Good grooming habits are essential to the health and comfort of your dog. Grooming requires time and effort, but setting a consistent schedule can make it easier for you and will make your dog’s life happier.
The Two Keys to Great Grooming
No matter what age, size, sex or type of dog you have, you can make grooming a pleasant part of your dog’s life if you:
1. Teach your dog to associate grooming with things she loves.
2. Take it slow and easy.
Associate Grooming with Great Rewards
Many dogs find grooming unpleasant—and who can blame them? It can involve hair pulling, uncomfortable restraint, getting soaked with water (which some dogs dislike), and other kinds of poking and prodding. However, you can help your dog learn to tolerate—and maybe even enjoy—grooming.
If your dog learns that things like brushing, bathing, ear cleaning and nail trimming reliably predict wonderful stuff for her—like special treats, brand-new chew toys, the start of a favorite game, a walk in the park or dinnertime—she’ll soon learn to love “spa time.” So whenever you groom your dog, be sure to immediately follow the activity with things she loves. For example, if you’re trimming your dog’s nails, clip a nail and then feed your dog a delicious treat. Clip another nail or two and feed another treat. With repetition and a little time, your dog will probably decide that getting her nails done is fun, not frightening.
Take It Slow and Easy
If your dog isn’t used to getting inspected, restrained, handled, brushed and thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis, the last thing you want to do is frighten and overwhelm her when you start teaching her to tolerate grooming. Take time to slowly introduce new tools, like brushes and clippers, as well as new sensations. For example, before giving your dog a bath, spend a few days just taking her into the bathroom, putting her in the tub, giving her a few tasty treats and then taking her out again. When introducing a brush, start with just a few strokes. If you haven’t clipped your dog’s nails before, try clipping only a nail or two the first time you use the clippers.
It will also help to pay attention to your own voice and body language. When it’s grooming time, approach your dog calmly and speak in quiet, soothing tones. If you want your dog to relax while you’re grooming her, you want to be relaxed, too.
If you have a puppy, now’s the perfect time to get her used to grooming. Take time every day to touch your puppy all over her body. Handle her feet and toes, open her mouth and look at her teeth, examine her ears, brush her fur, carefully trim her nails, lift and handle her tail, and gently restrain her in your arms for a few seconds at a time.
Immediately after touching or handling, give your puppy her favorite treat or throw her ball for her. Your goal is to convince your puppy that people restraining and handling her results in good things. If you can establish your puppy’s positive feelings about grooming now while she’s still young, handling and grooming will be much easier for you and for her throughout her life.
If you’re restraining or handling your puppy and she struggles or tries to get away from you, gently but firmly hold her still until she stops squirming. The moment she relaxes, let her go. The idea is to teach her that struggling won’t earn her freedom—but calmly tolerating restraint and handling will.
Important Grooming Tasks
The General Once-Over
It’s a good idea to give your dog a quick once-over every day. Briefly examine and touch all parts of her entire body. It won’t take much time, and it’s an important habit to establish. You’ll become familiar with your dog’s body and be able to detect any changes that might require veterinary attention, like new lumps or bumps, inflammation of your dog’s skin, ears or eyes, and any painful responses to touching.
Handling and Restraint
Getting your dog accustomed to touch and restraint will pay off in multiple ways. It will make grooming tasks, vet visits and other kinds of handling easier for you and less stressful for her. You’ll find two easy exercises below. If your dog already responds to handling and restraint with fear or aggressive behavior, please see our article on Dogs Who Are Sensitive to Handling.
The Gotcha Game
The Gotcha Game is a great way to teach your dog that restraint isn’t scary. When teaching your dog the Gotcha Game, your goal is to communicate two important messages to her:
1. If she calmly holds still when you reach for and restrain her, she’ll get released AND get enjoyable rewards.
2. If she struggles or tries to get away instead, she won’t be punished—but she won’t earn freedom either.
Some dogs try to run away, snap, bite or just get nervous when you touch or take hold of their collars. To reduce the likelihood that your dog will develop these problems, gently take your dog’s collar in your hand and then, right afterward (not at the same time), give her a tasty treat. Repeat this sequence and your dog will probably learn to love it when you take hold of her collar.
Unbeknownst to their pet parents, many dogs dislike being hugged. Dogs don’t hug each other, and most dogs react to being hugged as if it were restraint. In dog language, it’s not natural or polite to restrain your canine buddies. To help your dog learn to feel better about restraint, put your hands on her body and hold her still for just a second or two. If she holds still, say “Good!” Then release her and give her a treat. If she tries to move away, calmly hold her. (Try not to squeeze. You don’t want to scare or hurt her.) The instant she stops moving—even for just a second—say, “Good!” Then release her and give her a tasty treat. Gradually, over a couple of weeks, increase the amount of time that your dog must hold still before getting released. If she ever struggles or tries to get away, don’t scold her. In fact, don’t say anything at all. Just firmly but gently continue to restrain her until she relaxes for a few seconds. Then immediately say “Good,” release her and give her a treat. If, at any time, your dog seems to panic, yelps, starts to pant heavily, seems fearful of you, growls, snaps or bites, STOP. Do not continue the exercise. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a qualified expert, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) who can offer guidance. If you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, you can choose to seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure to determine whether she or he has training and experience in successfully treating aggression because this type of expertise is not required for CPDT certification.
Brushing your dog, bathing her, keeping her ears and eyes clean, and brushing her teeth are all important parts of a grooming routine.
Different coat types need different kinds of combs and brushes. There’s a vast array of tools to choose from! To find out which ones you’ll need to use and how often you should use them, speak with your veterinarian or a reputable professional groomer. Most dogs don’t need to be brushed more often than once every few days. If you have a short-haired dog, such as a Doberman pinscher, you might not need to brush her as often. If you have a German shepherd or a border collie, you might need to brush her more frequently to avoid excessive shedding and matting of the fur.
Some dogs seem to naturally enjoy the feeling of being brushed. Others, however, find it uncomfortable. If your dog likes it when you brush or comb her, excellent! Make sure she continues to feel that way by avoiding causing her discomfort as best as you can. Be gentle and brush her often enough to prevent tangles that might make brushing hurt. Give your dog great rewards right after brushing. You can deliver goodies or toss a ball after every few brush strokes, as well as at the end of your brushing session.
If your dog doesn’t seem to like it when you brush her—if she tries to hide when she sees the brush, attempts to get away while you’re brushing her or jerks her head around when she feels the brush touch her fur—you may need to help her change the way she feels about brushing so that she can tolerate it better and even begin to enjoy it.
Start by going to a quiet area with your dog, a place where you’ve petted her before and where she feels happy and relaxed. Bring the brush and a handful of tasty treats. (Use something delicious, like small pieces of chicken, cheese or hot dog.) It might help to bring a soft bed or blanket with you as well. While speaking softly to your dog, slowly and gently stroke her with the brush. Start with the area that she seems least sensitive about. For instance, if your dog flinches when you try to brush her back but seems more relaxed when you brush her chest, start with her chest. If she tries to move away when your start brushing, you can gently restrain her by holding her collar or leash. After each short brush stroke, feed your dog a treat. If she reacts by turning her head around toward your brushing hand or struggling when you stroke her, simply stop the movement of the brush—but don’t take it away. With the brush still touching your dog, calmly wait until she stops reacting or struggling and holds still for just a second or two. The instant she stops reacting, praise her and remove the brush. Then you can feed her a tasty treat. Spend several minutes brushing and giving your dog treats. Then call it quits for the day. Try to have two or more short brushing sessions a week, and continue to feed your dog a treat after every brush stroke. When your dog no longer struggles or reacts to the touch of the brush at all, spend two or three weeks gradually increasing the length and pressure of your brush strokes, as well as the time you spend brushing your dog. You can also start brushing different parts of her body, slowly working up to the most sensitive spots.
Most dogs don’t need to get baths often. In fact, if you bathe your dog too much, you can cause her skin to dry out or become irritated. Check with your veterinarian or a professional groomer to find out how often you should bathe your dog.
Many dogs aren’t crazy about tub time. To make giving your dog a bath easier for both of you, stick to the two key ideas above: go slow and associate bathing with your dog’s favorite foods, toys and activities. For more detailed tips, please see our article on Bathing Your Dog.
Eyes and Ears
Keeping your dog’s eyes and ears clean can prevent discomfort and infection. You can gently wipe any discharge away from your dog’s eyes with a damp, soft cloth. When examining your dog’s eyes, if you notice redness, inflammation, green or yellow discharge, or if your dog frequently rubs her eyes on objects or with her paws, see your veterinarian right away. Your dog might have allergies or an infection. Likewise, when looking at your dog’s ears, take your dog to the veterinarian if you notice redness, inflamed skin, waxy buildup, an unusual smell, or if you see your dog shaking her head or pawing at her ears.
DO NOT attempt to clean your dog’s ears without first talking to your veterinarian about the proper technique and cleaners to use.
Although many pet parents don’t realize it, brushing a dog’s teeth regularly can go a long way in preventing periodontal disease, which many dogs develop in later life. You can find special dog toothpaste and toothbrushes at all major pet stores. If you feel awkward trying to use a toothbrush or if your dog doesn’t like it, you can wrap a piece of clean gauze around your finger and gently rub your dog’s teeth with that instead. Shoot for brushing or wiping your dog’s teeth at least two or three times a week. To learn more about how to brush your dog’s teeth, please see our article on Brushing Your Dog’s Teeth. Your dog’s veterinarian can also offer guidance.
Giving your dog plenty of things to chew can also keep her teeth clean and healthy. Regularly providing edible and inedible chew things also reduces your dog’s overall stress level, prevents boredom and gives her an appropriate outlet for her natural need to chew. Try offering her Nylabones®, hard rubber chew toys, rawhide, bully sticks, natural bones and toys you can stuff with food and treats, like the KONG®. If you have questions about which chew things are safe for your pet, contact your veterinarian.
Trimming your dog’s nails can be stressful for the both of you. How do you know exactly where to cut the nail? What if you trim the nail too close and cut the sensitive quick? What if your dog seems worried about getting a pedicure? Although it can seem daunting, it’s an important task. If your dog’s nails get too long, they can break, which can cause pain and infection. They can also cause your dog’s toes to twist painfully, leading to an irregular gait and possible skeletal damage.
As with any kind of grooming or handling, taking it slow and associating nail trimming with good things will pay off in the long run. For specific guidance on how to trim your dog’s nails, please see our article on Trimming Your Dog’s Nails. If your dog already fears nail trimming—if she trembles, tries to hide, tucks her tail, hunches her body, shows her teeth, growls, snaps or bites when you try to trim her nails—see our article on Fear of Nail Trimming. You may also need to contact a professional behavior expert for help, especially if your dog behaves aggressively when you try to clip her nails. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB), or a qualified Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) in your area.
It’s important to prevent your dog from getting parasites, which can be annoying at best and life-threatening at worst.
- Fleas aren’t just itchy pests. In some pets, their bites can cause extreme skin irritation and infection. They can multiply until you’ve got an infestation in your house or yard, and once they’ve multiplied, they can be difficult to exterminate. Fleas can also cause fatal anemia in some dogs.
- Ticks can cause Lyme disease, canine ehrlichiosis, canine anaplasmosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These diseases pose a significant threat to your dog’s well-being.
- Heartworms, transmitted through mosquito bites, can kill a dog if left untreated. Intestinal worms, such as hookworms and roundworms, can also cause serious health problems.
Your dog isn’t the only one at risk. Some of these diseases and parasites are contagious to humans, too! The good news is that you can find many effective products to protect your dog and your family from parasites and parasite-related disease. Ask your veterinarian for help choosing and using the right preventatives for your dog.
Calling in the Professionals: How to Choose a Groomer
Some people prefer to hire a professional groomer because they don’t have the time, tools or experience to groom their dogs. Most groomers’ services include bathing, cutting and shaping fur, combing and brushing, mat removal, clipping nails and cleaning ears. If this is the right option for you and your dog, ask for recommendations from your dog’s veterinarian and your friends or family. You can also ask dog trainers, boarding kennels, animal shelters or pet supply stores if they recommend reputable groomers. Before taking your dog to a grooming facility, check the Better Business Bureau for complaints against the establishment. Visit the facility before making an appointment for your dog, and take note of the building and the staff.
- Does the place look clean?
- Is the staff friendly and knowledgeable?
- Do they handle the dogs you see gently and kindly?
- Where are animals kept before and after grooming?
- Will the groomer allow you to watch a grooming session? (You should be permitted to do this.)
- Does the groomer ask for your pet’s vaccine records and emergency contact information? (She should.)
- Does the facility seem too loud, too hot, too cold or generally uncomfortable?
Take note of your dog’s general demeanor after her first trip to the groomer’s. A bit of stress is normal. Your dog has just had a new and strange experience. However, if she seems upset or frightened, consider trying another groomer or learning to take care of grooming tasks yourself, in the comfort of your own home.
If Your Dog Already Fears or Dislikes Grooming
Some dogs show fearful or aggressive behavior when their pet parents attempt to trim their nails or restrain, brush, bathe or handle them. Signs of fearful or aggressive behavior include trembling, trying to get away or hide, drooling, panting, whining, freezing, staring, growling, snarling, snapping and, of course, biting. If your dog does any of these things when you try to groom her, immediately stop what you’re doing and contact a professional for help. A qualified behavior expert will guide you through a safe, effective treatment program that can change the way your dog feels and acts when you groom and handle her. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a qualified Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT).
What NOT to Do
- Do not physically punish or yell at your dog if she resists grooming. Doing this will make her feel worse about the activity and will likely worsen her behavior
- Do not force your dog to submit to grooming if she’s obviously frightened or upset. Contact a professional behavior expert for help instead. (Please see our article on Finding Professional Help.)