Common Sense Grooming Part 3 – Teeth and Nails

It always disappoints and dismays me as a dog-show judge to examine dogs in the ring and find some of them filthy (which very seldom happens) or many with neglected teeth (which happens regularly — even in the majority of cases, in some breeds such as the GSD). Without good, home dental care, they teeth may recede into swollen gums with gingivitis, or they may even fall out by the time the dog is nine or ten years old. It’s as if the owners think, “Well, the dog will only last that long or a little longer, so why bother?” While it is true that dogs wear down or break off their teeth by about the time they will soon no longer need them, there is no excuse for ignoring the dog’s need for regular cleaning to the point that we cause him to reach that stage years before the natural consummation of his life. To rely on dry dog food to scrape tartar off the teeth is no different than to rely on exercising your jaw muscles by eating only corn flakes with milk.

The dog should be given the proper occasional bone and rawhide or other chewy, and the best method is to give him a frozen (raw) chicken quarter once a week. Just as you might nibble little bits at a time of a popsicle, the dog will gnaw through meat and bone together, little by little and work it down to a tiny nubbin. No separation of bone from meat, as happens when cooking, and no splintering as you could get in a thawed piece. The gnawing chewing action that utilizes almost every tooth really cleans them as no other method or chewy or toy could. Just as good as scaling the teeth with a dental pick, but less work for you and more enjoyment for him.

Unless you use this method, you should scale the teeth once a month and (depending on what food you give your dog and how fast he builds up a coating on them, you might want to also brush them a couple times a month as well, to keep them in good condition. The “brush” can be one of your used toothbrushes, or a rough cloth wrapped around your finger, with toothpaste applied. When the judge, vet, or friend looks at your dog’s teeth, the color brown should be as embarrassing to you as it would be on your child’s exposed underwear.

If you don’t have a dental pick, you can use a short-handled, short-bladed screwdriver on a dog that hasn’t had his teeth cleaned in a while. Sit on the floor with the dog lying on his back and snugly supported by, and locked in place between, your legs. Start with the easiest tooth, the big canine. With almost all the tool hidden in your hand and just the smallest part of the blade showing, push the gum back a little and firmly push the hard tartar toward the tip of the tooth. If the finger of your other hand is there, when the tartar breaks loose, you’ll be able to prevent the blade from gouging into the tongue or gum of the opposite jaw. After you get practiced and the dog learns not to wiggle, use the sharp-pointed dental pick. Always, with each tooth, start underneath the normal edge of the gum and chip the plaque away. With just a minimum of practice, you can save bill vet bills and use the vet only for things you cannot do.

Another, but less frequent or serious an example of neglect is in the care of the dog’s claws or, as we non-veterinarians usually call them, the nails. Every dog should become used to getting his nails trimmed every couple of months. Put it on your calendar. Make it a habit, along with heartworm preventative, teeth cleaning, combing, inspection of the coat and skin, etc., though many of these are monthly or weekly activities (I don’t want to use the word “chores” because these should be times of strengthening bonds, not just performing duties). A whetstone, a short-bladed, short-handled, and very sharp knife, plus a good nail clipper made for dogs are all you need. Find a shady spot outdoors with good indirect light, or a well-lighted area in the house where it will be easy to sweep up the trimmings.

Use the same dog-between-legs, escape-proof posture of sitting on the ground that you used when scaling the teeth. Dogs tend to wiggle and complain at first, but eventually they’ll be willing to get the nails done if you keep your patience and use lots of praise whenever they lie still.

The first digit on the front paw (erroneously called a “dewclaw”) doesn’t touch the ground except during full gallop, so it doesn’t wear down by itself the way the others can; you’ll have to cut that one deeper or more often. All of them contain a cushion-soft core called the “quick” (meaning “alive, having blood”) that is covered on top and sides by the hard chitin or keratin type material that enables the animal to scratch, dig, fight, or aid in traction. This hard shell grows in a downward curve resembling a parrot beak, and where it obviously hooks past the flat or “level” portion of the quick underneath, is where you want to cut with the clipper. However, the horny part which is thickest on the dorsal surface, continues to wrap around on the sides (although thinner there) and, if not properly maintained, tends to grow together and enclose the softer sole. And with it, dirt and other junk you don’t want to be there.

The best way to handle the nail that has been neglected this long is to snip off the “beak”, then with your frequently-sharpened little knife, pare the thinner horn from the plantar area (bottom) and sides, a little sliver at a time, taking care not to slice into the corium (core, or quick). Use a sawing motion, but toward the centerline of the nail, otherwise it will be much more uncomfortable if you cut and peel away from the center. Then you can better see the remainder of the beak, and cut another section of that off. The first digit should be especially well manicured, and even smoothed with a sapphire file or emery board, because the dog uses this claw to scratch his muzzle, clean his teeth or muzzle, and even get foreign material away from his eye, and you don’t want a sharp or ragged edge on that one.

The quick is rich in blood vessels and nerve endings, so if you cut it, the dog will probably protest and bleed for a while. That is another good reason for doing this job outdoors. You can go to the bother of using styptic powder or flour to help stanch the flow, but it’s easier to just wrap that nail in a piece of paper towel and go on to the other nails. If it’s still bleeding when you release the dog, let him run around normally until it stops. The other potentially uncomfortable part of the operation is the pull you exert on the nail, so make sure the knife is kept sharp to cut easily in a twisting, carving motion.

After having used the paring knife, you will find that you did not cut as much of the surplus nail off as you had thought, so carefully use the clipper again and trim it off closer to the quick, especially on the front and on the side edge right next to it.

Of course, you can use an electric tool to trim nails, but my approach requires merely tools you can carry in a pocket or purse (unless you are boarding an aircraft). As in Parts One and Two of this series, I offer the simple, common-sense, economical, and convenient way to groom dogs for health and livability.

© Fred Lanting, Willow Wood Consulting: For reprint permission or info on books & articles, see: (or)

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