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How to Bathe Your Dog

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Dog Taking Bath

Well, okay, for those of us who were English majors, technically “bath” is a four-letter word. But it doesn’t have to be a bad word. You can and should make bath time a relaxed and even pleasant time for your dog.

The Basics: Before You Bathe

Comb Out Your Dog

Rule Number One: Always thoroughly brush and comb your long-haired dog before you bathe him. If your dog has any mats in his hair when he gets wet, they will become extremely difficult to get out. Yes, you’ll have to brush your dog, bathe him, and brush him again. That may sound like a lot of work, but it’s much less work than trying to get the mats out once they’re set in by a bath.

Have Your Supplies Ready

Before you start, get organized. The last thing you want is a wriggling wet dog while you’re wandering through the house looking for a towel.

You’ll need:

  • Nonskid mat and filter in the sink
  • Spray nozzle
  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Towels
  • Blow dryer
  • Comb
  • Pin brush (for long-haired breeds)
  • Blunt-edged scissors to trim feet and tidy up coat (for long-haired breeds)

Technically, It’s a Shower, Not a Bath

It’s cute to see photos of a dog in a tub full of suds. But in real life, you don’t want your dog sitting in a tub of dirty water. Dogs need showers, not baths. It’s uncomfortable, unwieldy, and inefficient to bathe your dog in even an inch of water. It should all go down the drain.

Be sure to put a nonskid mat in the bottom of wherever you are bathing your dog, as your dog will be calmer and more comfortable with sure footing. You can cut down an inexpensive rubber bath mat bought at the grocery store if you are bathing a little dog in the sink. Do be sure to put a filter over the drain.

You’ll want a spray attachment for rinsing your dog.

Be sure the water temperature feels just slightly warm on your skin. Your dog has very sensitive skin, and it hurts if the water is too warm, and it isn’t any fun if the water is too cold. Have the water running before you put your dog in the sink or bathtub, so he doesn’t have to wait and worry while you fiddle with the water temperature.

The Zen of Bathing

No matter how weird and wacky your dog becomes, stay calm and gentle. Don’t rush, don’t get frustrated. If you get upset, your dog will be more wriggly and difficult. Run water over his coat to get it wet, gently massage in the shampoo, and then work the conditioner into his hair.

When the shampoo and conditioner have been thoroughly massaged on all parts of the dog, rinse thoroughly. Then rinse again. And again. And one more time for good measure. (Aren’t you glad you have that hose attachment?) Be sure to rinse the spots you might forget, including your dog’s tummy, personal parts, and tail. Nothing can cause more irritation to your dog’s skin—and make his coat look more dull—than shampoo that didn’t get rinsed out.

Be very careful when you’re washing your furry friend’s head and face, especially around his eyes. You might want to look for a “no tears” shampoo so that you don’t have to worry about getting soap in your dog’s eyes. Rinse very gently around the dog’s head. After he’s thoroughly rinsed (you’re sure he’s thoroughly rinsed, right?), it’s time to dry him. Be sure that where you dry him has a towel or mat down for solid footing. Start by completely towel drying your dog. Hold and gently squeeze him, rather than rubbing—remember, you don’t want to create mats!

Comb out his hair, being sure to get out any tangles at his elbows, behind his ears, on his tummy—all the places that are easy to overlook. If it’s a warm summer day, or if you have a short-haired dog, it might be fine to just let your dog air dry the rest of the way. However, most of the time, you’ll also want to blow-dry your dog. It’s best if you use a dryer specifically designed for dogs (there’s at least one brand that’s a portable dryer that sits on your counter and leaves your hands free). You can also find stands in which to place human hair dryers that will leave your hands free to groom your dog, which is always a good idea.

If you’re using a human dryer, be sure to set the temperature on the lowest setting. Your dog’s skin is very sensitive, and a hot dryer will hurt. Keep the volume on “low” as well—if you’re drying a little dog, the air at full blast could practically blow him off the counter.

Remember, your dog’s hair will flow in the direction the dryer is pointed. Gently brush the way you want the coat to go as you dry the hair. All the while, tell your dog he’s wonderful, and gorgeous, and that time with a dryer is worth it. He’ll soon learn that it’s just part of being beautiful.

TIP: After a bath, it’s common for dogs to need to pee. I have no idea why, but they do. As soon as you’ve dried your dog, take him out for a quick potty break to avoid a “housebreaking indiscretion.”

How Often?

There isn’t a rule about how often to bathe—or not bathe—your dog. Unlike humans, dogs don’t sweat. So, despite people’s perceptions of “doggie odor,” they generally accumulate bad odors a lot slower than humans do.

Some dogs tend to be oily, and need to be bathed every week or two. Others can go several weeks without a bath. If you’re using good-quality products, and giving your dog a healthy diet that keeps his skin supple, most dogs can be bathed weekly without any harm.

Shampoos and Conditioners

There’s no one “best” shampoo or conditioner for a dog. Every dog’s skin and hair are different. Experiment, just as you do for your own hair, until you find products that you and your dog like.

Do look for formulas that are gentle. Products for sensitive skin are always a good choice, since all dogs have sensitive skin. Remember, little dogs are usually bathed more often than big dogs.

I like shopping for shampoo with my dogs, so I can be sure they like the smell. After all, what smells good to us humans often smells pretty awful to a dog. (And, of course, we all know of things that dogs think smell wonderful that we find icky!) If my dog turns his head and grimaces when I put the product down for him to sniff, we buy something else.

It only makes sense to look for products that have as many natural ingredients as possible. The fewer weird and unpronounceable chemicals that come into contact with your dog’s skin, the better.

Most dogs also benefit from a conditioner formulated for dogs, not humans. That’s especially important for long-haired dogs, since it keeps tangling to a minimum.

Places to Find Great Shampoos and Conditioners

Your Veterinarian’s Office. Most veterinarians carry shampoo in their clinics. It usually doesn’t look very fancy, but most of these products are great. They are usually specially formulated for dogs with sensitive skin (and frequent bathers). My veterinarian carries an aloe and oatmeal shampoo that allows me to skip the conditioner on my Papillons.

Pet Boutiques. Retail and online stores have some products that are sumptuous. The latest trend is shampoo that contains essential oils. (Essential oils are used in aromatherapy to promote health benefits.) Some contain ingredients such as citronella, eucalyptus, and lavender, which can help to repel bugs.

Groomers. Many groomers sell premium shampoos that they use in their establishment. Groomers are usually up-to-date on the best new products, and often can give you a lot of help in finding the right choice for your particular pet.

Pet Supply Stores. The large chain stores usually have a wide variety of pet shampoos. Bring your dog with you to help select one that smells good to both of you, and remember to look for one with as many natural ingredients as possible.

After the Bath

When he’s shampooed and conditioned, towel-dried and blow-dried, tell your dog just how fabulous he looks! It will make him feel happy. Then go have an adventure together. Life should be fun, as well as glamorous, for your dog!

Material adapted from The Little Dog’s Beauty Book (T.F.H. Publications, 2006), used by permission.

5 Responses to How to Bathe Your Dog

  1. Dale Fish April 23, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

    Good stuff! But, what about a 100 lb. puppy?

  2. Karen April 24, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    I thought the article was very well written. Bath time should be a fun time for both. Thee are so many shampoo’s on the market it is hard to choose. Some really dry out the skin and then the dogs itch after the bath. For the long hair dog it is so important to brush them everyday.

  3. Margaret Pratcher April 24, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

    I have a small breed Shi-T Shuz, and I bath her in Dr. Bonners Peppermint and Lavender shampoo and sometimes baby shampoo with no tears. Mostly all dog shampoo has sodiumn hydroxide (lye) in it. That is a skin irritant and will cause hair loss. I bathe her in my bath tub and she enjoys it. It is our time together and she smells great when she dries and I spray doggie colone on her tail

  4. Pat McPherson April 25, 2011 @ 3:18 am

    This was very helpful to me. I have raised, trained, and shown Ger. Shep. dogs for many, many years. I could bathe them with my eyes closed. Now I have my first little dog. She is a Tibetan Spaniel. I would have had more mats after the bath than beffore it. I would have rubbed her with vigor and made a mess of her beautiful, long, silky black fur. She would have had to go to a professional groomer, which would cost an arm and a leg for a badly matted dog. She would have suffered all because I goofed, I wish I could print this and hang it over the sink. Thank you!!!!!!!!!

  5. F Gough May 1, 2011 @ 12:10 am


    We have had our Tibetan Spaniel almost a year. She was a ‘surrender dog’ from the animal shelter and we think she’s about 2 years o.d The is the first dog we’ve had inside. She does fine with a bath. A question I have for you – our dog sometimes acts like a cat – no kidding – she’ll creep up very slowly then pounce on you . We think it’s hilarious. Does yours ever do that? Just wondering. We are crazy about her and she has brought a lot of jjoy into our llives.

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