How To Cut An Uncooperative Dog’s Nails

Two dogs hiding under a bed, while owner is wondering How to cut an uncooperative dog's nails

If your dog freaks out each time you take out the nail trimmers or try to hold their paws, you’re probably desperate to know how to cut an uncooperative dog’s nails.

The fact is, if your dog is terrified of nail clippers, a dremel, or even paw handling, trimming their nails becomes pretty much impossible.

Sooooo . . . I spent the week searching the internet up and down to learn how to cut an uncooperative dog’s nails.

I wasn’t sure if there was much out there that I hadn’t tried with my dogs, but I was pleasantly surprised to dig up some lesser-known products plus some unique, out-of-the-box methods that people use when trimming an uncooperative dog’s nails.

Today I’m going to share all of the new information that I found, including

1. Desensitization videos

I found some great desensitization videos to help show you the correct way to desensitize your dog to nail trimming (including common mistakes dog owners make that could sabotage your desensitization training).

2. Cutting angle tips – including the Alternative Cut Line approach

If you want to cut your uncooperative dog’s nails using traditional nail clippers, this approach can reduce accidental quick cutting (and therefore fear). I’ll explain what the quick is a little further down.

3. How to clip nails that are black 

The failsafe way to tell how much you can cut off without clipping the quick if your dog has black nails.

4. Unique, out-of-the-box methods for trimming dog nails

Alternative methods for trimming dog nails, including how to keep dog nails short without clipping – along with one new method that I’ve never seen before.

Let’s dive in!

Why Trimming Dog Nails Is Important

I was surprised to find out that trimming dog nails is about more than annoying clicky noises and scratches on your nice wood floors – it’s actually important for your dog’s overall health and mobility in multiple ways:

Slipping on floors can cause injury

We all know that when our dog’s nails get too long they start Scooby-Dooing on the floor when they are running or chasing a toy. If they round a corner and slip, you could be dealing with a torn ACL or other muscle and tendon injuries.

Reduced mobility for senior dogs 

Even slightly long nails can make it hard for your senior dog to stand up after a nap. It’s important to keep nails trimmed and the fur around their pads clipped short to give them more grip.

Ripped or cracked nails

When your dog’s nails are too long, they can catch them on things like carpet and fabric or snag and tear them when running outside or playing with other dogs.

If you’ve ever had that happen you know how awful it is. It’s excruciatingly painful for your dog and they won’t let you touch it to get the nail fragment off. Sometimes you can bandage it and wait for the nail fragment to die and break off on its own, but many times you have to take them to the vet and have your dog sedated to remove the torn nail and bandage it up.

Foot pain

In more severe overgrowth cases, when the long nails touch the ground they exert force on the foot and leg structure. This can potentially lead to arthritis, a splayed foot, injured tendons, and ongoing pain.

Hardwood floor damage

This obviously isn’t as important as the others, but if you have wood floors they will get totally scratched up if your dog’s nails are too long.

How Often Should You Cut Your Dog’s Nails

When I researched how often you should cut your dog’s nails I read differing opinions, but the majority recommended every one to two weeks.

I was a little surprised, this was more often than I have been doing it. But I learned that there are multiple advantages to trimming dog nails this often:

  • Trimming your dog’s nails this frequently causes the quick to recede, allowing you to trim their nails shorter.
  • When you only cut a small amount off you are less likely to cut the quick by accident.
  • Your dog becomes more familiar with getting their nails trimmed and will be less stressed vs. if you only cut the nails every month or more.

Why Is Your Dog Afraid Of Nail Trimming?

dog hiding under couch because they are afraid of having their nails trimmed

There are many reasons your dog may be afraid of nail trimming:

Sensory issues

Your dog may be sensitive to the sound of the nail being clipped or the sensory feeling.

Past experience

If your dog has had a painful or traumatic nail trimming experience they may now associate nail trimming with fear or pain.

Paw handling issues

Some dogs do not like having their paws handled or squeezed.

Understanding your dog’s fear will give you insight to choose which approach will best reduce or alleviate this fear.

Parts Of Your Dog’s Nail – What’s The Quick?

Here’s a great diagram of a dog’s nail:

diagram of a dog's nail and it's parts (the quick, the pulp, and the hard shell) to use to learn how to cut an uncooperative dogs nails
Source: Wikihow

Quick

The innermost part is called the quick, which is full of nerves and blood vessels. If you accidentally cut the quick it is extremely painful for your dog and it is really hard to stop the bleeding.

Pulp

The pulp is a dark area located right above the quick. I read conflicting information of what the pulp is made up of, but the one thing everyone agreed on is that the pulp is a dark spot you will see in the center of the white nail surface when you’re trimming dog nails that indicates you’re close to the quick and need to stop.

Shell

The main part of your dog’s nail, the part you see, is the shell. The shell is made of keratin and protects the pulp and the quick.

How To Cut An Uncooperative Dog’s Nails

When you’re cutting an uncooperative dog’s nails, the first decision you need to make is if you want to use 

  1. clippers, 
  2. a dremel, or 
  3. an alternative technique

If you plan to use nail clippers or a dremel, the first thing you need to do is desensitize your dog to having their paws handled and to the clippers or dremel.

Gradual Desensitization Techniques To Nail Clippers And The Trimming Process

One of my biggest pet peeves is that so many of the “How to cut your dog’s nails” videos use a totally calm, chill dog. I watch them and I’m like “Well DUH of course this is working for you, your dog is chillax. My dog is NOT and what you’re showing isn’t gonna work in my house.

A fearful dog is going to need you to do some desensitization work before you try trimming their nails.

Desensitizing your dog means gradually getting them used to each step in the nail trimming process. 

Generally this is going to take time, although I did see Dr. Sophia Yin make great progress in a short period of time. )

Here are a couple of videos to illustrate desensitization for trimming dog nails. 

Slow desensitization to trimming dog nails

The first one shows a very, very gradual desensitization process:

In this McCann Dog Training video, you can see that she breaks the nail trimming down into tiny steps and gets the dog used to each step. For extremely fearful dogs, desensitizing over the course of days or weeks like she recommends will be more successful.

Faster desensitization to trimming dog nails

In this Sophia Yin video, she works with a technician to desensitize the dog and is cutting the dog’s nails by the end of the video. It helps that they’re both trained and have perfected the timing needed to make the desensitization successful.

Tips For Trimming Dog Nails With Nail Clippers

If you want to cut your dog’s nails with nail clippers, here are some helpful tips.

Which Dog Nail Trimmers Are Best?

I read a lot of groomer conversations discussing the best dog nail trimmers, and these two were mentioned the most.

Millers Forge Large Dog Nail Clippers

miller forge brand large dog nail clippers for trimming dog nails

Groomers said they like the large clippers (the ones pictured here), but they didn’t like the small ones.

Safari Dog Nail Trimmers

Safari dog nail clippers for dog nail clipping

These Safari dog nail trimmers also received mention after mention in groomer conversations. 

Helpful Tips For Using Nail Trimmers To Cut An Uncooperative Dog’s Nails

I found a number of tips I had not heard before that would make the nail trimming process go more smoothly for you and your dog:

Cut small amounts

Cut very small amounts off at a time. After each cut, check the cut surface of the nail and look for a dark spot (called the pulp) in the center of the white surface. Stop trimming when you see the spot because you’ve almost reached the quick.

This picture from the Peninsula Pet Hospital Website is a great visual of what you will be looking for:

two pictures showing the underside of dog nails after nail trimming and lables showing the parts of the nail

Wet the fur first and push it out of the way

Take a wet cloth and wet your dog’s fur before starting. Once it’s wet you can move it sideways so it’s not in the way. This way you can easily see the nails/quick while you’re working without the hair flipping back into the way each time you move it.

Use a headlamp

Use a headlamp so you can easily see what you’re doing and work in a well lit area.

Use a cell phone light or flashlight

Turn on your cell phone flashlight and set the phone on the floor with the light pointing up. If you gently hold your dog’s paw over the light you will be able to see the quick if their nails are light colored.

If you don’t have a cell phone handy, you can try holding the paw over a bright flashlight.

Use spaghetti to simulate nail cutting sound

For desensitization to the clipping sound take some spaghetti, a handful about the thickness of your dog’s nail diameter. Clip it with your nail clippers and it will make a sound similar to when the dog’s nail is clipped. Gradually move it closer to the nail when you clip it.

Clip using the Alternative Cut Line angle

Clip your dog’s nail at an angle called the Alternative Cut Line, or ACL. This reduces the risk of cutting the quick, and also helps you cut the nail short enough that the quick will recede over time.

Here is a video showing both the parts of the nail and demonstrating how to cut on the ACL:

Video by Shorthairs & Shotguns

Distract your dog

Some dogs (depending on their fear level) can be distracted with their favorite treat smeared on a Lickimat. You can either put one on the floor or use one that you can put on a wall:

Lickimat Splash (with suction cups)
Lickimat Splash attached to a wall to help with dog nail trimming
Lickimats for the floor
Lickimat set of two flat mats to use to trim uncooperative dog's nails

I found this video on the Miss Behavior Training Youtube channel, she does a phenomenal job demonstrating how to clip the dog’s nails while they lick the mat with tips I wouldn’t have thought about like how to support the dog’s leg, how to pause if the dog stops licking, and more.

How To Clip Dog Nails That Are Black 

Learning how to clip dog nails that are black is a bit more of a challenge. 

With light nails, you can look at the side and see where the quick is. 

picture of the side of a dog nail showing where the quick is located for dog trimming

But, on a black nail, you have no idea. The key is to lift the nail and look underneath like this picture:

photo credit: Ontario Humane Society

In these pictures from K9instincts.com, the quick is below the red line. If you hold the dog’s paw so you can see underneath you will have a much better idea where to clip.

Once you clip, be sure to look at the cut surface for the dark spot (pulp) in the center of the white surface. Once you see that spot you need to stop.

How To Cut Dog Nails Without Clippers

Learning how to cut an uncooperative dog’s nails can involve thinking outside the box! Here are some really good options you will want to consider:

Filing Dog Nails Instead Of Clipping

One common alternative to clipping dog nails is filing them.

The Dremel

The dremel is the one of the most common alternatives you will read about. 

It is a small tool with a rotating cylinder of sand paper that files your dog’s nails.

I took a look at dremels and found some that had very detailed, impressive reviews:

Casfuy Dog Nail Dremel/Grinder

a dremel for trimming dog nails

Reviews mentioned:

  • It’s more quiet than a dremel bought from a home improvement store and just as powerful
  • Light is a great feature
  • Power stayed strong for 3 dogs’ nails
  • Low speed is very quiet and dog tolerated it well
  • Slow speed is easier to control

Some dogs are afraid of the vibration they feel when the dremel is grinding the nail so you may have to do desensitization, and if that doesn’t work you may need to try a different option.

Here is a video from The Stumpy Brigade on Youtube that shows someone trimming dog nails with a dremel:

Dog Nail Scratching Board

A really unique, out-of-the-box option I discovered was a dog nail scratching board.

The first one I found, called the Digger Dog Nail File Board, has a treat compartment on it.

dog scratching their nails on a digger dog nail file board

Here is a video of a dog using it:

Reviews were impressive, full of really grateful owners saying things like:

  • Worked so well I almost cried!
  • My dog is so petrified of getting his nails clipped that we have been asked to not return to multiple groomers because he goes into fight or flight mode and poops on them. The vet has prescribed medication, STRONG doses of meds and nothing has worked. They told me my only option was to fully sedate him to get his nails clipped. I saw this product and thought it was brilliant!

There are a few disadvantages that people mentioned in their reviews. One was that it got the middle nails better than the outside ones, some people said it didn’t get their dog’s pinky nail.

Another negative was that it works for front, not back, nails. There were a few people who had figured out ways to use it for back nails (they said there were Youtube videos showing how to make your dog “climb” the board, but it sounded difficult). 

But, all of the dogs I’ve ever had don’t mind clipping the back nails nearly as much as the front ones so this is still a great option.

Etsy Knobby Dog Scratch Board Chute

I found a really cool option for cutting an uncooperative dog’s nails on Etsy called the Knobby Dog Scratch Board Chute.

This is the same principle as the scratch board above but is it curved and you hold it between your legs. People commented that it gets all the dog’s front nails really well, even the side ones (vs. the flat board complaint mentioned above).

Knobby dog scratch board for dog nail trimming
a dog using the knobby dog scratch board chute for dog nail trimming

Hand file

A lot of reviews say hand file is very slow going, not for tough/big dog nails. I think it would be fine if you stay on top of it and do it frequently, hard for getting a lot off. One review said heavy duty emery board worked better.

Be Innovative When Deciding How To Cut An Uncooperative Dog’s Nails

Learning how to cut an uncooperative dog’s nails involves patience, creativity, and choosing options that are best for YOUR dog.

You have the best understanding of your dog’s fear and what might work best for them. 

Patience and positive reinforcement are key, don’t try and rush it.

If you make some progress with your dog, please share below what worked for cutting your uncooperative dog’s nails so we can all learn from your experience.

Until next time –

Naturally,

Karen

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Karen Pedersen Written by:

Karen is a freelance copywriter who loves dogs and everything about them. She has fostered dogs since 2005, choosing dogs with medical or behavioral issues that would benefit from her natural and holistic approach to healing. She has gained experience and anecdotal knowledge with each dog she helped, and started this blog to help others do the same.

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