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Dog Nail Trims 101

Imagine your nails were so long you couldn't even put your toes flat on the ground. Not fun, right? This is what dogs experience when we neglect their nail trims. Not only are overgrown nails uncomfortable, they prevent dogs from walking normally, which puts strain on their muscles and joints and can cause long term musculoskeletal issues. Nail trims aren't just a cosmetic concern, they're a matter of health and well being.

groomer clipping puppy's nails

How to Trim Your Dog's Nails

Nail trimming looks fairly easy... Just grab a foot and start clipping, right? Well, not really. In order to successfully trim nails, you'll need to start with a little nail anatomy lesson.

Every nail has a blood vessel in it, called the quick. When you clip nails you want to cut as close as you can to the quick but never into it, or it will bleed. One important thing to note about the quick is that it will grow longer when nails are consistently long, and will recede when the nails are trimmed consistently close to the quick. Because of this, if your dog has had chronically long nails, it may take some time to get them back to the proper length. He or she will need frequent nail trims to expose the quick and help it recede.

Now that you know all about the quick, the next step is learning how to find the end of it in a nail. It's easier to tell on clear nails; just look for where the pink inside the nail ends, and don't cut past that point. When it comes to darker nails, however, it's a whole different story. You need to slowly clip away until you see the end of the quick peaking through: a little black dot in the center of the nail. The quick is often proceeded by a white crumbly area, so if you see that, slow down. You're getting close! Once you see the quick poke through, you can take off a little more until the dot gets bigger and fills much of the center of the nail. If you want to play it safe though, you can stop as soon as you see the quick, because the difference between just enough and too far takes a lot of practice to master.

picture of dog's paws with labels

Like every new skill, nail trims come with some trial and error, especially when your dog is wiggling and pulling away. If you do hit the quick, remember that it is probably more traumatic for you than it is for your pup. Making a big deal out of it will likely make your dog more anxious, so try to stay calm and keep things positive.

Even professionals hit the quick sometimes, so no matter how confident you feel in your nail trim skills, it's smart to keep some styptic powder or corn starch on close by. Both of these work well for helping to stop the bleeding. Simply press it on the end of the nail, using as much as necessary.

If this whole process makes you nervous, or you just can't get the hang of it, feel free to swing by Ollu for a walk-in nail trim from the pros.

How Often to Trim a Dog's Nails

Every dog is different when it comes to frequency of nail trims. Some dogs walk on pavement so much that it naturally grinds down the nail and reduces the need for nail trims. Other dogs have more quickly growing nails or aren't as active, and need trims monthly. If your dog's nails are overgrown, you may want to come in weekly for a while to try to get the nail to a healthy length. The main rule of thumb though, is that once your dog's nails hit the ground and you hear that tell-tale clicking, it's time for a trim. The goal is to have the nails consistently up off the ground.

To Clip or Dremel?

There are two types of nail trims you can choose from: the clip or the dremel. The clip is the typical nail trim you think of, with regular nail trimmers. This type of nail trim is generally faster once you get the hang of it, but it takes more confidence and skill to not hit the quick. Make sure your nail clippers are good quality and sharp, or the nail trim will be more difficult than it needs to be. Here is one of our favorites.

The other type of nail trim is the dremel. This is an electric file that is used to grind down your dog's nails. People often choose this type of nail trim because it make the nails smoother (no more scratched floors or legs!), and allows them to get the nails as short as possible. If you're trying to do nails at home, you may find this type of trim easier to begin with because it allows you to slowly take off minuscule amounts of nail, reducing your chance of hitting the quick. If your dog is scared of loud noises or vibrations, though, you may have to stick with a regular nail clip.

dog getting nails dremeled

What to Do if Your Dog Hates Nail Trims

Let's face it, most dogs don't like nail trims. At best, they tolerate it. At worst, they flail, bite and howl. If your dog struggles with nail trims, here are a few things you can try:

  • Try a different type of nail trim. Some dogs hate the noise and vibration of dremels, but do fine for nail clips. For other dogs, the sudden snap of the nail trimmer scares them to death, but the dremel is just fine. A simple switch between the type of nail trims could be all your dog needs.

  • Change it up. Once dogs have a bad experience with the nail trim, putting them in the same setting may automatically make them anxious. Try changing where you do the nail trim, or the routine leading up to the nail trim. For example, if you usually do it standing in the bathroom after the dog's bath, try doing it outside while they're laying down chewing on their rawhide. We have some dogs here at the salon who freak out for nail trims on the grooming table, but are perfectly fine when we switch to doing it in the tub.

  • Counter conditioning. Counter conditioning is a type of training where you work to create positive associations with something your dog doesn't like. This is done by offering a high value treat while exposing them to whatever you're working on, and then taking away the treat the moment the scary thing is gone. The goal is to start slowly and make sure it stays positive the whole time. This means that for some dogs you may begin by simply holding their paws, or tapping a nail clipper on their nails while giving them treats. Only when they are super comfortable with these first steps should you try the actual nail trim while offering treats. Ideally you would stop your session before they start feeling any anxiety or stress. It may take months to see progress in training like this, but it really can work wonders. Check out our Preparing for Your Puppy's First Groom blog post for more details about counter conditioning.

  • Come to the pros. Dogs can sense when you're not confident, so they often behave worse for newbies than for people who know what they're doing. Kind of like kids with a rookie babysitter. Time after time we've heard that dogs are nightmares for their owners, but then when we do the nail trim they behave just fine. In addition to having a little more experience under our belts, we have equipment to keep them from squirming away, which is sometimes enough to make them relax and accept the fact that they're getting a nail trim. (Learn more about our nail trim service here!)

  • Try the vet. If all else fails, don't just give up and let your dog's nails grow wild. Vets offer sedated nail trims, and although it may not be fun, it does get the job done. It may be rough on the pocket book now, but will save you from dealing with health issues caused by those overgrown nails.

Nail trims are a big part of your dog's well-being, and now you have all the know how you need to keep them at a healthy length. It's time to go buy some nail trimmers, take a deep breath, and clip!

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