Do you have a new puppy or rescue dog and want to learn some basic grooming? Maybe you’re tired of paying groomers and want to try grooming your dog at home. Whatever the case may be, I was a dog groomer for more than 12 years, and now I’m a writer who grooms her dog at home. I have a lot of experience to share, and I hope to help with just the basics here – the all-important when, why, and how – as well as addressing some of the difficulties faced by most people new to the dog grooming world.
The most important thing to remember is that you want your dog to enjoy – or at least not hate – the grooming process. Start slowly, with one thing at a time, and be sure to give your dog plenty of treats during and after each task.
For the part your dog hates the most (usually the blow dryer), I would suggest you save your dog’s favorite treat and ONLY give it to them after you’re done. You will find they have the motivation to tolerate that part of the process because they know their favorite treat is coming and that’s the only time they get to enjoy it.
I just rescued my dog a few months ago, and he hates the entire grooming process, so I break things up into smaller pieces and do everything over several days. On day one, I’ll trim his nails, brush him, and maybe shave his potty areas. The next day, I’ll give him a bath, which he REALLY hates. Then I do the full haircut the next day, leaving just the feet and more difficult to reach places for the following day. Breaking the grooming process up into several different sessions has been a lifesaver; it truly makes it more tolerable for him.
Nail trimming is one part of grooming that every dog needs. Long nails can cause problems walking, arthritis, and the nail can even curve into the pad of the dog’s foot. Imagine how uncomfortable it must be to have something poking your foot ALL the time and how painful each step must be!
In general, you should plan on trimming your dog’s nails once a month. Some dogs will need more- or less-frequent nail trimming.
For example, large dogs that walk on sidewalks or asphalt more than an hour every day often wear down their nails and need little trimming apart from their dew claws (that’s the little claw halfway up the side of the paw). Small dogs tend to go for shorter walks and need nail trimming every couple of weeks.
As you may already know, dogs have a vein in their nails called a quick that will bleed and hurt if you cut it too short. In dogs that don’t get their nails cut frequently enough, the vein can grow very long, so you can only take a little bit off at a time. If that’s the case, you should trim a little bit off your dog’s nails every week to encourage the vein to shrink back into the nail. A grinder is best for this.
If you use nail clippers, the easiest way to cut your dog’s nails is to position your dog in a way where you can flip their paw back and look at the underside. Trim a little bit at a time.
In dogs with white nails, you can see the quick inside the nail and know where to cut. For black nails, cut off a little bit at a time. You will see a tiny black dot surrounded by white when you get close to the quick. That’s how you know to stop.
Nail grinders are a great way to get your dog’s nails short and smooth with less risk of cutting the quick. Nail grinders can be loud, so you may need to introduce it to your dog slowly. Use the same process to take off a little bit at a time until you see the dot in the middle of the nail showing that you’ve gone short enough.
You can purchase styptic powder and keep it handy to stop bleeding if you trim a nail too short. In a pinch, you can use flour or cornstarch to stop the bleeding.
Every dog needs at least occasional brushing. Yes, even your short-haired dog. Most short-haired dogs shed at least a little bit. Using the right brush can remove loose hair and spread your dog’s natural oils through his coat for a healthy shine.
Every coat type requires different brush types, and you should have a metal comb for most coat types. Ideal brushes for each coat type include:
|Coat Type||Best Brush||Alternate Brush|
Very Short Hair
(Boston Terriers, Great Danes)
Rubber Curry Brush
Short, Shedding Hair
Rubber Curry Brush
Short, Thick, Shedding Hair
(Huskies, German Shepherds)
(Golden Retrievers, Border Collies)
Did you know that 80% of dogs have periodontal disease or other dental problems by the time they’re 3 years old? Gum disease is no small matter – it can lead to teeth falling out, abscesses, a broken jaw, heart disease, or even death. That’s right, the bacteria from your dog’s bad teeth can get into their bloodstream and kill them.
You should aim to brush your dog’s teeth every day. If you’ve never brushed your dog’s teeth before, you need to start slowly. Let them sniff and lick the dog toothpaste first (NEVER use human toothpaste), then put the toothpaste on your finger and rub it on the outside of your dog’s teeth. Work your way up to a finger toothbrush and then a dog toothbrush.
For dogs that refuse to let you brush their teeth, there are dental sprays and tooth wipes that can help a little bit. It’s also a good idea to give your dog access to plenty of things to chew on.
Some people never wash their dogs, and some people wash them every week. Ideally, you should aim for something in the middle.
Even short-haired dogs benefit from a bath a few times a year to remove dirt, grime, and excess grease from their coats. Most dogs should be bathed at least every 1-3 months.
Generally, you should try not to bathe your dog more than once a month. If you do, be sure to use a very gentle shampoo made specifically for dogs. Hypoallergenic or oatmeal shampoos are great choices. Overwashing can dry out your dog’s skin and coat, so using a conditioner in addition to a gentle shampoo is a good choice.
No matter how often you bathe your dog, you should always use a shampoo made specifically for dogs. Humans have a different pH than dogs, so human shampoo (even baby shampoo) is too harsh for dog skin.
If you have anything other than a short-haired dog, you should be sure to brush and detangle your dog before the bath. Water makes mats and tangles worse, even if you use conditioner. There are a few exceptions if you have the right tools and knowledge, but trust me when I say you should leave that to the professionals. Brush, trim or shave mats out before washing your dog.
Remember to gather everything you need before you start the bath. That includes cotton balls in your dog’s ear canals to prevent water from getting in, which can lead to an ear infection.
Dogs don’t like the slippery feeling of a sink or bathtub under their feet, so use a bath mat or a towel to give them some traction.
Use lukewarm water. Dogs don’t enjoy hot baths the way people do. Invest in a flexible sprayer attachment if you can – I can tell you from experience that trying to rinse a dog with only a cup is a pain!
When you get your dog wet, start at their back end and work your way forward toward their head. Would you like it if somebody sprayed your face without warning?
As you soap them up, do the same thing and start at their back end and work your way to their face. CAUTION: Many shampoos can damage your dog’s eyes! Be careful to avoid getting shampoo in their eyes, even as you rinse it out. It’s also a good idea to put a bit of saline solution in your dog’s eyes after the bath to rinse out any shampoo that may have gotten in their eyes.
Personally, I use a separate shampoo for my dog’s face than I do for the rest of his body. Something that is super gentle on the face and helps loosen stubborn eye gunk and goop.
Rinse, rinse, and rinse again. When you think you have all the shampoo out, rinse for an additional couple of minutes. It’s too easy to accidentally leave a little shampoo in your dog’s coat, which can cause, at best, unattractive dander flakes, and at worst, skin irritation or infections. Not good.
If you use a hair dryer on your dog, make sure to use a cool setting. Dogs can overheat very easily. Heated dryers also dry out the skin.
Ears, eyes, and paws
You should clean out your dog’s ears at least once a month. You can use an ear cleaner made for dogs or witch hazel on a cotton ball. It’s natural to see a little bit of dirt on the cotton ball after swiping the inside of your dog’s ear, but if the cotton ball comes out gunky or stinky, your dog likely has an ear infection and needs a trip to the vet.
Dogs in general and flat-faced breeds, in particular, are prone to eye problems. At least once a week, you should take the time to look at your dog’s eyes. They should be bright and clear with no cloudiness and minimal redness. Tears should be clear. If your dog has colored discharge coming from their eyes (different from the reddish-brown goop that can accumulate from normal tears), they need to go to the vet to check for an infection, injury, or allergies.
Many dog breeds have hair that grows in the corner of their eyes. This needs to be trimmed regularly to prevent it from growing long enough to irritate your dog’s eyes. You can trim it using round-tipped shears, clippers with a #10 blade, or small electric trimmers.
If this makes you uncomfortable, it’s time for a trip to the groomer. If you feel comfortable doing the rest of your dog’s grooming at home, some groomers will accept walk-in appointments for just an eye trim. Call ahead and ask.
Most dogs grow hair between the pads on the bottoms of their feet. When this hair gets long, it can collect pesticides, sidewalk salt, and debris. With dogs that have continuously-growing hair, the hair can become matted and cause painful lumps.
You can use scissors (very carefully!) or trimmers to cut the hair flush with your dog’s paw pads. Don’t dig down between the paw pads because it’s very easy to nick your dog.
I could write a whole article on giving your dog a full haircut at home, but here are a few basics to keep in mind:
- Even the best professional groomers nick dogs from time to time, so be prepared for the possibility that you may injure your dog. Moving animals plus sharp scissors and clipper blades are a scary combination.
- Keep clipper blades flat against the skin. Be especially careful at skin edges like the edges of the ears, armpits, and the area where the back legs meet the body.
- Clipper blades WILL GET HOT. Using attachment combs helps keep the blade away from your dog’s body, but if you are using a blade against your dog’s skin (especially a #10 blade), it will get hot, no matter what the manufacturer promises. Keep blade coolant handy and frequently touch the clipper blade to the inside of your forearm to see how hot it is.
- Go slowly. Rushing leads to accidents
- When in doubt, a visit to a professional groomer is usually cheaper than a trip to the vet