Attentive as we may be, trimming our dog’s toenails is one of those vexing tasks that many of us studiously avoid. Should they be trimmed, and if so, how often? What if they bleed? What if the pedicure becomes a wrestling match, and the dog always wins? Here are some general guidelines and recommendations to help you tend your dog’s toenails.
Every dog wears down his or her nails differently. For example, take my two. Nellie, Quinn and I walk together daily on a variety of surfaces, from grass to cement. Nellie’s nails naturally remain at an ideal length, but Quinn needs a nail trim approximately once every two months (and he’s the one who runs two miles for every mile I walk).
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.
Some dogs have clear nails, which allows you to easily tell how far the tip of the nail extends beyond the “quick,” that pink- to red-colored, blood-filled cavity that runs down the center of the toenail. If the nail extends well beyond the quick, it’s time for a pedicure. (Be aware that dogs with chronically overgrown nails may also develop lengthy quicks.) And then there are dogs with black toenails, which makes it impossible to see the quick at all. To be certain about whether or not your dog’s nails are too long, consult with your veterinarian, vet tech or groomer.
If you have never before trimmed a dog’s toenails, my advice is this: ask a pro — veterinary technician, groomer, breeder — to teach you how. Pedicures can be tricky business! If your dog has clear nails (quicks readily visible) and happens to be an angel about having his or her feet handled, you’re good to go. Black nails or dogs who are moving targets make the job far more difficult. It’s easy to hit the quick, and that can be painful for your dog. Also, a nicked quick bleeds, not enough to be harmful to your dog, but enough to sure as heck be harmful to your carpeting! If bleeding occurs, your best bet is to drag the tip of the toenail through a soft bar of soap; the soap will sometimes form a plug that stops the bleeding. A safer bet is to have silver-nitrate sticks or powder  on hand.
Some dogs — even the most wellbehaved dogs — absolutely, positively hate having their nails trimmed and will fight tooth and nail (pun intended) before allowing a pedicure. If this description fits your dog, know that you are not alone. In this case, trimming just one or two nails at a time may be the ticket. For others, the use of a Dremel  tool rather than clippers restores sanity to the situation. Of course, routine handling of your dog’s feet and lots of praise can pave the way for less hectic pedicures as well.
Still, there are dogs who, no matter what, struggle so much that four people are needed to accomplish the nail trims — three to restrain the wriggling beast and one to trim the nails (and these are dogs who are often perfectly mannered in every other situation). In such cases, one has to question whether or not it’s really worth it. If that’s the case with your dog, I encourage you to talk with your vet about how to make the nail trim less stressful and more successful. She might be able to recommend a more effective restraint technique, behavior modification strategies and/or the use of Rescue Remedy  or chemical sedation.
Remember: performing pedicures on black toenails and/or wiggly dogs is not for the faint of heart. Don’t hesitate to enlist the services of a seasoned veteran. It will be a relief for you and your dog!