This is probably going to be my most popular post EVER!
How to give your dog a NAIL TRIM, oh the dreaded nail trims. Over the past years, I have done so many nail trims on every dog and cat you can think of. I like to think of myself as kind of a pro, I have created a method to nail trims that keep em short and clean WITHOUT hitting the quick. First, there are a few things to go over about nail trims, so let’s started.
Why are nail trims important for my pet?
- Keeping nails short prevent the desire to claw for cats.
- Prevents broken toes from nails getting stuck or caught on things.
- Improves mobility as the anatomical structure is not compromised.
- Less damaging on us and our things (wood floors, couches, car interiors).
My dog doesn’t like his feet touched so I can’t do them, right?
Wrong. It’s possible to teach an old dog new tricks. It’s all about desensitization. You can also start by seeing your vet to get prescribed some relaxers for the extremely nervous dogs, just to get started with desensitization. I would recommend getting a demo on doing a nail trim from the vet as well, find a Fear-Free certified doctor or practice nearest to you. You can search here https://fearfreepets.com/
when people see me do nail trims on Beowolf they can’t believe me when I say he used to be horrible! He’s only been to a groomer twice in his life and I think someone cut him at one of those visits because I never did his nails and all other baths were up to me. I don’t know why he hated getting his nails done but it used to take me laying completely on top of him and fighting to just hold his nail. Eventually, he would tire out and I could tip a few nails before he broke free, he would leave me covered in sweat and fur with my hair everywhere. You would have thought I just got off a bronc, it certainly felt like I did.
Luckily Beowolf never became aggressive and laying on him was not the method I would have used to get his nails done, but it was just me, so I had to get creative (mind you this was before I went to school to be a vet tech, so I was just like you at home, learning to do my dogs nails alone).
At the time I worked at Home Depot, I thought about how I do my nails, I don’t always use clippers I use a sand file. To the hardware department, I go! I bought a medium grit sand block and sandpaper. Beowolf didn’t like the sandpaper, but I had better control with the block anyways.
Here are the supplies you may use:
- Sander– Block, paper, nail file (should depend on the size of your dog). You can use either manual tools or machines like a Dremel (more on that below).
- Clippers– I like medium sized dog nail clippers from Millers Forge, they work great for shearing off layers and aren’t too bulky. The ones with orange handles are the best. Also, you can use a pair of human nail clippers for cats, though I don’t just because I hate the sound it makes. **If your dog has BLACK or dark brown nails, don’t even bother with clippers unless the nails are ridiculously long. If you can’t see where the quick stops then don’t clip, even as a tech I don’t use clippers on dogs with black nails. Unless you have a Great Dane or a dachshund then don’t do it, these 2 breeds tend to have short quicks and long growing nails. Regardless you should only clip so far before transitioning to sanders.
- Quick clot– This is a powder that will stop the nail from bleeding. You can find it anywhere, at the clinic we sold it in the lobby for a few dollars. This is only useful if you “knick” your pet’s quick. If you full on cut the quick halfway down just go to the vet, they’ll wrap it and prescribe pain meds.
- High value treats– We’re talking hot dog, peanut butter, rotisserie chicken! Whatever your dog never or rarely gets as a treat will be perfect. You want them to eventually be excited for nail trims because this is when he gets his favorite treat. High value treats we use in training is Happy Howie’s which can be cut from a roll, they don’t crumble and dogs love them! We usually buy them in 6 pack rolls, but you can buy individual, 2 pack and they come in other flavors!
- Leashes– Yes I would keep a leash on them because they can’t run away or you can give them breaks while keeping them from going off and hiding.
- Use your words– Give everything a name and what I mean by that is, create the task for the dog. Tell them “Nail trim” after you have them leashed of course. Then as you’re getting them used to their nails being handled give them a command like “wait”, “hold”, “stay” whatever you want to say as you touch their nails, so they stay put. Then when all is said and done tell them “Release” or something that tells them they have completed the nail trim and may go free.
Now that you have what you need and know what you want to do, here is how I go about it:
For the sake of keeping everything consistent, I will tell you exactly how I do it with my dogs. Exercise your dog, take them on a run or throw the ball, whatever gets them tired. While Beowolf runs around I dice up a couple of hot dogs and stick them in a pouch. I get the sanding block and find a nice place to sit with him, this is usually in the house where there’s less distraction, I tell him we’re doing a nail trim and I make him lay down. By now he should be more than ready to take a nap.
I wrap the leash around my leg, so he can’t go far and then I tell him “Stay” as I take his nail between my fingers and squeeze a little, then I reward him by giving him a piece of hot dog. I do this part just for routine, he gets used to getting a hot dog after I do what I need to with his nail. Now comes the nail trim. Depending on the level of comfort your dog has with this part will decide how quickly you move along in this stage. The idea is to only go as far as your dog will allow and you want to stop before they have to be the one to tell you to stop. This can be mouthing your hand, pulling their paw away roughly, getting up or trying to run away. You don’t want them to think to do that is what made you stop, you want to show that if they stay calm you will stop on your own, and they won’t get hurt in the process (dogs have PTSD of bad nail trims).
When it comes to the filing you want to just do a couple swipes back and forth against the nail then give them a treat, and on to the next nail where you will do the same. If you can only do a couple toes at a time then that’s fine, it’s your dog’s pace, and this will set the standard giving you goals to reach. 2 toes today, 3 tomorrow! You’re barely going to take anything off at first, but if you do this every day you will eventually get to a point where the nails are short and won’t need much sanding in the future. Hopefully, by this point, your dog has already started trusting you with nail trims and you can do more than a few swipes.
**Reminder- Rapid or hard pressing the sander against the nail can cause heat from the friction, this can be painful for your dog so be gentle, they can resent the sander as well.**
When it comes to clipping you want to think of it as always wanting a rounded edge. I clip at an angle on both the left and right side of the nail to create a sharp point, then clipping the center point to create a round tip. Do this in 3’s all the way down until you begin to the quick, always taking off just the top layer. Remember you can always take off more, but you can’t put any back on once it’s off and you don’t want to knick them. Then once you see some pink quick use a gentle sander to round off the edges and soften up the flakey shards of the nail. On some dogs, their nail forms a taper and usually starts midway through the nail, this is actually a pretty safe place to clip once you understand the anatomy of YOUR dog’s nails.
White or clear nails are your best friend, usually lighter dogs have these. These types of nails are great because you can visually see the quick through the nail. At this point you can clip until you’re about a 2 mm from the tip of the quick, this is usually a safe spot to stop clipping and start filing.
Black or dark brown nails are the worst and it’s mostly just because you’re cutting blind at this point. There is a trick however into knowing how far to go, if you look underneath the nail you can visually see the soft quick and about where it stops. I would make my invisible line about 1-2 mm past that part to account for the top part of the quick that may be reaching further into the nail. In the picture below you can see the very tip of the quick sticking out from the nail, this is what I call the groove of the nail, that’s where I gauge where I want to end up.
**This is probably the most important tip I can give you, so long as your dog is sitting calmly and allowing you to do the nails tell them “GOOD”, let them know that what they are doing is exactly what you want. Keep the treats and “Good boys” coming as much as you can as long as you can move through the nails. Think of “good” as sort of a back up for your “stay” command, if the dog knows he’s doing good then they will comply longer, I let my self over-do the “good” reward mostly so I don’t forget to say it in the first place. I keep saying it every few seconds just to reassure Beowolf to keep doing what he’s doing. Try to read their body language, if they start looking like they’re gonna bolt then stop and give them a break. There’s no rule that says you always have to do all 4 paws at a time, the idea is to leave them on a positive note, then find a stopping point and start again tomorrow from there.**
I have done exactly this for clients at work, doing demos or trims in the room and explaining this, rarely am I unable to successfully do a trim. I even had a special deal for several of those clients to come in consistently every week when I tipped all the nails with a sander while the owner fed their dog yummy treats. I gave them a discount depending on how much I was able to do, sometimes not even charging for my time. The theory behind this was the dog will get used to coming to the clinic so anxiety will relax a little so long as the nail trims weren’t bad. I tip a tiny bit off and while they get goodies and head pets, then send them on their way. Coming weekly eventually I didn’t need to do the nails at all because they were finally short enough, so we settled for a happy visit where the dog just got treats and attention letting her leave on a positive note. Other clients only wanted to try to take advantage of discounted nail trims and I wouldn’t see them for months and suddenly they walk in with their terrified dog who is peeing itself in fear and asking me to get all 4 paws as short as possible. First of all, to anyone out there who does that, this is hurting your dog nobody else. It’s not fair to any dog to suffer nail trims as they scream and urinate or defecate themselves in fear, especially being restrained in the process. I have told many clients that based on the stress of their dog I will refuse nail trims, I will not morally be part of the further destruction of your dog’s mental health. They didn’t always like that, but I am an RVT for a reason, for the health and well-being of pets, stressful nail trims are not that, keeping the nails short is good but at what expense?
I am an empathetic person, I try to think like a dog, feel like a dog or put myself in their “paws”. I never blame dogs for fighting us in the clinic, it’s not their fault they behave that way. How would you feel if your mom took you somewhere as a kid, you walk in and the smell is off, which makes you nervous. Someone comes out speaking a language you don’t understand and your mom hands you off to that person, they take you to the back where you see more kids screaming in cages and this worries you. Then they put you on a table and hold you down while bringing clippers or grinders toward you, making loud sounds, squeezing your fingertips which can be uncomfortable, and then suddenly they snip off half your fingernail. You try to scream and break free, but they only hold on tighter and continue on with cutting off your fingers. All the while you don’t understand what they’re doing and not to mention they are hurting you! Now imagine 5 times a year your mom takes you back there to have the same thing done. Eventually you will refuse to enter the building, eventually you will fight them as they take you from your mom into the “back”, eventually, you get to a point where you fight with all your might and start biting to try to scare them away. Clients hand off their dogs so willingly thinking a nail trim is no big deal, but it is to your dog. Getting them comfortable with this using positive reinforcement is what’s going to make the difference. Trust me, working in the field for 6 years, I have seen it all and the past 3 I have been implementing my own methods of nail trims and desensitization.
I have a PediPaw will that work?
Probably not on anything with thick nails or large breed dogs. It’s simply not a strong enough machine to handle the job, I have tried this on several types of dogs and it really only works well on tolerant chihuahuas.
My groomer has an Oster or professional nail grinder from the store, do those work?
I would say yes, we recently got an Oster after our Dremel died and it works well. Still, not powerful enough for us though but depending on the dog it will get the job done. It would honestly just be cheaper to buy a Dremel.
I heard of some clinics using Dremels, should I?
Yessssssss. I love the Dremel, been using it for years! It’s just a standard small Dremel from the hardware store and the set usually comes with extra sanders and different shaped heads which are cool. We have one in the clinic and it’s our go-to, so much so that it finally died after I don’t know how many years of use. I am going to buy one for myself and the dogs at the ranch, so I can just bang out nail trims at home.
**Things to keep in mind if you are pursuing a machine grinder**
- These grinders are still sandpaper so experiment with speeds. For the Dremel it has speeds from 1-10, do NOT use 10! Please, God if this is your only take away, the Dremel is a tool, like from Home Depot to sand wood and use it when building houses and stuff. It wasn’t designed to be used on sensitive dog nails, so yes the speeds go up to 10 but don’t do it. I had someone ask me to do their dog’s nails because their dog would become aggressive while dremeling, when I commented on what speed to keep the dremel at she laughed. “6!?” she said, “I use 10 and my dog’s don’t care, it doesn’t hurt them, barely makes a difference.” … you just told me your dog loses it’s mind when getting it done, so clearly they care and it does bother them, but I’m the professional so what do I know, I only do 50 nail trims a week.
- My general rule is keeping it between 3 and 6. Anything higher than 6 and you’re gonna burn the nail and it’s only gonna hurt you in the process, every once in a while I’ll crank it to 7 for really thick nails on really tolerant dogs but no other exceptions.
- The higher in speed you go the louder it gets, remember this if you’re trying to get your dog used to the process. Try to see what they’re seeing and hear what they hear.
- Don’t keep the grinder on the nail for too long, at a 6 you should be able to tackle the nail in like 10 seconds? Depending on how much you need to take off. But sitting there forever isn’t good for the nail, a little heat is okay because of the quick kind of recesses back but not a lot so don’t overdo it. Move on to the next and then go back and take more off where you missed.
- Stop often to reassess the nail or blow off the dust so you can see how much farther you need to go and then go.
- Grinders cause nail dust, so keep that in mind. If you barely scraped the quick you can use the nail dust to clot it but any actual bleeds will need Quick Stop or medical attention.
- If you are just trying to get your dog used to nail trims with a grinder, I would use the above-mentioned tips under “sanders”. Keep the speed at a 3 or 4, probably a 3 at first, and just leave it on each nail for 2 seconds. Increasing the length over time and then the speeds. Remember to read your dog and leave them on a happy note!
Side note- the Dremel tends to bounce on the nail if it’s going at a weird angle, this will likely be uncomfortable for your dog, so if bouncing occurs try a slightly different angle. Dogs will also jerk their paw to create a bounce, for me, I hold the Dremel a certain way, so I can rest the hand holding the nail against it keeping both the paw and Dremel moving in the same direction together. This will take practice but you will get it.
My dog’s nails are close to his pad, what do I do?
Okay, if you have a Pug chances are the nails are curling inward right? Handling nails that are dug in or curling into the pad require finesse, but it’s doable to trim those too, just gotta think outside the box. First and foremost if the sander touches the paw pad, it’s not the end of the world, it doesn’t really hurt more so tickles (if you’re using the proper speed). I have actually used the Dremel to take back hyperkeratosis on pads of pugs and bulldogs, even on their nose, but they really don’t like this (remember put yourself in their position). Tackling nails close to the pad, think of it as an art project and keep in mind the Dremel is still a tool so use it as such. I’m going to do my best to explain this in written form, but I will post a video demonstrating this too at a later date.
For the dug in nails– This is the nail that is completely pressed against the pad. On your white nails find the quick on the top aspect of the nail, then using the top edge of the Dremel sand down toward the pad. Visualize a line where you want the cut to be and cut with the tip edge taking. You will do this with black nails too but really try to figure out where the quick is or start off with small amounts. Personally, I would just cut the tip off and that will give me room to work normally.
For the curling nail– So this is the nail where the tip is about to start going to the pad. The Dremel has a flat top, the head I like to use, so position the flat aspect parallel to the pad. The side of the Dremel head should be against the nail, there will be bouncing here because of the position but a little finesse will resolve that. What I do is a half “C” shape moving from the left tip of the nail to the right tip keeping the flat top parallel to the pad. If you are really worried about the pad you can pull it back a little to give yourself more space to work or you can take them to a professional who is comfortable with the proximity.
Do this all the while someone is giving treats and everyone is telling Fido what a good boy he is, and always don’t over do it if the tolerance is nearly up then stop on a good note and resume tomorrow. Your dog will really appreciate this.
I hope these tips help you and your dog become more comfortable with nail trims. Please feel free to comment below and tell me if there are any other pet tips you’re interested in me writing or if there are questions you have about nail trims, trust me I have dealt with it all.
P.S I fully intend on uploading more pictures and drawing up some guides but cannot find the ones I had in mind, I organized my files from MYSELF!
Next, I will show how to do an ear cleaning at home, just not sure if I want to video tape it or write it out.