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How to groom a dog: A vet's guide to brushing, bathing and clipping

How to groom a dog
(Image credit: Getty)

Perhaps you’ve got a new puppy and need to know how to groom a dog. Or maybe you’re affected by COVID restrictions, and you can’t visit the groomer anymore. Either way, you probably need to know how to look after your dog’s coat. Some dogs need brushing daily, others don’t need as much care – it all depends on your dog’s coat type. You’ll need to get yourself one of the best dog brushes you can find and also consider bathing, clipping, and brushing your dog’s teeth. Use the time to check your dog over carefully for lumps, skin problems, and ticks, as well as for bonding with lots of cuddles and treats.

Brushing your dog

The cornerstone of grooming is a good brush. Just like in humans, brushing keeps the hair from becoming tangled and matted, which can be uncomfortable and lead to sore skin. It also spreads the skin oils over the coat to improve water resistance and shine. For short-haired dogs, you may get away with brushing weekly. Longer-coated dogs will need brushing more often – and sometimes daily! Choose the right brush and the right method to avoid hurting your dog when brushing them.

Get the right brush for your dog's coat

There are a lot of different types of dog brush, and you need to find the right one to suit your dog’s coat. Most dogs will need a soft bristle brush at some point, so getting one of those is a good place to start. Dogs with a long coat will also need a rake or metal comb to remove the tangles. Double-coated breeds and those prone to shedding may need an undercoat brush. You’ll find a slicker brush useful for curly-coated breeds such as poodles and poodle-crosses. Wire-haired dogs may need a stripping knife- although in my experience it’s best to leave stripping to a groomer!

How to brush your dog

If your dog isn’t used to being brushed, you may need to introduce them to it slowly. Show them how fun it is by providing plenty of the best dog treats and praise. Many dogs can be a bit nervous about their legs or underside being groomed, so it’s best to start with the neck and shoulders – areas that they’re used to being touched. Work backwards, over the back, and then down the sides to the undercarriage. You can then gently brush the face and head if needed. 

For most dogs, a once-over with a soft bristle brush and a quick detangle of problem areas with a comb is all they need. You’ll soon work out how often your dog needs brushing, and also where your dog’s trouble areas are – check under the armpits and in the groin for tangles, and spaniels and other long-eared dogs are prone to getting matts behind their ears.

Cutting and clipping your dog's coat

Whilst you might prefer to leave the cutting of your dog’s coat to a breeder, you may find you have to have a go yourself at times. Short-coated breeds and smooth coats rarely need clipping, but longer coats and poodles will often need regular clipping. 

If you’re going to clip your dog’s coat yourself, you should get a pair of electric clippers (human ones are fine) with varying guard lengths. It may take some practice to find the right guard length for your dog – it’s best to start with the longest guards and change them down until you get the length you want. Avoid using scissors unless you are very experienced, as sharp objects can be dangerous if your dog wriggles.

Getting your dog used to the clippers

If your dog isn’t used to having his coat clipped, especially if you have a new puppy or a rescue, you may need to practice a few times until they aren’t afraid of the clippers. Many dogs are afraid of the noise they make! Just as with anything new and potentially scary, you should start as small and innocuous as possible – perhaps simply holding the clippers up, turned off, for them to see – then giving them a treat. Work up slowly to avoid scaring your dog. When you do start clipping, avoid the head and ears, as many dogs will be frightened by the buzzing of clippers behind their ears.

How to groom a dog

(Image credit: Getty)

Bathing your dog

Some dogs will need more regular bathing than others. Dogs that have skin problems such as allergies may need twice weekly bathing, whilst many others will only need doing when they’re dirty – although if you own a white dog that loves the mud you might still find yourself bathing your dog regularly! I generally advise not to bathe your dog too often – most shampoos will strip natural skin oils and cause skin problems. Unless they’ve rolled in something, have become very dirty, or have a medical condition, try not to bathe your dog more than once a month.

Choosing the right shampoo for your dog

Any generic dog shampoo will be suitable for most dogs – take a look at our guide to the best dog shampoo. Try to find one with fewer ingredients and fragrances to reduce the chance of your dog reacting to the shampoo. If you have a puppy, choose puppy shampoo, which is very gentle. Itchy dogs should have different shampoos too – either a soothing shampoo (oatmeal and aloe vera are my favourite ingredients) or a medicated shampoo recommended by your vet.

How to bathe your dog

Depending on the size of your dog, you may want to use a bathtub, sink, or special tub to bathe your dog in. Dogs can also be bathed in the shower, especially if you have a walk-in shower. Make sure you use warm, but not hot- water, as this will make it more pleasant for your dog. Despite this, many dogs will be scared of the bath the first time – give lots of praise, fuss, and treats to help them cope. 

Wet your dog thoroughly, being sure to wet the undercoat. Then apply the shampoo. Massage in and leave to work according to the instructions on the bottle. Make sure you rinse thoroughly to avoid causing skin problems.

Other grooming care

Don’t forget your dog’s teeth! Toothbrushing should ideally be undertaken daily using a soft brush and a canine toothpaste. Dogs can be taught to tolerate toothbrushing from a young age, or with lots of praise and treats. 

Similarly, nail clipping is an important part of your dog’s grooming routine. Check the nails weekly, looking for signs of them growing too long – they may curl over into the pad, click along the floor, or have a large length of nail after the pink quick. Use sharp clippers to cut the nail to 4mm past the end of the quick. If your dog has black nails, our handy guide on how to brush a dog’s teeth can help.

Conclusion

So, now you know how to groom a dog! With monthly baths and clips, weekly nail checks, and daily brushing of the coat and teeth, your dog will be kept in tip-top condition even when the groomer is closed. Don’t forget to take it slow so that you don’t frighten your dog, especially when these things are new to him.

Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS

Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.