How to Groom Your Dog

Try these tips for bathing your dog and keeping its fur, teeth, skin, ears, and paws in good shape.


Enlarge Image Grooming your pet can be enjoyable for you both.

Whether you use a professional groomer or do it yourself, regular grooming is important to your dog's coat and skin, and to its overall health.

While you are grooming your dog, you can look for any changes or abnormalities in your dog's physique. Mention your observations to your vet. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can prevent minor problems from becoming serious health issues.

If your dog becomes accustomed to a grooming routine when it is a puppy, it will be more likely to enjoy being groomed as an adult. Ask your vet, breeder, or groomer which grooming tools, such as brushes, combs, and stripping implements, are best for your dog's fur and skin.

Weekly Checklist

One of the benefits of grooming your dog yourself is that you become well-acquainted with your dog's body, making it easier to notice changes in appearance. Here are some things to check:

  • Eyes. Your dog's eyes should be bright and clear without tearing or discharge. Watch out for red, inflamed, or cloudy eyes -- they can indicate infection or injury.
  • Teeth and gums. A healthy dog should have clean teeth and gums. Unpleasant breath odor, swollen gums, and brown or yellow teeth are signs of dental problems. Your vet can show you how to brush your dog's teeth.
  • Ears. Dogs with thick, long ears or ears that stay close to the head are more susceptible to ear problems. Inflamed ears, strong odor, and head-shaking and scratching are signs of an ear infection. Ask your vet to show you how to clean your pet's ears.
  • Lumps. Examine your dog's body. Check for lumps under the skin, rashes, bald spots, sores, and flaky skin; if you find any, go to your vet. Lumps could be harmless fatty deposits or harmful ticks or tumors.
  • Fleas. While observing your dog's body, part his hair to the skin and look carefully from head to tail for fleas. You might see fleas moving about or you might see black dots, about the size of a poppy seed, which are flea droppings. If your dog has fleas, your vet can suggest a strategy to control them.
  • Paws. Examine your dog's footpads for cuts, punctures, or foreign objects (such as small twigs, stones, or thorns). In the winter, use mild soap and a moist, warm cloth to remove salt, snow, ice, and mud.

Bath Time

Enlarge Image Many dogs look forward to their bath-time routine.

A dog only needs a bath when it looks dirty or develops that distinctive "doggie" odor. Regular bathing combats fleas, alleviates some skin conditions, and can relieve human allergic reactions. Avoid excessive bathing because it removes natural oils and dries out your dog's coat.

To bathe your dog, you will need dog shampoo, a brush and comb, and a few towels. Do not use human shampoo; it is not pH-balanced for a dog's skin and coat. Pet-food stores sell a variety of dog shampoos.

Indoors, wash puppies and small dogs in the sink or a washtub; use the bathtub for bigger dogs. Outdoors, weather permitting, use a child's wading pool or a hose. Some groomers and kennels provide do-it-yourself dog-washing stations.

Tips for Success

Follow these simple steps for successful bathing:

  • Before shampooing, brush your dog to remove dirt, dandruff, and dead hair. To loosen dead hair, skin flakes, and crud, massage the skin and coat; this action also stimulates your dog's skin and is relaxing for your pet.
  • Place a rubber mat in the tub or sink to prevent slipping and sliding.
  • Make bathing easier with a handheld showerhead or a hose with a nozzle. If you don't have this feature, have a plastic mug or cup on hand to make rinsing your pet easier.
  • To avoid excessive splashing, do not fill the tub or sink. This might also minimize the dog's urge to shake himself dry (then again, it might not).
  • Try not to get water in your dog's ear canals. Some groomers put cotton balls in a dog's ears to keep out water.

Step-by-Step

  1. Wet your dog's coat with warm water (not hot). Beginning at the head or the tail, rinse the fur to remove as much surface dirt as you can.
  2. Keeping suds away from your dog's eyes, apply a small amount of shampoo to the dog's back. Work up a lather, then spread the shampoo over the body. Work the shampoo through to the skin.
  3. Rinse your dog with warm water, starting at the head and ending at the tail. Make sure to rinse off all the shampoo, particularly from your dog's underside.
  4. After rinsing, squeeze excess moisture from your dog's coat and wrap in an absorbent towel. (This can reduce the urge to shake.)
  5. Remove your dog from the tub and blot dry, or blot your dog while it's still in the tub. Don't rub the coat dry because that can produce tangles.
  6. In warm weather, let your dog finish drying in the sun. In cool weather, use your blow-dryer on a low setting, or just make sure the house is warm, and keep your dog indoors for a few hours after its bath.

Nail Trimming

Enlarge Image Your dog's nails help it walk, but when they're too long, they get in the way.

Keep your dog's feet healthy by regularly trimming its nails. Long nails can interfere with a dog's gait, break off (usually near the base, where it's painful), or cause a dog to slip from loss of traction.

Gently touching your puppy's feet helps your dog grow accustomed to having this sensitive part of its body handled. A dog who is not used to nail care may require two people to trim its nails: one to hold the dog and the other to do the trimming.

To trim your dog's nails, clip the part of the nail that hooks downward. Toward the base of the nail is a small triangle that contains blood vessels and nerves that you do not want to cut. In unpigmented nails, the triangle appears pink, but in black or pigmented nails, it is impossible to accurately see the triangle and you will have to estimate how much nail to remove.

According to American Kennel Club Dog Care and Training (Howell Book House, 2002), a useful device for trimming a dog's nails is known as a guillotine trimmer. To use it, you guide the top of the dog's nail into an opening above the cutting blade, then squeeze the handle.

Clean Teeth

Enlarge Image Keep your dog's teeth white and clean.

The sooner you begin a dental hygiene program for your puppy, the more comfortable it will be when having its teeth cleaned. Brushing your dog's teeth regularly will prevent gum disease, tooth loss, and stinky breath. The latest thinking is that pet owners should brush their dog's teeth at least a few times a week. Your vet can show you the proper way to brush your dog's teeth and what to use; don't use a human toothbrush and human toothpaste.

Dry dog food can help keep your dog's teeth clean and healthy. As your dog chews, the particles from the dry food scrape against the teeth (like a toothbrush) to remove plaque.

Some dogs need regular cleaning and scaling done at the veterinary office; this is done under general anesthesia. Some diseases or malnutrition can lead to dental problems, so be sure your vet checks for tooth or gum disease during yearly checkups.

"If you keep the mouth healthy, the rest of the dog will follow," says Iowa veterinarian, Dr. Robert Culver. "The mouth gives bacteria direct access to the dog's bloodstream; the bacteria gets into the heart and starts chewing away at the valves of the heart," he says. For example, an untreated tooth infection -- perhaps caused by a broken tooth -- can spread to the rest of the body.

Red, swollen, bleeding gums; loss of appetite; drooling; blood in the saliva; broken teeth; foul odor; and yellow or brown tartar deposits along the gumline or in the crevices of the teeth are all signs of dental problems that should be examined by your vet as soon as possible.

Common Dental Problems

  • Buildup from plaque and tartar is the most common dental problem dogs face and can lead to inflamed gums (gingivitis), inflammation of the membranes lining the tooth socket (periodontitis), root abscesses and other painful conditions, and possibly infection.
  • Chewing on rocks or sticks can lead to a cracked or broken tooth.
  • Sharp objects (from pencils to porcupine quills) can cause mouth injuries that can lead to infection.
  • Some puppies retain their baby teeth after the permanent teeth have come in. These retained teeth can cause malocclusion (irregular contact of opposing teeth in the upper and lower jaws), preventing adult teeth from growing properly in the correct position. Your vet will decide whether extraction is necessary.

Causes of Canine Odors

If, after regular grooming and bathing, your dog still has an unpleasant smell, it could be a sign of a dental problem, ear infection, or skin problem. To find the cause of the odor, examine your dog closely and look at the following regions:

  • Mouth. Check for discolored teeth and a strong mouth odor (not your usual dog-food breath). Take your dog to the vet for a dental examination to deal with these dental problems and to prevent further dental disease.
  • Ears. As the inside of the ear becomes hot and moist, it creates an ideal environment for odiferous infections. Look for reddened, sore skin; sensitivity to touch; and offensive odor. Ear infections should be treated promptly by your vet. Drops and/or antibiotics might be prescribed.
  • Skin. If your dog has dandruff; an oily, waxy feel to its coat; and an overwhelming odor, it's likely that it has seborrhea, a common skin problem where the dog's skin glands work overtime. Seborrhea might cause skin and ear infections, too. A vet-prescribed medicated shampoo can help alleviate the condition and the odor.
  • Hindquarters. Inadequate emptying of the anal glands, or an infection of the area, can cause unpleasant odors and be uncomfortable for your dog. Go to your vet to have your dog's anal sacs checked. (Professional groomers also can empty the sacs, but many dog owners are reluctant to try it at home.) For longhaired dogs, monthly clipping around the rump helps avoids the matting and odor that accompanies a soiled rump.
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