How to Trim Your Dog’s Nails

I’ll be honest.  I have owned dogs for decades, and trimming their nails is the one thing that gives me slight anxiety.  But nail trimming is an essential part of dog grooming and must be done regularly. If a dog’s nails get too long, they splay the toes, impede your dog’s movement, and can cause pain, limping, arthritis, and even broken toes.  

Now that I think about it, I guess I’ve almost always had dogs that have black nails, where you can’t clearly see the cuticle and you don’t know how far to cut. Truth be told, I’ve cut to the quick more than once. In this article, my goal is to help you in your efforts to make nail trimming as stress free as possible for both you and your dog.

First Thing’s First

The first step in trimming your dog’s nails is getting your dog acclimated to having his feet handled.  It’s easiest to start this when your dog is a puppy. Whatever life stage your pup is in, start by touching your dog’s paws and moving your fingers through his toes.

If your dog is constantly pulling away, make sure to offer tiny treats, praise, or some beloved toy so he associates the experience with something positive. Work in very small increments of time and build up over the course of days as you train your dog that this is a routine activity and nothing to be afraid of.

Once your dog is comfortable with his paws being held, tap a non-threatening object on the nail.  It makes the most sense to use the nail clippers themselves (but don’t actually clip the nails!), or any object that can make a sound on the nail when tapped.  Continue to offer a treat reward and praise until your dog starts to become comfortable and accept that this is a normal, routine activity. Again, begin with small increments of time and stop if your dog appears stressed.  

Build up to longer increments of time over the course of days. Work up to doing this 15 times before you stop.

Lastly, while you’re holding your dog’s paw, hold the nail clipper near their nail and squeeze the clipper so it makes a sound.  Again, try to work up to doing this 15 times before you stop, and offer treats and praise to keep the experience a positive one in your dog’s mind.

Tools: Nail Clippers, Styptic Powder (clotting powder), and Treats

Nail Clippers

Invest in a pair of quality nail clippers.  There are different styles: pliers-style, guillotine-style, and scissors-style (less common).  You can also pay attention to the size of nail clipper if you have a very large or very small dog.  Whatever style you choose, check to make sure the the blade mechanism is working properly before you start clipping.  Use a firm grip on the clippers and use the fingers of your other hand to separate the dog’s toes to help the process go smoothly.

Styptic Powder

You need styptic powder, or clotting powder, on hand in case you cut the nail too short and it starts to bleed.  One popular brand is Miracle Care Kwik Stop Styptic Powder.  It stops bleeding fast and the addition of benzocaine eases pain and itching in minor wounds.


Have a stash of bite-sized treats on hand.  Offer one to your dog after every clip to keep the experience a positive one.

Clipping A Dog’s Nails Safely

If you have the opportunity, ask your veterinarian, a vet tech, or a groomer to show you how to trim your dog’s nails first.  Some people are visual learners and it’s easier for them to see someone else do it. Remember that if your dog seems nervous or stressed, you don’t have to trim all of their nails at once.  You could just clip a couple a day as your dog becomes used to this being a part of their routine care.

As you can see from the graphic above, inside the nail is a pink area called the quick.  Inside the quick are nerves and blood vessels. If you trim a nail too aggressively and you cut the quick, your dog’s nail will start to bleed.  As you can imagine, this is painful for your dog and if it happens frequently, will lead to negative associations with nail trimming.

The quick is much easier to see in dogs with light-colored nails.  If you can’t see the quick, you can shave a small amount of the nail off with every clip until you see a dark central area in the nail, sometime referred to as a bullseye.  If you go past this point, you will cut the quick. Watch the 2 minute video at the end of this article showing a nail trim on a dog with black nails so you can see what the bullseye looks like in the center of the dark nail after it is clipped to that point.

The nail should be cut from underneath.  Slide the opening of the clipper over the end of nail, staying in the whitish part of the nail and avoiding the pink area.  Be decisive and make a smooth, quick squeeze on the handle while holding the trimmer steady. Cut all the way through, and the tip of the nail will fall away.

When you’re finished, you can shave or file any sharp edges, or just let the dog wear the nail smooth with regular activity.

If you cut the nail too short and it starts to bleed, dip the dog’s nail in the Kwik Stop styptic powder and it should stop the bleeding.  (If your dog’s nail bleeds for more than 20 minutes, you need to take her to the vet.)

Nail Trim On Dog With Light-Colored Nails

Nail Trim On Dog With Black Nails

Other Things To Consider

If you’re not trimming your dog’s nails regularly, the quick inside a dog’s nail will actually start to grow further down the nail and you will not be able to keep the nail as short as you’d like.  This doesn’t happen in humans. Our quick is fixed and the nail grows from the there. But as the dog’s quick progressed further into the nail, so do the nerves and blood vessels. Trimming your dog’s nails regularly will prevent this from happening.

Not all dogs need their nails trimmed regularly.  If your dog is highly active, their nails may wear naturally on the pavement.  Our current dog goes for a run or a fast-paced bike ride every day. He is three years old and we have never trimmed his nails.  He is the only dog we’ve ever owned that did not need regular nail trimming. (Needless to say, he wears us out!) You will know that your dog needs a nail trim when you hear the incessant click-clacking of nails on the floor.

Another option is to use a nail grinder, which is similar to a dremel tool.  Some people like grinders because they leave nails smoother with less jagged edges.  A grinder can also be a valuable tool if your dog has such an intense conditioned fear of the clippers that trying to desensitize your dog to the clippers seems overwhelming and impossible for both of you.  Check out the Hertzco Electric Pet Nail Grinder For Gentle and Painless Paws Grooming.  

Be aware that if you go the route of the grinder, you should get your dog used to the sight and sound of the grinder with the same steps detailed above with getting your dog acclimated to the clippers.

Last, but not least, you can always have someone do it for you if you don’t mind spending the money.  Schedule a monthly nail trimming with your vet’s office or groomer if you just don’t want to do it yourself.

We hope the detail in this article gives you solid guidelines to follow for stress free nail trimming.  

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