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  • Writer's pictureEmily

The Art of Nail Trimming - Part 1

One thing that most dog owners have in common is that we have nail-trimming issues. Trimming nails is a necessary evil of dog ownership, but it is often written off because of an owner’s confidence or a dog’s bad behavior. Here is a beginner’s guide to what you need to know about trimming nails.

The Importance

Did you know that long nails could affect the health and happiness of your dog? Nail trimming isn’t just for appearance; long nails can wreck havoc on a dog’s posture and body:

“Long, unkempt nails not only look unattractive, but over time they can do serious damage to your dog (not to mention your floors). When nails are so long that they constantly touch the ground, they exert force back into the nail bed, creating pain for the dog (imagine wearing a too-tight shoe) and pressure on the toe joint. Long term, this can actually realign the joints of the foreleg and make the foot looked flattened and splayed.

Again, this isn’t just an aesthetic problem, it’s a functional one: Compromising your dog’s weight distribution and natural alignment can leave her more susceptible to injuries, and make walking and running difficult and painful. This is especially important in older dogs, whose posture can be dramatically improved by cutting back neglected nails.

In extreme cases, overgrown nails can curve and grow into the pad of the foot. But even if they are not that out of control, long nails can get torn or split, which is very painful and, depending on severity, may need to be treated by a veterinarian.” Reference: here

There’s no ignoring that long nails can cause pain, bad posture, movement issues and more, which all could lead to injuries. It’s not just about keeping nails short and pretty, it is part of being a good dog owner and looking out for their health.

The Anatomy

It’s important that you understand the anatomy of a nail before trimming. The innermost part of the nail is the quick, which contains the blood supply. Most people are aware that it is painful if you cut into the quick, but there are a few layers around the quick that can help you identify when you are getting close. The next layer is live tissue surrounding the quick. There is a chalky/dead layer around that, which is a good indication that you are getting close to the quick. Finally, there is the hard, outer shell of the nail, which is mostly what is trimmed off.

All About Angles

How you trim is extremely important and can dictate how safe and effective you are. The closer you get to the quick, the more it will recede, leading to a shorter nail. If your dog’s nails haven’t been trimmed regularly, it’s possible that the quick is very long and it won’t leave you with much of the outer layers to remove. If you trim correctly and often, you can cause the quick to recede.

I follow the Alternative Cut Line (ACL), which is a method of trimming the nail as close to the quick as possible without cutting into it. A traditional cut just takes off the bottom of the nail, but the ACL removes the outer layers above the quick as well. This closer trim causes the quick to recede faster and is the easiest way to get shorter nails.

This video explains both anatomy of the nail and the ACL:


The tools you use can make a world of difference. There are a variety of options for nail trimming, which typically include: clippers, Dremel, nail file or scratchboard. The clippers and Dremel are the most effective tools for me, but I will do a future post on the scratchboard.

For clippers, I love the red handle Millers Forge. The most important things to look for in a set of clippers is that you HAVE to have scissor action (not the guillotine style) and they need to be small. The smaller the clippers, the more precise you can be. For the Dremel, the Dremel 7300 Pet Style works okay, but if you are going to be using it regularly, I really recommend the Dremel 8050.

I prefer to use a combination of the two: I use the clippers to cut my ACL and then the Dremel to get as close to the quick as possible. I think this combination is the most effective to get the quick to recede. You can use either independently; it just takes a little more finessing.

Knowing When to Stop

The key to trimming nails is to take a little off at a time; you should never expect to do one cut and be done! Using my Miller Forge clippers, I like to think of it as peeling a potato. You are just taking little slivers off in a cone style to expose the quick. I know there are a lot of videos out there advertising nail clippers that give you the impression you should just take one big piece off and be done, but that increases your chances of quicking the dog. If you take a little off a time, then you can use your knowledge of nail anatomy to know when you are getting close to the quick and stop before you hit it.

This is so easy for black nails! Black nails intimidate many people, but if you are trimming the nail correctly, they can be easier to trim than white nails. Use the inside of the nail, not the outside, to determine how close you are to the quick! Referring back to the anatomy, you will see the hard, outer shell (what’s visible without any cutting), and then once you start cutting you will eventually see some of the white chalky layer. Under this white, chalky layer is the “jelly” layer, which is the live tissue surrounding the quick. On black nails, this jelly layer is an obvious difference in color and texture. It is softer and lighter grey, making it very clear when you are getting close to the quick. Once you see this jelly layer, do not cut more because under that is the quick. It is important to remove the white, chalky layer to get to that jelly layer so that you are close to exposing the quick and therefore cause it to recede.

If you hit the quick, don't panic! Unfortunately, it happens on occasion. Take it as a lesson in anatomy and learn from it. It is much harder to quick a nail with a Dremel than clippers; if you do draw blood with a Dremel, it's usually just a drop or two. If you quick a nail with clippers, you can use corn starch or styptic powder, like Kwik Stop, to stop the bleeding.

Note: I do think using only the Dremel makes it harder to see the difference in layers. Clippers create a nice cross section where the layers are easily visible. If you can, I would try using clippers to familiarize yourself with the layers of the nail before using the Dremel.

How To Trim This is much easier to show to explain, so check out these two videos! The second one is a bit more detailed than the first, so be sure to watch them both:

Here are a variety of photos that I hope help you get a good idea of what nails should look like. Coming soon will be Part 2, which will go over conditioning dogs to having their nails trimmed and working with fearful dogs.

If you are looking for additional help, I recommend joining the Nail Maintenance For Dogs group on Facebook.

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