- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
You want your pet to be the happiest, healthiest dog that they can be. And while there are a variety of ways you can support your dog’s health (like feeding them a diet of high-quality food, making sure they get plenty of exercise, and giving them lots of love and attention), there’s one key practice that is an indispensable part of your dog’s health and happiness—and that’s proper grooming.
“Grooming directly influences your dog’s physical (and mental!) health,” says Steffi Trott, owner and head trainer at SpiritDog Training in Albuquerque, NM, who regularly advises her clients on the grooming needs of their dogs.
Grooming your dog regularly is a must if you want them to feel their best (and cleanest!). But what tools do you need to keep your dog properly groomed? How often do you need to groom them? And what are the key steps you need to take to keep your dog happy, healthy, and well-groomed?
When it comes to grooming, dogs are, in many ways, like humans. Just like humans need to shower or bathe regularly to stay healthy and keep illness and infection at bay, dogs need to be clean and well-groomed in order to feel their best and stay their healthiest—and neglecting those needs can lead to a variety of physical ailments, pain, and anxiety.
“Having your pet regularly groomed is an essential [and] important part of keeping them healthy,” says Michelle Wildman, Director of Differentiated Services for Pet Supplies Plus, who helps to oversee grooming operations in 450 retail locations.
Grooming your dog regularly will also give you deeper insights into what’s going on with their body. This can help you stay on top of any potential health issues and get them taken care of before they progress. “Grooming can uncover additional issues that may become bigger problems if not addressed quickly,” says Wildman.
Trott, for example, once found a breast tumor on a dog while grooming. “Since I discovered it while it was fairly small… it could be removed much easier than if the owners had discovered it later on,” she says.
In a nutshell, regularly grooming your dog will ensure that they look and feel like their best, healthiest self—and can also clue you in to a variety of potential health issues you might not have been aware of if you hadn’t rolled up your sleeves and cleaned your pet.
You can’t just throw your dog in the bathtub, roll up your sleeves, and start grooming. Before you start grooming your dog, you need the right tools.
While every dog is different (and will have different grooming needs) at the very least, you should plan to add the following to your at-home grooming toolkit:
- Brush and/or comb.
- Shampoo and conditioner. Shampoo and conditioner will leave your dog’s hair clean, silky, and smooth post grooming. Just make sure you use products specifically formulated for dogs; human shampoo or conditioner could cause irritation.
- Ear cleaner.
- Nail clippers.
- Nail file (for smoothing out sharp or jagged nails).
- Grooming blow-dryer. Depending on your dog, investing in a blow-dryer specifically engineered for dog grooming could be extremely helpful. “If you have a dog with a heavy coat (or multiple dogs), consider purchasing a grooming blow-dryer,” says Trott. “These have a lot more power than blow-dryers for human hair and will make drying your dog after a bath a lot easier and faster.”
- Toothbrush and toothpaste. Oral hygiene is an important part of grooming your dog. Again, just make sure the brush is engineered and the toothpaste is formulated specifically for dogs.
While there are plenty of grooming tools you can use at home, there are also a few tools that, for the safety of your pet, you’ll want to leave in the hands of capable professionals. “We would recommend that you leave the sharp tools such as scissors or grooming shears up to the professionals because you could easily unknowingly injure a pet,” says Wildman.
Once you have your toolkit assembled, there’s one more step you need to take before you start grooming—and that’s getting your dog comfortable with the process.
The best time to groom your dog is when they’re already feeling calm and relaxed. If your dog has a lot of energy, that means working off that energy before you start the grooming process.
“Pick a time when [your dog] is already worn out; for example after a training class or a visit to the park,” says Trott. If that’s not possible, make sure to at least take your dog for a long walk or for some playtime in the backyard to help them work off some energy before you groom them.
If your dog seems anxious or stressed out (even after their workout!), a gentle massage could help them relax—and be more comfortable with the grooming process. “You can further calm your dog down by giving him a massage before starting the grooming,” says Trott. “Stroke him with long, even strokes with medium pressure, especially down his spine, down his shoulders and on his chest.” When your dog is nice and relaxed, you can transition to the grooming process.
Once your dog is calm, make sure you use plenty of positive reinforcement throughout the grooming process to keep them that way. “Use treats or other positive rewards to keep your pet interested in the [grooming] activity and wanting to participate,” says Wildman.
If you want to keep your dog happy, healthy, and well-groomed, there are a few key grooming tasks you need to perform on a regular basis, including:
“The most important part of grooming is brushing,” says Trott. “Make sure to get all areas, especially the hidden ones in which tangles tend to form: behind the ears, in the dog’s armpits, and between their back legs and their hip. If your dog has a fluffy tail, don’t forget to brush his tail as well!”
How often you need to brush your dog is going to depend on the breed. “Depending on your dog’s coat, you may need to brush him as often as once a day,” says Trott. “Other breeds might only require a weekly brushing…Generally, the longer and finer your dog’s hair is, the more grooming they will need.”
Regular nail trimming is a must in order to keep your dog comfortable. “Not cutting your dog’s nails regularly can lead to them growing so long that it changes the stance of the dog’s foot,” says Trott. “It rocks too far back on the pad and can lead to muscle pain in your dog’s leg; it is the doggy version of wearing high heels for too long.”
According to the American Kennel Club, the most important factors to consider when trimming your dog’s nails are:
- Only trim the ends. The quick is a blood vessel inside the nail—and trimming your dog’s nail too short can cut the quick, causing bleeding. The AKC recommends only trimming the ends of each nail (the hook-shaped portion that turns down).
- Use the right clippers. High-quality dog clippers will have a safety guard to prevent cutting the dog’s nails too short.
- Start slowly. Many dogs dislike getting their nails trimmed, so make sure to take it slowly with your pet. The more they realize that you’re not going to hurt them when you trim their nails, the more comfortable they’ll get with the process—and the easier it will become.
Baths are an essential part of the grooming process. And while you should bathe your dog regularly, don’t overdo it. According to the AKC, too frequent bathing can strip your dog’s coat of natural oils, leading to a dry, coarse texture.
Before you put your dog in the bath, make sure to give them a thorough brushing first. “Brush your pet prior to the bath,” says Wildman. “Knots and tangles tighten when wet and can quickly become painful mats that irritate the skin.”
Once they’re brushed out, stand your dog in the bathtub and pop cotton balls in each of their ears (which, according to the AKC, can help prevent ear infections). Then, it’s time to wash the dog. “Use lukewarm water (no hotter than what you would bathe a baby in) to wet the coat. [Then], use your dog shampoo,” says Wildman. Human shampoo is an absolute no-go, because it will dry out your pet’s skin.
Work the shampoo into a lather, covering all areas of their body. Then, “rinse well, starting from the head to the tail and then the legs last,” says Wildman. If desired, repeat with conditioner.
It’s important to make sure to rinse out all the product. Leaving any shampoo, conditioner, or other hair products on the skin may cause irritation.
Once your pet is rinsed off, Wildman says you should towel dry your dog and then brush their coat again, putting a comb to use if you stumble upon knots.
If you do decide to dry your dog, make sure you’re using a grooming dryer specifically engineered for dogs. “You do not want to use a human hair dryer because they [can] get too hot and can overheat your pet or burn their skin,” says Wildman.
Ear and eye cleaning
Your dog’s eyes and ears are prone to infection, which is why it’s so important to clean them on a regular basis.
According to the AKC, you should clean your dog’s ears at least once per month, and more if their breed is prone to ear infections. Use a cotton swab soaked in mineral oil to gently cleanse the outside of the ears (never force anything inside the ear canal!).
To clean your dog’s eyes in between baths, all you need is a moist cotton ball to gently rub away any eye discharge. During a bath, Wildman recommends using an eye rinse. “Use your eye rinse to remove any foreign objects from the eye and to protect the eyes from the shampoo,” says Wildman. Towards the end of the bath, she suggests rinsing the eyes with the eyewash again in case any shampoo managed to get in.
Brushing the teeth
As mentioned, oral hygiene is a critical part of grooming your dog. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, over 80% of dogs have some kind of dental issue by age 3.
Make sure to regularly brush your dog’s teeth to keep their teeth and gums healthy.
Some dogs do just fine with at-home grooming. But if your dog isn’t allowing you to groom them at home, it’s time to bring in the professionals. “When you feel that you are struggling to keep up with your dog’s grooming, take them to a professional as soon as possible,” says Trott. “The longer you let the grooming lapse, the worse their coat’s condition is going to become—and they might even need to get some badly matted areas shaved.”
You can also loop in a professional groomer for support in specific areas where your pet might be struggling. “Groomers offer individual services, such as just nail trims,” says Trott.
No matter how well your dog responds to your at-home grooming, it can still be helpful to schedule a regular appointment with a professional groomer.
“Even if your dog is good about getting groomed at home, it is a useful learning experience for them to visit a groomer at least once or twice a year,” says Tripp. “It will keep them used to other people, show them that it’s OK to be touched and worked on by the groomer, and improve their demeanor in situations where they may need to be examined, such as at the vet.”