Skip to main content

How to give a dog a bath: A vet’s guide

How to give a dog a bath
(Image credit: Getty)

The first time your adorable new puppy has an accident in her cage, you may find yourself panicking as you wonder how to give a dog a bath! Fortunately, it’s a relatively straightforward process, if you prepare correctly. Selecting the best dog shampoo and creating a good bathing setup will make the process much easier, along with investing a little bit of energy into making bath time as stress-free and rewarding for your dog as possible.

Select your shampoo carefully

Before bathing your dog, select an appropriate shampoo. Use a shampoo that is made specifically for dogs. While you might think that human shampoo would be gentle enough for your dog, the reality is that many human shampoos are far too harsh for a dog’s skin and coat. Human skin has a different pH than dog skin, which means that human shampoo is too acidic for a dog’s skin and coat. Additionally, dogs have a thinner layer of skin than humans, making them susceptible to damage by shampoos that are intended to be used on thick, human skin.

If your dog has a history of skin problems, talk to your veterinarian about the best shampoo for your dog. Your veterinarian may recommend a prescription shampoo, many of which contain medications intended to treat or prevent skin inflammation, bacterial infections, and/or yeast infections. Alternatively, your veterinarian may be able to help you identify features to look for in an over-the-counter dog shampoo. For example, many dogs with skin allergies respond well to a soothing, soap-free, aloe and oatmeal based shampoo. 

Flea and tick shampoos should be avoided. At their best, they tend to be ineffective. At their worst, they can cause significant skin irritation, especially in dogs with sensitive skin. If you are concerned that your dog may have fleas or ticks, talk to your veterinarian about prescription the best flea treatment for dogs. A long-acting flea and tick preventative will be far more effective than flea and tick shampoo, with fewer risks to your dog’s skin and coat.

How to give a dog a bath

(Image credit: Getty)

Selecting and preparing your dog's bath location

An important part of knowing how to give a dog a bath… Decide where you are going to bathe your dog. Small dogs are often bathed in a bathtub or sink. If you have a larger dog and the outside temperature is above roughly 80°F, you can bathe your dog outside. This offers several advantages: your dog will not shake water all over your home, you will not have to clear dog hair from your bathtub drain, and you can even take your dog for a walk in the sunshine to help them dry off. If the weather or the water from your hose is cold, however, even a large dog should be bathed indoors. 

Once you have selected a bath location, set out all of the supplies that you will need within arm’s reach. Include shampoo, the best dog conditioner (if recommended by your veterinarian), towels, and some tasty dog treats. If you are bathing your dog in a sink or bathtub, consider using a no-skid mat to provide comfortable footing for your dog. Advance preparation will decrease the likelihood that you have to step away from your dog during the bath. 

The bathing process, summarized

Bathing your dog is a lot like washing your own hair. First, soak your dog’s entire coat in water. Try to avoid getting water in your dog’s eyes and ears. Water in the eyes can be irritating and water in the ears can predispose your dog to developing an ear infection. 

Once your dog’s coat is entirely soaked, apply a small amount of a shampoo. Work this shampoo into a lather and massage it into your dog’s coat, including the chest, belly, legs, and even the feet. Depending on how dirty your dog is, you may choose to do a brief rinse mid-bath and repeat the entire washing process. Again, take care to keep shampoo out of your dog’s eyes and ears. 

After your dog is clean, rinse the coat fully to remove any shampoo residue from your dog’s coat. This is another important aspect of knowing how to give a dog a bath, as residue can cause skin irritation, leading to itching, redness, excessive licking, and hot spots caused by self-trauma. Finally, allow your dog to shake off some of the water on their coat and towel-dry them. If your dog has long hair, you may also want to use a hair dryer to help dry the coat more quickly and prevent tangling.

If your dog is prone to ear infections or you think water may have entered your dog’s ears, flush the ears thoroughly with a commercially-available dog ear cleaner. This will help remove moisture from the ears, reducing the likelihood of infection. 

Make bath time fun for your dog

Over the course of your dog’s lifetime, you will give countless baths. From the very beginning, make an effort to make bath time as rewarding and enjoyable for your dog as possible. If your dog enjoys baths, it is less likely that you will have to chase them when it’s time for a bath, less likely that your dog will injure themselves in the bathtub, and less likely that you will become scratched during your dog’s efforts to escape the bath. 

Most dogs are food-motivated, meaning that treats are an excellent way to turn a potentially negative experience (like bathing) into a rewarding and fun experience. Offer your dog frequent treats throughout their bath, especially if they are being well-behaved and cooperative. Try to avoid giving treats when your dog is trying to escape or showing other undesired behaviors, because you don’t want to inadvertently reward uncooperative behavior.

If you bathe your dog in a bathtub, consider smearing peanut butter on the edge of the tub, near your dog’s eye level. (Avoid using sugar-free peanut butter, because it may contain a substance called xylitol that is toxic to dogs.) Not only will this provide your dog with constant treats and a positive experience, most dogs will stand relatively still while licking the peanut butter. This minimizes the amount of restraint that you will need, because your dog will remain stationary in exactly the spot that you need them in! 

Preparation is key

While a dog bath seems like a simple process, taking the time to carefully think through how to give a dog a bath can pay off in a number of ways. Not only will the experience be more pleasant for you if you are prepared and not scrambling for supplies, but it will also be more pleasant for your dog if you give some thought to creating a rewarding experience for them. 

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette received both her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. She’s an experienced writer, educator, and veterinarian, with a passion for making scientific and medical information accessible to public and professional audiences.