But nail trimming is important for the long-term health of all dogs, not just canine athletes. Overgrown nails can break easily and below the quick, which can be very painful for the dog. Long-term overgrowth can cause difficulty with walking, pain and soreness and eventually contribute to the development of arthritis. So I put a small lecture on nail-clipping into my puppy class curriculum and decided to make a handout with detailed instructions. My goal was not just to explain the actual trimming of the nails so much as how to make this a task less dreaded and stressed over by people and dogs alike. Most dogs instinctively don't want anyone messing with their nails, particularly with strange objects like a clipper or rotary grinding tool. I wanted to teach my students how to use a positive process of habituation and rewards to get their dogs to relax and allow nail trimming. I've rewarded my dogs so much for participating that all I need to do is grab a baggie full of treats and head for the bathroom (that's where I always trim nails) and the dogs jockey to be the first one in.
I was hoping to find a ready-made tutorial on the web and hand it out (with proper attribution, of course!) Alas, the only one that seemed to take the approach I wanted, a guide by "Doberdawn" (click the tiny "How To Dremel Dog Nails" link on the left), is way too long to expect the typical puppy class person to read. (Some of them don't even look at the "homework" sheets I hand out every week summarizing what we covered and explaining how to practice it.) I needed something relatively concise, so that it could be handed out on a single sheet. I also wanted to include both common methods--clipping and dremeling, because I use them both (the Dremel for the little normal dog, clippers for the big scaredy-cat dog). Lots of dog folks insist that their way is the only way, but I know from experience that one size doesn't always fit all.
In the end I decided to write my own tutorial. It's still probably a little long and needs some more editing, but it covers the basics and fits on a single sheet of paper (front and back). Here it is:
How and Why to Trim Your Dog’s Nails
This information is not intended as, nor should it be taken as veterinary advice. You should consult with and follow the advice of your own vet who knows you and who has seen your dog.
Why should I trim my dog’s nails?
There are more than just aesthetic reasons to trim your dog’s nails--untrimmed nails can cause a variety of problems including broken nails, which are painful and bleed profusely. And unlike humans or some other animals, a dog walks on his toes like a horse, not the soles of his feet. Long nails can cause the dog to rock back on his paws, causing strain on his leg assemblies and interfering with his gait. Some dogs (particularly overweight ones) may may find it uncomfortable to put their full body weight on their feet with overgrown nails, causing sore feet, legs and hips. Over the long term, this can also contribute to the devlopment of arthritis.
Many people have their dog’s nails trimmed by a groomer or at the vet’s office, which is usually affordable and quick. However, it can also be a very stressful experience for the dog, because rarely do such places take any time to ensure the dog is calm or comfortable. Really, they’re probably only charging $10 or so for the procedure, so if your dog puts up a fuss they’ll just restrain him, perhaps muzzle him, and clip away. It would be far better, and nicer, for you to handle this frequent task with care and compassion, which is why I recommend doing it yourself.
There are two popular methods of trimming dogs nails: using a clipper tool and using a Dremel-style rotary grinding tool, which is my preferred method. The Dremel method is increasingly popular among owners and groomers because it has several safety advantages (which I will discuss below), but it’s good to know the ins and outs of both methods before you choose the one that is right for you.
Whichever method of nail-trimming you decide to use, the first step is to make sure your dog is comfortable having his paws handled. If your dog is hesitant or fearful of allowing you to handle his paws, you may need several sessions (or more if your dog has ever had a negative nail trimming experience) of touching and holding your dog’s paws, praising him, and giving him food rewards for allowing this contact. It is very important for you to remain calm, reassuring and confident--your dog can pick up on your stress and will react accordingly. If you get frustrated it’s best to stop the activity and try later when you are calmer. Keep sessions short at first until you and your dog are both confident and relaxed.
Once your dog is allowing you to touch and hold his paws, you need to get him comfortable with the trimming tool, whether it is a pair of clippers or a Dremel tool. Start by having it near the dog while you are rewarding/praising him for allowing paw-handling. Then start touching the tool to your dogs nails while rewarding and praising him for allowing it.
Some handbooks instruct you to drape your body over your reclining dog so that if he tries to get up you are restraining him. This position may cause anxiety and some struggling by the dog because it’s a dominant position that feels threatening to some dogs. It is far better to slowly help your dog learn that allowing nail trimming brings rewards. Even if he never loves the procedure, using care and rewards will convince him to allow it without the necessity of restraint.
Trimming nails with clippers
Clippers may be a convenient nail-trimming choice because they do not require power to operate. They are also less expensive to purchase than a rotary tool, but their blades can get dull rather quickly and need to be replaced. There are two popular styles of clippers for dogs: scissors style and guillotine style. The style you choose is a matter of personal preference, but many owners/groomers find the guillotine style to be easier to use on a regular basis (although for dogs whose nails have been allowed to grow so long they are curling, the scissors style may be more practical.) The guillotine-style clipper has a stationary ring guide through which the toenail is placed, and when the handles are squeezed a cutting blade moves across to slice the nail. Scissors-style clippers are positioned at a right angle to the nail with one blade on either side; squeezing the handles moves both blades together to cut the nail.
Regardless of which style you choose, the biggest challenge with clippers is avoiding the quick, which is the name for the blood vessels and nerves that supply the nail. Cutting the quick can cause bleeding and considerable pain for the dog (and will likely undo much of the work you have put into getting your dog to relax for paw handling!) It is far better to cut small bits off of the dog’s nails and do it more frequently than to try cutting too much and running the risk of hitting the quick.
For a dog that is new to nail cutting, you may want to give a treat reward after every nail cut. For dogs that are more experienced and relaxed you can give fewer treats, but it is always important to make the nail-cutting experience rewarding for the dog: praise him and give him treats or play when it’s over for a job well-done. Most importantly: it’s best to avoid stress and strife that will make the experience unpleasant for your dog. If you become frustrated stop and try again when you are more relaxed. If you must get the nails cut soon, take your dog to the vet or groomer this time so he doesn’t associate you with the unpleasant experience, and continue working at home getting the dog to relax for you.
Trimming nails with a Dremel-style rotary tool
Clipping a dog’s nails with guillotine- or scissors-style clippers involves squeezing the nail and putting pressure on the sensitive quick, potentially causing discomfort and pain. There is also the risk, especially with dark nails, that you will cut throught the quick and cause considerable pain and bleeding--and perhaps make your dog afraid of nail cutting forever. The difficulty involved often makes the human stressed, which in turn stresses out the dog and makes the entire operation more nerve-wracking and prone to error.
A properly used Dremel (or similar rotary tool) involves no squeezing or pressure on the quick. Further, Dremeling makes it easier to check the nail as you grind so you can judge when you’re getting close to nicking the quick and stop in time. With the Dremel, you can also grind off all around the quick so that it recedes faster and you can get even shorter nails. The closer you can get to the quick, the more you can force it to recede and the more quickly it will recede. Finally, you can grind off all the corners and rough edges leaving nice smooth nails.
Remember that the first step is to help your dog relax and allow paw-handling. After this, you are ready to acquaint him with the Dremel too so he will not fear it. Start with the tool off, and leave it nearby in full sight while you handle your dogs paws and reward him. Then pick up the Dremel--keeping the power off--and hold it near him and allow him to sniff it. If he shows little fear or interest, touch the Dremel to a toenail or two and reward the dog for allowing it. (If he won’t allow, go back a step). Remember that making the first experiences positive is very important!
Once he’s comfortable with the Dremel off, you will need to habituate him to having it turned on. This is very difficult for some dogs and may take many sessions and some patience. Turn on the Dremel and hold it while praising your dog and giving it treats. Do not restrain the dog and force him to stay near the dremel. (If he’s on a leash, let him go to the end of the leash if that’s what he wants, but don’t use it to pull him back. You could try all of this in the bathroom with the door closed so they are always near enough to lure back.) Lure him with treats, the closer he comes or stays, the better the reward. Gradually work toward holding the running Dremel close and closer to a paw, rewarding and praising your dog for allowing it. The next step is to tap the running Dremel head against the end of each claw briefly and reward. You are not actually trying to trim at this point, just getting your dog accustomed to the idea.
Once he is comfortable with the touch of the dremel, you can start spending more time grinding each nail. The friction from the Dremel can generate a lot of heat, and so it’s important not to hold it too long at each nail. A few seconds on, a second or two off is a good pattern. Also, do not apply pressure to the nail with the Dremel--this will also make the nail too hot. The friction of the sandpaper and the spinning of the drum will do the grinding for you.
It’s better and more comfortable for your dog if you take very long nails to their desireable short length by doing more frequent grindings of small amounts than to try and grind large amounts all at once. Plan twice-weekly sessions and take a little bit at a time until you’ve reach your goal, and then keep a weekly or bi-weekly schedule to maintain it.
Dremel makes several corded and cordless models. Corded models may be best for large dogs and multiple dog households, but cordless models work well for many dogs, are great for traveling and are more maneuverable. (I use a cordless and it works very well.) If you choose a style that has more than two speeds, keep it on 1 or 2--any faster and you may generate too much heat too quickly.
- If you have a dog with a longer coat, you may want to trim the fur on the paws before dremeling so it will not get caught and cause pain.
- Styptic powder is handy to have in case you do nick the quick and need to stop the bleeding.