A dog getting his nails trimmed.
A dog getting his nails trimmed. Photography by Remains/Thinkstock.

How to Trim Dog Nails — Safely

Want to try clipping your dog's nails at home? These detailed directions on how to trim dog nails will help you keep your pup happy and pain-free during the process.
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I’ve done my share of dog nail trimming, so I realize that it makes many pet parents a little twitchy. Sure, the thought of inflicting possible pain tends to have that effect. But remember that successful trims really come down to a few basic guidelines involving 1) the comfort of the canine, and 2) the technique used by the trimmer (i.e., you). Nail trimming isn’t something we can ignore entirely because overly long nails can actually affect pup posture and joints. But if you’ve been on the fence about how to trim dog nails safely at home, let’s start with a quick anatomical overview.

First, let’s talk about the anatomy of dog nails

NailQuickIllustration
The quick, a pinkish-colored area near the nail base, is much easier to visualize on lighter-colored dogs with whitish nails. Photography by Marybeth Bittel.

Before we learn how to trim dog nails, let’s talk about the anatomy of dog nails. The canine nail is kind of like a Klondike bar, meaning it’s composed of layers. The sturdy outer “shell” is the part we actually see. Inside this protective coating is a soft inner layer known as the quick. This layer — which contains blood vessels and nerves — begins at the base of the nail, and ends near the curve. Cutting the quick is a big “ouch” for your pup and often causes yelping/bleeding/general dismay. So it’s important that you can picture precisely where that inner layer is situated.

If you have a dog with light-colored nails, the quick is easy to see. It looks like a pinkish-colored segment near the nail base. Dark or black nails usually conceal this; so if necessary, borrow a white Poodle to get a feel for general positioning. Once you’ve located the quick, never trim closer than 2 to 3 millimeters away.

Dog nail trimming tools

The next thing to know when it comes to how to trim dog nails? Let’s look at-home trimming tools. Some people prefer clippers; others like grinders. Simply select the option that makes you and your pup feel most at ease.

I’ve noticed that grinders provide some added control and smoothness — a Dremel is one example — but certain dogs are spooked by the buzzing noise. Clippers are available in two varieties: scissor and guillotine. The first is self-explanatory, with Safari and Miller’s Forge representing two solid options. Guillotine clippers are designed with a hole that the dog’s nail pokes through. Squeeze the handle, and a blade snicks up to cut the nail. The easy-to-use Zen Clipper, which we reviewed recently on Dogster, falls into this category, too.

Preparing to trim your dog’s nails

A dog getting his nails trimmed.
Prepare appropriately before trimming your dog’s nails. Photography by Jaromir Chalabala / Shutterstock.

One of the key steps for how to trim dog nails safely and successfully is good prepwork and practice. Initially, experiment a bit to decide which dog nail trimming tool you prefer. I like to do a few practice cuts on a toothpick or skinny chopstick. Then put aside that tool, and get your pooch accustomed to having his paws held. Some dogs, like our Maizy, abhor any type of foot contact and will yank their leg away. So simply hold each paw in your hand daily, touching the nails for a few seconds. The moment you release, reward with tons of praise and a tiny treat.

After doing this for several weeks, place your chosen trimming tool on the floor with a few tasty treats on top. Let your pooch sniff the tool and take the treats, while you praise enthusiastically. Using a grinder? Switch it on for a couple moments and give your dog a treat. Perform these exercises for a minimum of two to three weeks — or until your canine seems completely at ease.

Once you’re ready to try an actual trim, choose some favorite low-cal training treats to keep nearby. Also have a small jar of styptic powder and some cotton balls on hand. This is only a precaution when it comes to how to trim dog nails because cutting the quick is unlikely if you’re careful. But know that patting styptic powder around the nail base stops any bleeding. Now go back and read those last couple sentences again. Okay? Deep breath — you got this!

Find a comfy spot with nice, bright lighting. Get your dog in a relaxed position — standing or reclining on the floor.

How to trim dog nails: clipper method

  1. Hold the tool in your dominant hand.
  2. Hold your pup’s paw firmly in your other hand — thumb on the foot pad, fingers atop the foot, near the nail bed.
  3. Begin at the very tip — especially if your dog has dark nails.
  4. Only trim about 1 to 2 mm at a time, gradually moving toward the quick.
  5. Examine the cross-section of your dog’s nail each time you cut. When you start seeing a tan-colored oval, you’re nearing the quick … so stop cutting.
  6. Use a nail file to smooth rough edges.

How to trim dog nails: grinder method

  1. As with the clippers, hold the tool in your dominant hand; dog’s paw firmly in your other hand.
  2. Gently touch the grinder to the tip of your dog’s nail and silently count to two.
  3. Remove the grinder for a few seconds; praise your pup; repeat.
  4. Continue until you begin seeing that tan-colored oval … then stop.

Some final tips on how to trim dog nails

Be extremely patient, go slowly, and offer tons of praise and/or training treats. Never trim when you’re rushed. Likewise, if you start seeing canine stress signals like yawning, take a calming break. No rule says you need to do all four paws at once. So after you’ve rewarded your pup, reward yourself. Klondike bar, anyone?

Tell us: What are your tips for how to trim dog nails?

Thumbnail: Photography by Remains/Thinkstock.

This piece was originally published in 2016.

Read more about dog grooming on Dogster.com:

18 thoughts on “How to Trim Dog Nails — Safely”

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  2. Pingback: If Your Dog Is Limping, Here Is Some Help

  3. Cutting your pets nails is just one of many grooming needs that should be done for them. Making sure it is done properly is extremely important when you are doing it yourself and not having a professional groomer do it for you. You do not want to accidentally hurt your pet and there is plenty of information here to help you out.

  4. Pingback: How to Properly Cut Your Dog’s Nails | Pet Site

  5. Depends on the dog 🙁
    One dog. Easy peasy! He even offers his paws for a second cut. Bless his little Cotton-pickin’ heart.
    One dog. Nah! Two nails at the most per session. (at theat rate it is a bit like painting the Harbour Bridge — perpetual!
    One dog.– “Help! help! help! She’s murdering me!!! Scream, scream, scream” — clippers haven’t even yet got NEAR her nails. MY forearms are scratched to shreds. Last success — she would target the clippers with her paw PROVIDED they were shut and I was not gripping them.

    1. I once had a Bull Terrier mix who screamed before my sister (a professional groomer) started to trim each nail. One day, my sister screamed along with her for two or three nails… She never screamed again!

  6. I have found the most important part of a nail clipping regime is the treats. I use those small low-cal treats. After every foot is done my dogs get a treat. So they get 4 plus one when we are all done with lots of celebration. While my dogs don’t enjoy the clipping, they do enjoy the fun part of treats. I have a chuhuahua, a pug, a pug mix and a lab and I do all the clipping.

  7. I love the information you give for care of our pups!! I do wish someone would address cutting the nails on a dog with long(ish) hair…please, please? I have a westie pup that just turned a year old. She is EXTREMELY sensative regarding the handling of her paws. I’ve made headway on many different tasks regarding her grooming, but the paws continue to be off limit. The length seems to stay down due to her play/running on the concrete deck. I would be very comfortable with using a grinder, but concerned that her hair mght caught in it. She does have mostly white naits, except for 2 on her back paws. Help?

  8. Pingback: How to Trim Dog Nails — Safely | MyDoggyTips

  9. Antoinette LeRoux

    Hi LC,

    Thanks for the tip. However, my dog has pitch black nails. Will this method work for her too?

    Antoinette

  10. hi, my labradodle seems to have pretty long quick. i would like the nails to be shorter but the quick seems to be be quite “extended”.

    is it true that by cutting more
    frequently, the quick would “retract”?

    1. Hi Edwin,

      Thanks for reaching out. This seems like a question for your vet, specifically. Best of luck!

  11. Great idea with the light and the sharpie…. I’m definitely going to try that. I also wanted to mention that if you are using a dremel tool… The contact spot on the nail gets very hot very fast. Please use multiple short grinds to prevent burning the nail and the quick.

  12. I’ve been cutting my Labs’ nails for 30+ years. Only a few small incidences where the quick got nipped, otherwise smooth sailing every time. Here is the most valuable suggestion I give to anyone trying to avoid the quick: With the advances in LED lights as a “cold” light source, try holding a keychain LED (often used to find a key hole during nighttime) right againt the back of the nail. The quick will stand-out boldly like lungs on an XRay. You will see it as plain as day. Shade in the part of the nail that is to be cut with a Sharpie pen. Remove the light source. Cut only what you’ve colored in and NOTHING more. I guarantee a successful nail grooming session and a very grateful dog afterward.

  13. This article has some great practical tips but is missing the most critical piece of information to help dog owners : how to cut the nails! The super simple trick to shorten nails is to never (NEVER!) cut across the nail, but remove the hard nail surrounding the top and sides of the quick, which is actually the dog’s finger. This article I wrote for Dog’s Naturally magazine has been shared over a quarter million times. It explains what many call the “alternative cut line” with clear illustrations: https://indd.adobe.com/view/ecd6f45a-463b-4c6a-a529-73290c48d00a

    Think of the quick as the lead of the pencil, and you are peeling around it. Once you can destabilize the nail by removing the “roof”, the quick will recede. Another critical thing: nails need to be trimmed every other week— minimum!, for maintenance. To shorten, trim every week.

  14. This is fantastic! I love reading the Dogster emails! Even when I think I may about a specific topic, I still read it and I always, always learn something new from it! I look forward to the Dogster email! THANKS SO MUCH and please continue doing a wonderful job! Thank you! – Colleen, Mississauga.

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