A Stress-Free Way For Trimming Your Dog's Toenails

A Stress-Free Way For Trimming Your Dog's Toenails

The most common reasons for avoiding nail trims are that the owner is afraid of “quicking” the dog, or that the dog fusses and creates bad feelings around the procedure. Nail cutting becomes an event surrounded by angst and drama. For very active dogs who run all day long on varied surfaces, cutting nails may not be necessary. High mileage wears them down naturally. But among city or suburban dogs who are lucky to get a mile or two walk daily, excessively long toenails are more common than not.

Consequences Of Long Toenails

So what’s the big deal? The first consequence of long toenails is painful feet. When a dog’s toenails contact hard ground, like a sidewalk or your kitchen floor, the hard surface pushes the nail back up into the nail bed. This either puts pressure on all the toe joints or forces the toe to twist to the side. Either way, those toes become very sore, even arthritic. When the slightest touch is painful to your dog, he will fuss when you pick up his paw to cut nails.

The second consequence of long toenails is more serious. All animals rely on information from nerves in their feet to move through the world and process gravity accurately. For millions of years, wild dogs have run long distances while hunting and worn their nails short. The only time their toenails would touch the ground was when climbing a hill. So a dog’s brain is evolutionarily programmed to associate toenail contact with being on a hill, and he shifts his body posture accordingly: leaning forward over his forelimbs, up the imaginary hill as reported by his toes. Since the hill is not real, a secondary compensation with his hind limbs is necessary to avoid a face plant. This abnormal compensatory posture can be called “goat on a rock,” because it brings his paws closer together under his body.

Normal neutral posture is a nice show dog “stack,” with vertical legs like a table. Recent research shows that standing with limbs “camped-in” is hard work to maintain. These goat-on-a-rock dogs get over-used muscles and eventually over-used joints, especially in their hind limbs, making it difficult to jump in cars, climb stairs and even hard to get up from lying down. Sounds like a lot of older dogs we know! Cutting toenails short can be like a miracle cure for your dog whose hind end has become painful, weak and over-used.  Ideally, toe nail maintenance requires a trim every two weeks, just like maintaining human fingernails. If you can hear nails clicking on your kitchen floor, they are much too long.

How To Trim The Toenail

trimming nails

    Tools Of The Trade

  • Select a “scissor” type clippers. Guillotine style clippers crush the toe, which is painful.
  • Trim nails outside or in a well lit room.
  • Use your fingers to separate the toes for clipping and hold the paw gently. Start on the hind feet, because the nails tend to be a little shorter and less sensitive than the front. Each dog’s nails are different, but very long toenails often become dry and cracked, with a clear separation of the living tissue and the insensitive nail. This will make it easier to trim back longer nails. It’s actually easier to see the nail structures on pigmented nails than on white ones. The insensitive nail will show as a chalky ring around the sensitive quick.
  • Keep clipper blades at a slight to the nail – never cut across the finger. Use several small cuts around the quick to round the nail
  • Make nail trimming fun: Make nail trimming “quality time” you spend with your dog. Lots of kisses, lots of treats and a positive attitude go a long way. If you dread it, your dog will too, so learn how to be a good actor until you succeed in believing it can be a loving experience for you both. If your dog loses patience quickly, try cutting one nail a day.
  • Remember, no dog ever died from a quicked toenail. If you “quick” your dog accidentally, give a yummy treat right away. Use a styptic powder, corn starch to staunch the bleeding if you make a nail leak. With shallow cuts, this will be rare.
  • Ideally, cut nails every two weeks.  Once the insensitive nail is thinned out and isn’t supporting the quick, the quick will dry up and recede. This will allow you to cut your dog’s nails even shorter.

Inside of nails

What’s inside your dog’s toenail? (image above) On the left, the interior structures are shown, along with the suggested angle to remove the “roof” of the nail, while not harming the sensitive quick. On a black claw, the interface between sensitive and insensitive nail is usually chalky and white – very easy to discern. On the right is a close-up view of the inside of the nail. On cross section, the sensitive quick will look translucent and glossy, like living flesh. In untrimmed claws, there will often be a “notch” below the tip of the quick. It is usually safe to initiate your angled cut at the notch.

Try Nail Grinding Instead of Trimming

Grinding your dog’s nails can indeed be easier.  If you buy a grinder made especially for dogs, it’ll come with the right grinding head. Otherwise, choose a medium-grit sandpaper or stone tip for your Dremel or other general-purpose hand-held grinder. Both cordless and corded models seem to work just as well for this task, but the cordless may be easier for beginners to handle.

In the early stages of training, just let your dog see the grinder, and praise and treat. In a later session, turn the grinder on and praise and treat. Praise and treat for your dog progressively, allowing the grinder to get closer to a paw and to briefly touch a nail tip. The first time you grind — which may be several sessions after the first introduction — be happy with working a little with just one nail, and don’t forget to praise and treat.

    Pros for Nail Grinding

  • Pet nail grinders can be used to safely trim and smooth a dog’s nails while reducing the risk of cutting the cuticle bed of the nails. Once the cuticle is cut, it can cause pain and excessive bleeding.
  • Nail Grinders result in a smooth nail tip that reduces scratching; this type of trim is especially beneficial to reduce any accidental scratch wounds to seniors, children, or persons with lowered immune function.
  • Nail grinders are available in electric, battery, and chargeable models, and these various models may be conveniently used in any home, office or outdoor setting.
  • The use of pet clippers can pinch the nails, which may cause pain and foster anxiety during a nail trimming; the use of a dog nail grinder eliminates pinching or pressure on the nail.
  • Nail grinders are especially beneficial for dogs that have extremely thick nails that do not fit well into traditional manual nail clippers.
  • On occasion, the use of a nail clipper can cause a nail to crack; nail grinders eliminate any risks of cracks or tears on the nails that may occur if the nails are cut.
  • When a dog’s nails are cut with a nail trimmer, a sharp cracking noise may occur as each nail is trimmed, causing some dogs become fearful or anxious each time they hear this noise. A nail grinder emits a consistent humming noise, instead of a sharp cracking noise, which may be more comforting to some dogs.

What to Do If Your Dog Does Not Like Nail Trimming

Some dogs act like cutting their nails is their worst nightmare. This may be a learned behavior from their painful, over stimulated toes, which will slowly dissipate along with the pain once the nails are short.

Remember, there is no rule that says all feet must be trimmed at one time.  Take small steps and stop BEFORE your pet gets upset.  Your dog really should think of nail trims like a mani/pedi spa experience, not torture.

Trimming nails is not an emergency. If your dog will not take treats it is because they are very fearful and anxious.  In this heightened state of anxiety, in your dogs mind, everything seems a lot more traumatic than it is. If we trim your dog’s nails when they are in this state, even if it is performed without incident, we decrease your dog’s trust in us, as well as in you. We certainly do not want to contribute to your pet’s anxiety.

We can train animals to love procedures and other things that they dislike or even hate by combining the process of counter conditioning with desensitization.

With classical counter conditioning we train the pet to associate the handling with things she likes such as food, treats, petting, or play so that she’s in a positive emotional state rather than feeling fearful or angry. We generally combine counter conditioning with desensitization, meaning that we start by introducing the handling or aversive stimulus at a level that the pet barely notices and gradually increase the level. The goal throughout the process is that the pet always acts as though she doesn’t even notice the handling or stimulus that she previously disliked.

With operant counter conditioning, we train the pet to perform a behavior that’s incompatible with the undesirable behavior. Ideally the pet earns a reward so that she’s simultaneously learning a positive association with the situation. For instance, we may reward a pet to remain stationary and calm while you perform a given procedure.

Step 1: First get the dog used to having his feet touched using classical counter conditioning. Handle his feet while giving treats. Then stop handling and stop giving treats simultaneously. Repeat.

Step 2: Switching to operant counter conditioning, now handle the feet without giving treats. As soon as you stop touching the feet, reward the puppy for holding still. If needed, you can add an intermediate step where you pair treats with foot handling 1 or more seconds after you start handling the feet.

Step 3: Add the toenail trimmers. Clip one or two nails and then reward for calm behavior before he struggles. If your dog is struggling still, just do one nail then reward and call it a night. There is no rule that says all the nails must be clipped at the same time. If you manage to do one nail and then reward and end on a good note it’s better than forcing yourself to get them all done but causing psychological to your dog.

If you find that this is difficult for you or perhaps you don’t want to even attempt trimming your dog’s nails, let our professional groomer’s help. Nail trimming or grinding is a walk-in service that may be performed any time; no appointment necessary. Nail trims are $11 and grinding is $21. This month nail trimming and grinding is 25% off. There’s no better time to start good habits and get your dog on a regular nail trimming schedule. If you have a young puppy it’s that much more important to begin your good habits early and start a lifetime of happy feet! If your dog is already past the point where you can safely work with him, please come in for a 1/2 hour behavior session to work on desensitization and using a clicker to help you capture the positive behaviors and eliminate the negative ones.


  • Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats. by Dr. Sophia Yin. (www.nerdbook.com)
  • Nail Trims- Really Shouldn’t Be Scary by Colleen S. Koch , DVM, KPA-CTP, Featured in Veterinary Technician Magazine (www.lincolnlandac.com)
  • (Illustrations by Michael A Simmons MFA)


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