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How to Cut an Uncooperative Dog’s Nails (Without Sedation)

It’s normal for a dog owner to have some level of anxiety when faced with the task of nail trimming. As a veterinarian, I’m no exception when performing the procedure at home even though I’ve taught others how to cut an uncooperative dog’s nails many times. 

You can learn how to cut an uncooperative dog’s nails by using a sharp nail trimmer, having a good understanding of canine anatomy and using a process of desensitization. The goal is to teach your dog that you will not hurt him nor scare him while trimming his nails.

The biggest deterrent is that so many dogs HATE having their toenails trimmed. The other fear factor is people are afraid they’ll hurt their dog by cutting too far.

Since dogs need to have their nails trimmed every 4 to 6 weeks, it’s tough to watch them go through such trauma every time nail trim day comes around. If you have to take your dog to the vet clinic once a month to have a hated procedure done there, he’ll learn to hate the vet clinic, too.

Teach Your Dog to Accept Nail Trimming

I recommend all of my clients learn how to trim their dog’s nails and train their dog to accept it. If you’re able to train your dog to sit, stay and walk on a leash you can also quickly teach him to accept nail trimming. He might not love it but he’ll do his best to cooperate if you’re careful not to scare him or hurt him.

In my years as a vet, I’ve seen so many dogs that are borderline psychotic about nail trims. Sure, you can get four people to lay across a frightened dog to make him hold still but then his behavior will be more extreme each time he comes back. 

How practical is it to sedate a dog every couple of months to trim his nails? It can be done but it would be better for everyone to train a dog to accept humane nail trims without sedation.

I’ll show you step-by-step how to cut an uncooperative dogs nails and the process won’t leave anyone in tears.

How to Cut an Uncooperative Dog’s Nails

You will need these supplies:

  1. Sharp nail trimmers or a rotary tool with a fresh nail grinder
  2. Good light and reading glasses for magnification 
  3. Your dog’s absolute favorite treat
  4. Understanding of dog foot anatomy
  5. A nail trimming assistant (optional but very helpful)
  6. Counterconditioning and desensitization training
  7. Lots of patience and forgiveness 

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Equipment used to learn how to cut an uncooperative dog's nails
Equipment to trim your dog’s nails at home

1. Nail Trimmer/Clipper or Rotary Nail Grinder

The main goal is to remove overgrown toenail material quickly and painlessly. You have a couple of options here:

  • Guillotine clippers (Resco style)
  • Scissors-style nail trimmer
  • A rotary tool with a coarse grinding wheel (Dremel is one brand)

I’ve used all three of these with success. You should choose the tool you think your dog will tolerate best but don’t be afraid to try all three styles of nail trimmers. 

I recommend that you start with a traditional scissors-style nail clipper as they are easy to use and make quick work of the job. Make sure you buy the right size: large size for large dogs and small size for small dogs.

The most important thing to remember is that the nail clipper needs to be very sharp. Either sharpen get your old trimmers professionally sharped or buy a brand new pair. Dog nail trimmers are not very expensive and it’s well worth the small investment to make the task more efficient.

One of my dogs prefers a rotary tool nail trimmer and the other dog prefers scissors-style nail clippers. You’ll never know what you’re dog will feel most comfortable with until you test out each tool. Fortunately, you can get all three of these tools by spending less than $50.

2. Good Lighting & Magnification

Don’t be surprised if your dog has some sort of sixth sense about when you’re getting ready to trim her nails. The minute you get the trimmers out, she will disappear from the face of the Earth.

You can either drag your dog out from wherever they’re holed up or you can try to work with them wherever they decide they feel safest. My dogs happen to feel safest in one of the darkest places in my house. The lights in that area just don’t make the grade when it comes to detail work like trimming dog nails.

The best solution I’ve come up with is a cheap headlamp I bought from Amazon.com a couple of years ago. It provides a very bright light source and it’s hands-free since it’s strapped around your head.

I also wear a pair of reading glasses to magnify my dog’s toenail as I trim it. You can buy these at any drugstore. I use a pretty low magnification pair of 1.5X but choose whichever one looks good to you. 

3. Your Dog’s Absolute Favorite Treat

First, a pro tip: practice nail trimming training when your dog is already hungry. 

Next, figure out your dog’s absolute favorite treat. I’m not talking about something that’s kind of special, I’m talking about something your dog will walk through fire to get! 

Some treats to try: 

  • small pieces of cooked chicken breast (especially rotisserie chicken)
  • hot dog or lunch meat
  • cheese
  • cream cheese
  • peanut butter
  • dehydrated liver treats 

Cut the treats into small pieces no larger than 1/4 inch so that you can give your dog quite a few of them without upsetting his stomach.

Some dogs do well with a “lick mat” that is designed to have peanut butter smeared between nubbies so it takes a while to lick the treat out. Just be careful about how much peanut butter you use–it’s very fatty and could upset your pup’s stomach. 

4. Understand Dog Foot Anatomy 

Before you start cutting, let’s discuss the anatomy of a dog’s foot. Dog foot anatomy is not very similar to our own human feet. 

First of all, most dogs are very sensitive about their feet. This trait serves them well because it’s their point of contact with the environment. They need to be able to feel what they’re walking on to stay safe.

clear toenail on a dog's food showing blood supply
You can see the living and non-living parts of the nail in this dog’s clear nail

Be gentle when you hold your dog’s foot, don’t squeeze it. Holding on between the paw pad area and the “wrist” area causes less discomfort for most dogs. If you hold on around the dog’s paw, just make sure you’re not squeezing too tightly.

A dog’s toenails are very different from human fingernails and toenails. A dog’s nail is elongated and has a blood supply and a nerve in the center of it. We call this blood supply the nail “quick.” This is what people are so afraid of cutting into. Only the outer shell is dead tissue and only the very end of the nail doesn’t have a blood or nerve supply in it. 

What Happens If You “Quick” Your Dog?

I’ve seen thousands of dogs with bleeding toenails and it’s not as terrifying as you might think.

Believe me, your dog is not going to care that their toenail is bleeding. The moment of pain is already over by the time blood is flowing. After the initial second of pain, they act like it doesn’t bother them at all as track little red dots all over your house! 

Besides, you’re going to understand how much of the nail you can safely cut and you’re going to go very slowly. 

Your chances of causing a major toenail bleed are very low if you’re knowledgeable and careful.

Do You Need Styptic Powder?

Many guides to trimming a dog’s claws recommend you have some styptic powder on hand. 

I think it’s a good idea to keep some on hand but I’m very careful and rarely need to use it. 

If you don’t have any styptic powder you can use plain all-purpose flour or cornstarch to pack a little bit on the bleeding end of the toenail. After that, keep the dog still for 10 minutes and the bleeding will stop. 

Cutting the Nail

It’s easy to see the blood supply inside of a dog’s clear or white toenail. Make sure that you stay a few millimeters long of that. But with black dog nails, you don’t know exactly where the blood supply starts. 

If you look at the end of the toenail as you’re trimming, you’ll notice the center part of it starts to get wider right before you hit the blood supply. The bottom part of the toenail also becomes more hollow or concave as you get closer to the nail quick. 

end of a dog's toenail with red dot from the quick
I almost “quicked” this black nail but stopped just before it started bleeding!

If you’re using guillotine-style or scissors-style nail clippers, just shave off about a millimeter at a time. If your dog acts like it’s starting to hurt a lot more, then STOP. 

That’s the advantage of having a sharp nail trimmer–you can trim off a very thin portion of the nail and stop before you hit the quick.

Grinding the Nail

If you’re using a rotary tool, make sure that you don’t hold the tool against the nail for more than 1-2 seconds at a time. A pet nail grinder generates a lot of heat and can be painful for a dog. 

I hold the dog’s toe in one hand with my index finger pressing on the top of the nail. With my other hand, I use a firm tapping motion to touch the grinder on different parts of the claw end for only a second at a time. I also rotate between different toenails so none of them gets too hot.

Overgrown Nails

If your dog has long nails, it’s going to take multiple nail trimming sessions to get them to a normal length. 

The reason is that the dead tip of the nail isn’t the only thing that gets longer. The nail quick also gets longer. You can’t trim off very much of the tip of an overgrown toenail without hitting the quick and also causing pain.

Plan on trimming your dog’s nails a tiny bit once a week until they’re back to a reasonable length. When the dog is standing, you should see the nail just touching the floor or slightly above the floor. 

5. A Nail Trimming Assistant 

You can certainly train your dog to accept nail trimming without a second person. But having a helper will make the job faster and easier. 

Your helper can feed treats and distract the dog while you handle the foot and trim the nails.

 Watch the video below. This is an excellent example of counter conditioning and desensitizing a dog to nail trimming by the late great Dr. Sophia Yin.

Dr. Sophia Yin’s Dog Nail Trimming Technique Video:

YouTube player
Dr. Sophia Yin shows how to trim an aggressive dog’s nails.

6. Counter Conditioning & Desensitization Training 

Counter conditioning means conditioning an undesirable behavior into desired one. In this case, food rewards are used. Desensitization training involves gradually building up a dog’s tolerance to something that currently upsets them. 

The key idea to remember is that you must monitor your dog’s mood at every moment during the training. You want to push them just to the point that they’re a little uncomfortable but not upset and then back off. 

If you believe your dog might bite, you can use a muzzle gently and humanely to make training safer. But you must be extra careful not to push him past his comfort level during training. If you scare him in this way, it will make his nail trim anxiety worse. 

Signs that your dog is becoming uncomfortable include:

  • Pulling back his foot
  • Ears pinned back
  • Hair on back raised
  • Stiff posture 
  • Looking out of the corner of his eye at you
  • Drooling
  • Heavy panting
  • Raising his lip, growling, vocalizing
  • Kicking your hand
  • Twisting to try to get away

Watch the video above. 

Noticed that the person trimming the nails stops immediately when the dog’s body language becomes tense. Then she waits until the dog is concentrating on eating his treat until she starts to touch his foot again.

We want the dog to only have good experiences with nail clipping. We don’t want to put him into a state of fear or panic. We’re trying to teach him that we respect his anxiety and will not push him too far or cause him physical pain.

As shown in the video, you will very gradually get your dog used to first touching his foot, then touching his toenail, then touching his toenail with the trimmer, and finally trimming off a tiny little bit of one toenail.

Make sure you stop the session when the dog is in a relaxed state. 

Don’t make the mistake of thinking he did fine with one nail so you might as well go ahead and do more. The minute he shows you that he’s uncomfortable, stop and give him a break. If he gets upset, you may need to back up to the previous stage and go more slowly. 

I told you you were going to need a lot of patience and forgiveness for your dog!

7. Lots of Patience and Forgiveness

The amount of time and training it will take for your dog to be comfortable with nail trimming depends on his previous experiences and his personality. If he is already terrified of nail trims and is a strong-willed dog, it could take months to get him comfortable with the process. But it’s so worth it!

You see, you are not just training him to accept nail trimming, you’re training him to be comfortable being handled by humans. 

You’re teaching him that he can trust you not to scare or hurt him. If your dog ever gets sick or injured he may need to be treated in a veterinary hospital. Hospitalization can be an awful experience for dogs who don’t have good experiences being handled by humans. Take the time now and teach your dog that he can trust people.

Conclusion

I want to impress upon you that you absolutely must protect your dog from having a bad experience with a nail trim. 

That means if you’re working on training him to accept nail trimming, you can’t take him to the vet and ask them to will use brute force to trim his nails. Talk to your veterinarian about sedating your dog so that he doesn’t have the psychological trauma of getting an uncomfortable nail trim. 

Keep working on your humane nail trim training sessions a couple of times a week, you will get there and you’ll be able to keep your buddy’s toenails trimmed without sedating him.

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