Paws and Claws–Grooming Tips for Dogs

In training and animal rescue, one thing I’ve seen a lot of are paws and claws in need of some love. Check out your dog’s paws. Is the fur covering the pads? Are the nails touching the floor? If so, it’s time for a trim. The paws and claws are an often overlooked area of grooming, which actually can harm your pet. Your dog’s pads need to touch the floor to keep him safe. Extra pad fur reduces your dog’s ability to feel, to sweat and to get traction. In addition, long nails are very uncomfortable for a dog. The force of the nail getting pushed back into the dog’s paw is not pleasant. And, the result could be a change in his gait, resulting in additional strain on joints, back, muscles and tendons. Some common excuses for not grooming paws and claws are:

  • I didn’t know I needed to trim the pad fur and nails
  • My dog doesn’t like his paws touched
  • I’m afraid I’m going to hurt my dog
  • I take the dog to the vet twice a year (or to the groomer’s quarterly)
  • I walk my dog on concrete, so I don’t have to trim his nails

If any of those excuses sound familiar, keep reading to discover a few tips on how to get your dog’s paws back in working order.

How Often? If your vet is trimming nails twice a year and/or your groomer is grooming every few months, that is a good start. However, paws and claws generally need grooming every two to three weeks. If you let the nails get too long, then you have two choices, let the vet cut them back to proper length which will result in bleeding which the vet will stop with Kwik Stop (or other styptic type products).  Or, you can start “tipping” nails every three to five days for a few months until you get the nails back to the appropriate length. The vein, aka, the quick, lengthens as the nail lengthens. So you have to take a little length off at a time to get the vein to retract.

Nail Length. How long should my dog’s nails be? First rule—nails don’t touch the ground. Your dog may still have his front dew claws. Those can be even with the pad. The nail should never dig into the pad or touch the bottom of the pad. Basically you want the nail to be off the ground enough so when your dog is walking on slick surfaces and his pads spread out, the nails are not touching the floor.

Dog Behavior. If your dog doesn’t like his paws touched, and/or if your dog will not lie still on his side for you to groom him, you’ll need to go back to basic obedience. All dogs should have a reliable down command. You can also train your dog to do a partial roll, or you can gently roll him onto his side. His legs should be pointing at you. Grooming should be a pleasant experience for you and your dog. If your dog doesn’t like his paws touched, then it’s time to desensitize him. No excuses here. We’ve taken the fussiest of adult rescue dogs and were able to trim their paws within a week or two just by gently handling their paws at least five times a day. If you have a mouthy dog, don’t allow the dog to put his teeth to your skin. Always remain calm and use gentle strokes. Do not grab the paw, pull the paw or wrestle the dog if he is scared. The dog will take cues from you. There’s no need to bribe the dog with food. You are working toward bonding with your dog. The goal is to not just desensitize, but to also make the entire grooming experience pleasant. Most healthy dogs will end up liking to be brushed if properly introduced. After all it’s positive attention and one-on-one time with their owner.

Location for Grooming. We prefer to groom outside, and we use a sturdy wooden picnic table as our grooming station. You can also sit on the ground with your dog, or use your pick-up truck’s tailgate. Can you tell I’m a Texas gal? We generally groom outside because the light is better, and we don’t have to worry about making a mess. You can groom inside as well. Lay an extra sheet on the bed and have your dog on the bed, or you can sit on the ground. Make sure you groom in very good light.

Pad Fur. Dogs should have a little fur between each pad, but the fur should not extend past the pad. Nor should the fur overlap the bottom of the pad. You can use small sharp scissors or even clippers to trim unruly paw fur. In order to get a closer shave with a clipper, you can gently press on the pads for your relaxed dog to spread the pads apart.

Nail Trimming Tools. Depending on the size of your dog nails, different tools are available. For very small nails, you can actually file the nails if you like. This is a pretty laborious method of trimming, however. There are a few different size nail clippers. A cat’s clipper might work for pocket-sized dogs. Larger dogs will require larger nail clippers. And you want the clippers to be sharp. The less pressure on the nail, the better. My preference is a Dremel variable speed rotary tool using a 240 sanding band (part 445). This is a fast way to trim nails. The dog takes only a few minutes to get used to the noise, and the risk of injury is a lot less. This is a more expensive option, but I’ve been using the same Dremel for 10 years. And I can’t begin to count the number of dogs that I’ve trimmed. Do not waste your money on Pedi Paws. It doesn’t have enough power to get the job done on most dogs.

How to Trim Nails.

  • Demonstration. If you are really nervous, ask a professional to demonstrate. Groomers, vet techs, and dog trainers should all be able to assist you. Keep in mind, once you trim your dog’s nails a couple of times, you’ll be on your way to being a pro. It’s just getting over the learning curve! Don’t be alarmed if the person muzzles your dog. Some folks just don’t take risks.
  • Bring a friend. If you are a bit nervous, you might want a very calm, dog friendly person to help keep you and your dog calm and safe.
  • Reminder: Light and Glasses. Remember if you need reading glasses, use them when trimming. Also, I can’t stress enough that daylight is your friend here. Take a look at the bottom of your dog’s paws. You’ll want to be able to look at the nails and make sure you’re not hitting the quick.
  • Trimming Nails. With your dog on his side, paws facing you, it’s time to begin. Gently hold the dog’s paw. If he pulls it back, just keep gently picking it up and holding it. Everyone should be relaxed before starting. If this is the dog’s first introduction to the Dremel, turn it on low speed and just hold it a foot away from the dog. Make sure your dog doesn’t smell it so as to hit his nose. After a few seconds, the noise will not bother the dog. You can let him feel the vibration by resting the base of the Dremel on his side with the sand paper facing into the air and slightly to the back of the dog. This way if the dog moves, you can keep him from getting a nose or eye in the Dremel. Back to the trim. Start with any paw. You are going to remove some length of the nail by taking your cut (or sanding) perpendicular to the nail quick. Hold the Dremel perpendicular to the nail. If you are using a traditional trimmer, you are going to want to take one swift, clean cut. If you need to take a second cut, as you didn’t get as much off the nail as you can, that’s fine. But when you start squeezing, you’ve committed. Since you are applying pressure like pinching with the cut, you want to do it fast. But take your time positioning the tool. You don’t want to get fur or pad inside the cutting area.The screw on the clipper can face you or your dog. However, study the blade of the clipper carefully. There’s a significant difference as to where the cut will happen depending on which way you face the tool. You can always use a traditional nail file to smooth any cut you make. Move from toe to toe until you complete each paw. Talk softly to your dog. If you need to stop after completing one paw and pet your dog, that’s fine. Talk softly so you don’t excite the dog. Certainly at the end of the trimming you want to do something fun with your dog so he knows there’s a reward of playing (or loving) at the end.
  • A few hints. Positioning the dog is a matter of preference. It will depend on your height and reach compared to the dog’s size. There are dogs I trim with the legs pointing away from me. Once you’ve cut nails a few times, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can accomplish this task. If your dog just won’t stop squirming, stop. Go back through a brief and quick obedience work out and try again. If you can’t see the quick through the side of the nail, you can always look at the bottom of the nail to judge how close you are to the quick. If you see the slightest tinge of pink, you are done! The outer rim is chalky, as is the end you are trimming. When it changes texture, you need to stop. If you are still not sure you want to attempt trimming, then take your dog to the vet or groomer. Have them do a good nail cut, and then you can start 10 days later with a file or Dremel. Then you won’t be trimming very much at any time as long as you are trimming every 10 to 14 days.

Finally, if you have questions, feel free to contact me through the website. Happy trimming.

LK Greer


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    • L. K. Greer