From the right tools to proper nail trimming technique, here’s what you need to know about dog nail trimming at home.

By Teresa K. Traverse
August 24, 2020
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Advertisement

Trimming your dog’s nails should be a key part of your grooming routine. It’s an important task that helps your dog stay healthy and comfortable. You can take your dog to a professional groomer if you’d like, but you can learn how to trim your dog’s nails at home too. We talked to two professional groomers who gave us their tips on how to give your dog a good, safe nail trimming.

When Should You Trim Your Dog’s Nails?

A good rule to follow is that if you can hear your dog’s nails clicking on the floor, they’re too long.

“When the dog is standing up, the nail should just barely touch the ground or doesn’t touch the ground. Once they hit the ground, they start spreading the toes,” says Linda Easton, president of the International Professional Groomers and the owner of grooming salon Canine Concepts in Salem, Oregon, CPG, and ICMG.

Why is Dog Nail Trimming Important?

One of the reasons you should trim your dog’s nails regularly is that long, unkempt nails can do some damage to your pooch or even to you. But there are other reasons too.

“Obviously, they scratch you,” Easton says. “The other reason is once they hit the ground and continue to grow, then it actually spreads the dog's toes and can cause a lot of discomfort for the dog.” Toe spreading, over time, can eventually cause your dog’s feet to become deformed. 

If you’re unsure of where to start when it comes to trimming your dog’s nail, consider paying a vet tech or a groomer to show you how.

How to Prepare To Trim Your Dog’s Nails

Before you even pick up clippers, be sure your dog is OK with you touching her feet says Debbie Oliver, CAH, a pet first aid instructor, owner of Golden Shears Institute of Dog Grooming in San Jose, California, and a member of the board of the California Professional Pet Groomers Association. “The biggest issue is that dogs, like humans, can have ticklish feet. Repetitive handling of it desensitizes, and that's what [pet owners] need to do.”

Oliver suggests using a reward, like food, each time you touch your dog’s feet. Start doing this every day. “The dog’s got to earn a paycheck for putting up with it,” Oliver says.

Start early. And start slowly. Oliver raises puppies and will start trimming their nails when the puppies are one week old. Start by touching your dog’s feet once a day and then twice daily. 

How do you know when you’re ready to start trimming? A good barometer is when you can hold the dog’s toes between your fingers without the dog reacting,

Next, start by trimming just one nail per day. And then progress from there. If you have someone who can help you, have a partner hold your dog while you do this. You also can “bribe” your dog with peanut butter. That way, she’ll be distracted eating it while you trim away. 

How Often Should You Trim Your Dog’s Nails?

How often your dog needs her nails trimmed will depend entirely on her. But as a general rule, trimming monthly is a good idea.

“Most dogs need their nails [trimmed] every month,” Easton says. “Unless they really wear them down good on concrete. And it also depends on the shape of the dog’s feet. Dogs that have really round feet will wear them down.”

Older dogs don’t wear their nails down as well and may need trimming more frequently.

Proper Nail Trimming Strategy

Oliver says trimming your dogs’ nails post-bath is a good idea since the nails are softer. You also can use a wet paper towel on the dog’s nails to soften them.

The trickiest part of trimming your dog’s nails is avoiding nicking the quick. “My goal is to cut as close to the quick as I possibly can without clipping it,” Oliver says.

The quick is the bundle of nerves and blood vessels inside the nail, closest to the paw. On a light-colored nail, the quick appears as a pink portion at the top of the nail. If you cut the quick, the dog’s nail will bleed. (See below for how to easily address that problem.) Older dogs might bleed more, Easton says. 

Dog Nail Trimming Tools to Use

Your main tools for nail trimming will be:

Both groomers we spoke with preferred the Dremel or a dog nail grinder instead of clippers. Although you can use clippers if you prefer. 

“First of all, you can't grind [the nails] too short,” Oliver says of her preference for the Dremel. “If you grind them too short, the nail gets hot. You will eventually make it bleed, but it will be instantly cauterized.”

Oliver also praised dog nail grinders because it’s easier to go slow using that tool. “The dog won’t put up with the burning. They usually pull back and stop. You can grind a little. Look at it. Grind a little, look at it,” Oliver says.

One thing to be careful of when using a Dremel is to avoid getting your dog’s hair caught up in the bit or the tool. But there’s an easy solution: Try placing pantyhose over the paws to hold fur out of the way. The dog nail grinder will grind right through the nylon and leave your dog’s hair untouched.

You also can use an emery board to shorten the nail. But Oliver cautions that this method is time-consuming. “It’s just going to take you a whole lot longer,” she says. 

If you’re using clippers, Oliver advises trimming slowly. Trim a little bit at a time, and then back off. Easton tells us that you’ll want to ensure you’re using clippers that are the appropriate size for your pet. So use small ones if you have a smaller dog. And bigger ones if you have a larger dog.

“Just make sure that they're sharp and in good shape. Because if they're dull, they just pinch the nail, and it hurts,” Easton says.

How to Trim a Dog’s Nails That Are Overgrown or Black

If your dog’s nails are overgrown or black, it’s harder to identify the quick and avoid it. The key is to trim the nail slowly in small sections. “You’re going to clip a little bit, a little bit, a little bit,” Oliver says. 

With each clip, look for the white bulb inside the nail, indicating the tip of the quick. Stop when you can see the bulb, before you clip it. The more you trim overgrown nails, the more the blood vessels will retract, giving you the chance to trim the nail further the next time. 

What to Do If You Cut the Quick

If you accidentally trim too far and draw blood from the quick, don’t panic. Just use some styptic powder—a substance that stops bleeding—to stop the flow. Hold the powder on the nail as soon as possible for one or two seconds. Older dogs also might bleed more, Easton says.

How to Hold Your Dog While You Trim Her Nails

Both groomers we spoke with said one of the most common mistakes people make is not holding their dogs’ leg in a comfortable position.

“Bend the dog’s legs the way they naturally bend,” Oliver says. Dog’s legs move forward and back. If Oliver is trimming the front nails, she likes to stand in front of the dog and pulls the dog toward her.

Trimming your dog’s nails at home takes a bit of practice and patience. But the payoff is being able to keep your dog healthy and happy with grooming you can do at home. Get our step-by-step nail trimming guide to help you take on the task!