Nailing It!

Clack, clack, clack, clack…

Ahh yes, the all too familiar, literal nails-on-a-blackboard, cringe inducing click of dog nails on the hard floor. It's the alarm ringing and telling you it's time for a trim, and I know you’re sitting there procrastinating. Or maybe you don’t even feel like it's even a task to attempt yourself, reserved for vets & groomers to tackle professionally. What if I told you that nailing nail time is totally possible, all on your own, in five minutes flat with no drama involved? In our house, nail time is fun time! Let this be your guide to painless paw maintenance, whether you’re starting with a new puppy or wanting to improve your adult dog’s cooperative care skills.

Why do it yourself?

I trim my dog’s nails once a week. Let’s say your groomer or vet charges $10 for a nail trim. That’s $50 every month, or about $25 if you only did every two weeks. Over the course of a year, you’re spending up to $600 in dog manicures! If you trim them yourself, it's a one time cost of a $30 dremel or a $10 pair of clippers. The only other tool you’ll ever need is some extra yummy treats. Doing it yourself also ensures your dog is safe and comfortable throughout the process.

Laying the Groundwork

Introducing your dog to doing nails starts with doing no nails at all— yet. Especially with new puppies, first you want your dog comfortable with having his paws touched with just your hands. Touch the tops of each paw, the paw pads, in between each of his cute little toes, and of course the nails. If the puppy seems to balk at this, break out some treats and reward him for each touch. He’ll learn that good things come from his hands being handled, and you may end up with a “paw” being offered! Take that opportunity to teach him to “high five”, “shake”, or “wave” as a bonus.

Once you know your dog is happy to have all four feet massaged, you can now introduce your tool of choice— but don’t use it on him! For this step, all you have to do is show and tell. Show him what it looks like, and tell him what it does by having it make its sound. For dremels, that means turning on the motor, and for clippers, give a few of those snip-snip sounds of the blades in the air. Reward your pup at the sights and sounds of this alien being. Remember, he has no idea what they are yet so this where you teach him that these tools are good things! Now that the deck is stacked in your favor with all the positive associations, we have a dog that’s ready to have his first trim!

Before & after nail trimming. At proper length, nails don’t touch the ground when the dog is standing.

Before & after nail trimming. At proper length, nails don’t touch the ground when the dog is standing.

The Two Man Method

It can be helpful when you’re first starting out with a squirmy pup to have a second hand on deck to run interference while you work. I like to have the pup lay in my lap, belly up, like I’m holding a baby. I have him facing forward so that he can take treats from my assistant while I hold the dremel in my right hand and the dog’s paw in my left. Have your assistant start treating the pup for laying in your lap before you cut— this is key to a successful set up. Use high value if you have to, or a long lasting chew that the pup can continually lick and pick at throughout.

Once your puppy is gnawing away happily, trim ONE nail. If you’re using clippers, trim at a forty five degree angle. The nail & quick grow this way and will minimise the chance of nicking. For dremels, three seconds on the tip at a low speed setting should suffice. Praise your puppy for staying calm and continue if he is still comfortable. If not, you can pause here. Some puppies will need to be introduced to trimming in short sessions, one nail at a time in the beginning, until they are comfortable having all four feet done in a sitting.

The two man set up

The two man set up

Not so black and white

Some dogs have black nails, while others are a translucent white, and then there are dogs who have a mix of both. When trimming white nails, you’ll be able to see the pink center of the quick to know if you’re trimming too close. With black nails, you’ll have to look underneath at the tips of the nails for the circle. When you’ve exposed that circle, the nail is trimmed correctly.

Using clippers it is easy to trim too much at once when working on black nails, so I recommend dremeling especially in this case. Dremeling will let you slowly grind so that you’ll know when you’re getting close to the quick, whereas with clippers, one chop too close and it's already too late! For this reason I like dremeling better as well, because it greatly decreases the chance of a painful nick and accidentally reversing all the positive feelings we worked hard to establish leading up to the main event. Grinding also allows you to shape the nail and avoid creating sharp edges that can still scratch skin. However, in clippers’ defense, it can be easier to start with clipping for dogs who are fearful of the noise of the dremel or who have not yet been desensitized to it.

Quick pic: the circle exposed here shows no further trimming is needed

Quick pic: the circle exposed here shows no further trimming is needed

Baby steps

Building up slowly is the name of the nail grooming game. Don’t be disheartened if after just the first nail your dog is less than thrilled about pedicures! Each day, trim one more nail, with their favorite irresistible rewards. Work toward trimming one whole paw per session. Take breaks when you need them— there’s no rule for how slow you go, as long as you’re going! With time and continuous practice, your pup will acclimate to the odd feeling of the clippers or dremel and learn that trim time is treat time. Think of all the money and trips to the vet you’ll save, and the new cooperative care essential you will have mastered as a team. When you’ve seen a dog who jumps for joy at the mere sight of the tools, you know it's worth the investment.

Tools of the trade

Here are what I use for each technique. I’ve had some dogs who do better with one tool versus the other, as well as my own preferences. Experiment to see which method works best for you and your dog.


Millers Forge Stainless Steel Clippers


Cordless Dremel

Video Demo:

For a demonstration of how I do Chiyo’s nails in five minutes, check out our video of zero drama dremeling here!