dog’s toe so they can feel the vibration. It may take you several sessions for you to reach this stage… be patient.

During this acclimation stage, and as you gradually progress to trimming your dog’s nails, maintain a calm, confident manner, and talk to him or her in a soothing voice. Let them know what a good dog they are!

Using the nail clippers

Using nail clippers on a dog with light colored nails is pretty straight forward. It can be a little more tricky with dark colored nails.

Some dogs have light and dark nails

One trick I’ve found helpful for dogs with light colored nails is to get their feet wet. It helps make the nails more translucent. When using the clippers just take off the tip of the nail. It’s better to start small and make additional cuts then to take one big cut and risk quicking your dog. Many clippers come with nail guides that can help you determine where to cut. Use these with caution, as some dog’s quicks are longer than others.

Take off just the tip of the nail

Using the dremel

The dremel is a great tool for people who don’t feel confident using clippers. Plus, it gives the nail a nice smooth finish that is easy on your skin and furniture. I’ve found that my dogs don’t particularly care for the dremel, in part I believe, to the vibration they feel from it. It also generates quite a bit of heat if you leave it on the nail for too long, so I use repeated strokes from the bottom of the nail to the top lasting 1-2 seconds at a time. I work each nail until I achieve a blunt, rounded end.

Use the dremel to create blunt, rounded tips

At the end of each session, I have my dogs lay still for a few more seconds, then release them. We finish off each session with some sort of interactive play as a reward for their good behavior. Remember, you want to make this experience as enjoyable as possible. Give your dog lots of hugs and pets throughout your session, and if you find yourself getting frustrated, stop. You can try again later. If all else fails and you just don’t feel comfortable doing your dog’s nails yourself, you can always hire someone else to do it.

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