Trimming Nails

About Your Dog’s Nails

A dog’s nails are a bit different than ours, so it’s important to learn some tips for trimming them safely and making the experience as positive as possible for your pup. Instead of a flat nail like humans have, our dogs have curved and oval-shaped nails. Dog nails are made up of two major layers: a dead and nerveless outer layer made of keratin protein surrounding the very sensitive and very much alive blood vessel-packed tissue called the quick. If your dog has clear nails, you can see the pink, tube-like quick in their nail. If your dog has black nails, it can be much more difficult to know where the quick begins and where to avoid cutting.

What You Need to Trim Your Dog’s Nails at Home

You need a few basic supplies to tackle nail trims yourself at home.

  • Treats. Have some treats or yummy food like peanut butter to reward your dog for staying calm throughout the nail trim process. You can give a treat after clipping each nail or finishing each paw. Another trick is placing a licking mat smeared with wet food or other spreadable treats on the wall to use as a distraction for your dog while you handle their paws. A food-stuffed toy can also work well to keep your dog occupied during the trim.
  • Dog nail clippers. If you have a small dog or puppy, nail scissors (or cat nail clippers) are easier to use and manipulate. If your dog is large, choose the larger nail clippers, often called “guillotine” style. These can cut through thicker nails compared to the scissor style. If your dog is medium-sized, you can try either style, but the scissor might not be strong enough to cut through thicker nails. Ask your veterinarian for advice if you aren’t sure.
  • Styptic powder. Keep some styptic powder on hand to help stop the bleeding if you trim a nail too short and cut into the quick. In a pinch, you can substitute a bit of corn starch for styptic powder.

 How To Trim Your Dog’s Nails at Home

  1. Sit with your dog in a well-lit area.
  2. Gently hold your dog’s paw, pushing back any long fur away from the nail you’re going to trim. 
  3. Firmly hold the toe pad between your thumb and forefinger, gently extending their toe to give you a better view of the individual nail.
  4. For scissor-style clippers, hold the clippers horizontally and perpendicular to the nail. For guillotine-style clippers, hold the clippers perpendicular to the nail in a direction that will cut from bottom to top. You want to be able to see where the clipper will be cutting.
  5. If your dog has clear nails, identify where the quick is before clipping so you can avoid hitting it.
  6. If your dog has black nails, focus on very small clips to cut down the hooked part of their claw.
  7. Clip just the tip of the nail straight across. You can angle the clippers slightly downwards in the direction of your dog’s nail growth. Doing so can help you get a closer trim without hitting the quick, as the quick tapers into a point inside of the nail.

And here are a few helpful tips: 

  • Start young. The best time to start getting your dog used to nail trims is as young as possible. Practice holding and touching their paws when they are a puppy and always provide treats to build the positive association. As your dog gets older, they will be much less likely to react to nail trims.
  • Trim only one nail at a time. Trimming your dog’s nails can be nerve-wracking, both for you and your dog. If your dog appears stressed or won’t tolerate multiple nails being trimmed, make it easier for all by just trimming one nail a day.
  • Ask for help. Having a second person focus on keeping your dog comfortable and entertained can be a huge help while you are trimming nails. A family member or friend can make all the difference. 
  • Don’t forget the dewclaw. Dogs naturally have a fifth digit equivalent to the human thumb that is located on the inside of their lower front legs near the paw. The dewclaw nail grows just as quickly as the other nails so don’t forget to give it a trim at the same time.

How Short Should You Trim Your Dog’s Nails?

The goal is to trim a dog’s nails short enough that the nail doesn’t touch the floor when they’re standing. But if your dog has long quicks (which makes this impossible) try to cut to within approximately 2 millimeters of the quick. With consistent and correct nail trims, your dog’s quick will naturally recede, making their nails easier to trim to the correct length over time. There is a lot of misinformation out there that purposely cutting the quick helps to shorten it in the future — this is not true and can predispose your dog to bleeding, infection, pain, and a complete refusal to tolerate future nail trims.

For black dog nails, trim very short lengths off the nail and look at the center of the nail straight on after each trim. The cut end of a nail will appear whitish when it’s just the two outer layers (the safe part to trim). As you trim closer to the quick, the center of the nail will begin to look like a black dot. Stop trimming when you see the center of the nail appear black. If you see pink at the center, that’s the quick, and you shouldn’t cut anymore! 


Trim nails outside or in a well-lit room.

If you need “cheaters” for reading, use them for toenail clipping too.

It’s actually easier to see the nail structures on pigmented nails than on white ones.

The insensitive nail will show as a chalky ring around the sensitive quick.

Keep clipper blades almost parallel to the nail – never cut across the finger.

Don’t squeeze the toes – that hurts!

Use your fingers to separate the toes for clipping and hold the paw gently.

Use a pair of blunt edged children’s scissors to remove excess toe hair: nothing dulls clippers quicker than cutting hair!

Remember, no dog ever died from a quicked toenail. If you “quick” your dog accidentally, give a yummy treat right away.

Make nail trimming fun: always associate nail cutting with cookies and praise.

For maintenance, cut every two weeks. To shorten, cut every week.

Once the insensitive nail is thinned out and isn’t supporting the quick, the quick will dry up and recede. This will allow you to cut your dog’s nails even shorter. Each dog’s nails are different, but very long toenails often become dry and cracked, with a clear separation of the living tissue and the insensitive nail. This will make it easier to trim back longer nails.

What’s inside your dog’s toenail? 

On the left, the interior structures are shown, along with the suggested angle to remove the “roof” of the nail, while not harming the sensitive quick.

On a black claw, the interface between sensitive and insensitive nail is usually chalky and white – very easy to discern. On the right is a close-up view of the inside of the nail. On cross section, the sensitive quick will look translucent and glossy, like living flesh.

In untrimmed claws, there will often be a “notch” below the tip of the quick. It is usually safe to initiate your angled cut at the notch. Some dogs act like cutting their nails is their worst nightmare.

This may be a learned behavior from their painful, overstimulated toes, which will slowly dissipate along with the pain once the nails are short.

Use all your best restraint and behavior modification tricks to get through the initial phase, whether your dog is a squirmer or a drama queen. Start on the hind feet, because the nails tend to be a little shorter and less sensitive than the front.

But remember you can’t make an accurate cut on a moving target so get help from your dog trainer or groomer if needed.

Make nail trimming “quality time” you spend with your dog. Lots of kisses, lots of treats and a positive attitude go a long way.

If you dread it, your dog will too, so learn how to be a good actor until you succeed in believing it can be a loving experience for you both. If your dog loses patience quickly, try cutting one nail a day.

As long as you keep the order of toes consistent, this will be a good maintenance schedule, giving every toe a trim every 16 days.

Short toenails are critical to your dog’s health and soundness. Failure is not an option!