How to Trim Your Dog’s Nails

Read our dog nail trimming tips.
By The Bark Editors, March 2014, Updated September 2020
trim dogs nails at home

I worked for almost a year as a dog groomer, so I know a few tricks about getting a dog’s nails trimmed no matter what. Whether it’s keeping a dog occupied with treats or a favorite chew toy, the promise of a walk immediately afterwards, calming holds to use with struggling dogs, or trimming one nail a day for three weeks and then starting over, it is possible to cut any dog’s nails.

It’s best to perform name trimming only as-needed. Perform regular at-home physical examinations of your dog’s health so they get comfortable with the process of being handled, this way your dog is relaxed while you trim their nails. 

When to Trim

One way to determine if your dog needs a pedicure is to manually extend the toes and assess the length of the nails in relation to the bottom of the foot. To do this, place your thumb on top of your dog’s foot and your other fingers on the large pad on the underside of the foot. Gently squeeze your fingers together, which will cause the toes to extend. With the toes in this position, check to see if the tips of the toenails are level with or go beyond the underside of the foot. The former can be left alone, while the latter need to be trimmed. To be certain about whether or not your dog’s nails are too long, consult with your veterinarian, vet tech or groomer. Get more information about Trimming Nails.

Required Tools

You don’t need a lot of tools to clip your dog’s nails at home. Before your start, gather up:

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  • High quality pair of dog nail trimmers
  • Dremel nail grinder
  • Some styptic powder, such as Kwik-Stop, to stop bleeding if you nick the quick

How to Cut Dog Nails Safely

Now that you have the supplies, how exactly do you give your dog a nail trim? Unfortunately, most dogs initially do not like having their nails trimmed, which is why it is important to practice. Training is key for cutting dog nails at home and get started early if you have a young dog. Some dogs may happily sit in your lap, but even with training other dogs may require some form of restraint.

1. Prepare

When you cut your dog's nails you may want to sit on the floor with your dog in your lap, hold your dog on a table or have someone help hold your dog on a table. You want to position your body opposite to the nail you are trimming.

2. Relax

Gently pat and massage your dog to get them to relax. Make trimming time fun and not a struggle—high-value treats help, as too does a cheerful, calm presence.

3. Assess

Hold your dog’s paw firmly and push on the pads to extend the nail. Locate where the blood vessels that supply the claw, called the nail quick, end. With clear or light dog nails, it is easy to see the pink color which indicates where the quick are. But with black or dark colored nails, you will need to cut in several small increments to reduce the chance of cutting into the quick.

If you don't easily see it or aren’t confident, don’t hesitate to enlist the services of a seasoned dog grooming veteran.

4.  Clip

A scissors-type nail trimmer is best used to trim dog nails that are so long that they are curling in a circle. Trim the nail below the quick on a 45-degree angle, with the cutting end of the nail clipper toward the end of the nail. Make several small nips with the clippers instead of one large one.

trimming dark color dog nailsFor dogs with dark nails: As you cut off small pieces of the nail, look at the cut edge of the nail. The light tissue (1) is the curved bottom part of the nail. The mottled light and dark tissue (2) is the top part of the nail.

As you cut the nail deeper, you will see a homogeneous gray to pink oval (3) starting to appear at the top of the cut surface of the nail. Stop cutting the nail at this point as additional cutting will cut into the quick.

5. Reward

Go slowly, take breaks between each paw, especially if your dog is new to at home nail trimming. Consider rewarding your dog with high value treats with each clip. Over time you can build up to several cuts or paws between treating. Give your dog (and yourself) time to relax and build confidence by taking breaks as-needed.

Your goal is to cut the claw to within approximately 2 millimeters of the quick. Ultimately, nails should be trimmed so that when the dog steps down, nails do not touch the floor.

If you accidentally cut into the quick, the claw will bleed and the dog will experience some pain. Wipe off the blood and apply Kwik-Stop or styptic powder to stop the bleeding. It is not serious and will heal in a short time. Even without any treatment the nail should stop bleeding in about 5 minutes or less.

Nail Trimming Tips:

  • In some cases, if the nails are brittle, the cut may tend to splinter the nail. In these cases, file the nail in a sweeping motion starting from the back of the nail and following the curve to the tip.

  • Trim a small amount on a regular basis rather than to try to remove large portions. 

  • Invest in a good pair of nail trimmers in an appropriate size for your dog. They can last a lifetime.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 77: Spring 2014

Clipping photos are courtesy Washington State University