A dog's paw is an amazing thing with structures that work together when all is strong and healthy.
When my Australian Shepherd, Sisko, tore two toenails on a camping trip this summer I got a quick refresher course in how the structures of the paw work together and how important a dog's toenails are. Sisko tore out (from the nail bed) the two middle toenails on his right rear paw. I carry a well-stocked first aid kit and after I cleaned his paw, I liberally used a pain relieving, antibiotic ointment and created a padded bandage for the paw. He had surgery the next day. His paw was sensitive for a couple of weeks but as time went by and he was able to use that back paw again even though the nails were still growing out, I saw that the toenails protect the pads. Sisko ended up slightly damaging the two pads of the toes without nails. Plus, once he was running again, I watched that paw slip and slide; the nails normally grip and dig in, giving the dog stability, and without those nails Sisko wasn't as stable as he normally is.
Sisko's accident was truly an accident; I saw it happen. He pivoted while running hard and those two nails got caught and tore out because he was moving so fast. However, even though accidents do happen, it's important to maintain paw health as much as possible and regular care can help with that.
Check Them Often
Create a routine so you check your dog's paws often. You can do so every evening when you groom your dog (as I do with all three of my dogs) or after dinner when you both relax in the living room. When isn't as important as the the schedule is; check your dog's paws often. Handle each paw gently but firmly; many dogs have ticklish paws and a light touch is too much like tickling. Feel between each pad and check for thorns, burrs, foxtails, clumps of dirt or dried mud, pebbles, sand or other debris. Remove anything that shouldn't be there.
Pay attention to your dog's reactions as you handle his paws. A wince might signal a bruise, cut, scratch or other injury that needs care. Plus, as you handle your dog's paws, day after day, you'll learn what's normal and when there is a problem; you'll feel it right away.
Trim the Hair
Dogs with medium to long coat on their body often also have more hair on their paws than do short haired dogs. Unfortunately, this extra hair can catch burrs, foxtails, mud and other debris and create problems. Hair that bunches between the pads is uncomfortable and hair that folds under the pads can cause the dog to slip and slide.
If your dog has hair that grows between his pads, trim it when it gets long and folds under his pads or when it bunches up between his toes. You can do this by gently combing the hair between the pads so it's not folded over or packed in between the pads. Then holding the scissors so they are flat against the pads (and not poking in towards the foot) trim the hair so it's level with the pads. Comb the hair out a second time and trim anything that was missed the first time.
On the top of your dog's paw, do the same thing. Comb out the hair between the toes from the top and with the scissors flat against the paw, trim that long, excess hair.
When your dog is standing on a flat surface, such as the floor, his toenails should not touch the floor. Ideally, they are slightly above the floor; how much depends on the size of your dog, the shape of his feet, and the angle of his toenails. If his toenails hit the floor when he's standing still, they will be uncomfortable and even painful when he's walking or running. Nails that are too long for a long time can even deform the paw or curve around and grow into the paw.
Trimming the nails once per week can help keep them at a good length as well as make sure your dog is comfortable with the process. If you don't know how to trim your dog's toenails, ask your veterinarian, one of her veterinary technicians, or a dog groomer to show you how.
The Pads Protect the Feet
The pads of your dog's paws are designed to protect the bones of his paws. The pads are tough, cushioned, and can take a lot of punishment. That doesn't mean they can't be hurt, though, and if they are hurt, sometimes healing is slow. When you check the pads, look for punctures or cuts from thorns or sharp objects. One of the most common injuries, however, is when a layer or two of pad is peeled away when the dog runs and slides, or slips, on a rough surface.
If you find an injury, clean it, use an antibiotic ointment on it, and then bandage the paw to keep it clean until you can get your dog to the veterinarian.
Check the Pavement
The sun heats everything it shines on, but in the summer it can be especially deadly. Asphalt, concrete, sand, gravel, rock, and even some dirt can heat up rapidly and to temperatures that will burn your dog's paws. Some dogs are so willing to do what we ask they will continue with us even as their paws become terribly burned.
I have a small pocket-sized digital thermometer that will tell me the temperature of a surface and I carry that with me. (These can often be purchased at your local reptile supply store.) Otherwise, place the back of your hand where you would ask your dog to walk. Don't use the palm of your hand as you have some thicker skin and calluses. If you can comfortably keep your hand on the road or sidewalk, then it's probably fine. If you have to pull your hand away, don't ask your dog to walk there.
Boots Protect the Paws
My dogs don't wear dog boots often, but I teach my dogs to wear the boots and have them available should they be needed. I've had my dogs wear them when asphalt is very hot and might burn their pads, and on a camping trip where we needed to walk on a path with rough sand and crushed rock that would have torn up their pads.
There are many different types of dog boots available and I've tried a few. Ruffwear's single grip Trex boots fit all three of my dogs well and are easy to put on. In addition and perhaps most importantly, my dogs accept these boots and they seem to be comfortable for the dogs to wear.
If you'd like to introduce your dog to boots, call the customer service number for the company and find out how to measure your dog's paws. While you're at it, measure all four paws as some dogs have paws that are larger or smaller than others. My oldest dog, Bashir, wears two sized boots as his front paws are a size larger than his back paws. The boots must fit correctly and be comfortable; otherwise, they could rub sores on your dog's paws and your dog will fight wearing them.
Introduce your dog to the boots at home, asking him to wear them a few minutes at a time at home, long before he needs to wear them on a walk, hike, or camping trip. Use lots of praise and some good treats to help him accept the boots.
Your dog's paws are amazing and most of the time your dog won't have any issues at all. Just get into the habit of checking his paws often, keeping the nails trimmed and the feet healthy, and he'll be able to accompany you on lots of walks and adventures.