Warm water gently flows down the body. Strong yet tender hands massage the perfect combination of soaps and conditioners from head to toe. Each hair is expertly styled — bringing out all the beauty that hides beneath. Finally, the nails are shaped, filed, and finished to rival the best mani-pedis around.
No, this perfect spa experience is not for you. It’s not even for humans. This four-star, nose-to-tail bathing, trimming, and styling experience is designed for your dog. That’s right. When it’s bath time for your pup — you can make their experience one that they look forward to – instead of dreading.
Whether at the groomer or at home — make your dog's spa day a great experience
As with nearly all areas of puppy learning and development, each experience is a new one. And everything about being groomed will be new to them. It involves new sights, new smells, maybe even new people — and frankly, some new actions that your pup may perceive as just a bit too personal. But you can help yourself and your pup (as well as your groomer) by working with them in preparation for their first big spa day — as well as setting a solid foundation for relieving their anxiety and providing them with confidence that will last their entire lifetime.
Whether you regularly take your pup to a groomer or go the DIY route, working with your dog at an early age helps make them a more relaxed pup, better prepared for each big day, and much more likely to love (or at least tolerate) getting groomed.
Preparing your dog for their first spa date
Here are some great ways to help acclimate and socialize your pup in preparation for their big day — keeping them looking and feeling their best throughout their entire life.
Start handling your pup as much as possible
From the moment you get your hands on your new pup — either as the youngest of puppies or as an already mature dog — you should work on handling them so they are comfortable and unafraid of being touched by human hands. You should work on touching them from nose to tail. Handle their paws — including touching and holding each toe individually. Play with and gently hold their tail. Play with their ears. Touch each ear inside and out (just don’t go too far down their ear canal). Slide your fingers along their teeth. And clean out the crud that builds up in their eyes. All the time being gentle while reinforcing the experience with loving praise, treats, and post-handling play sessions.
And don’t limit your dog’s experience of getting touched to just you. Make sure others have the opportunity to do the very same. Once they’re comfortable with being handled by you, have other trusted people handle them too. It’s also a good idea to let them get used to being handled by more than one person at a time. While you rub their belly or scratch their ears, have a friend or someone else in the family gently touch their paws and toes, praise your pup and then reward them with treats or a fun play session afterward.
All this physical contact—in time—helps them relax when they need to be handled for their grooming or any other circumstance where they need to be physically handled, held, or restrained—such as at the vet office, a doggy daycare, boarding kennels, etc. Touching your dog all over throughout their life is also a great opportunity to check for any lumps and bumps. Catching them early is super important.
Start rubbing your pup with a towel
A gentle rub helps them get used to being dried off. Remember to always do their paws, wipe their ears (ears are very important to dry well) and chin, and rub their belly and “undercarriage” area. This is the groundwork for drying off a wet pup.
Introduce your pup to the sound and feel of a blow dryer
Don't use the dryer directly on your pup at first. Just let them get used to the sounds. When your pup is comfortable with the hair dryer’s sound, put it on the cool and low settings and gently turn the air stream along your dog's back. Go slow, and gradually start pointing the dryer toward them.
Many dogs absolutely love feeling air blow on their body and into their face — but not all do — so gradually (over time) expand the area of the body from their back, to their sides, to their belly, and finally to the head and face. This can often be successfully transitioned into a game.
When using a hairdryer on a pet, always do so with caution. Using a dryer for too long can lead to possible burns to the coat or even their skin. One great way of making sure that you never over-dry is simply keeping your hand between your pup and the dryer. As one hand holds the hairdryer, the other can brush, scratch, rub, or even tickle your dog. If your offhand starts to get too warm, then you know that it’s also too warm for your pup, and it’s time to either move to another section of their body or to put the dryer down. Give them a break for a moment and repeat your drying as needed. Make it fun, and remember to reward them during and after all this good hairdryer play.
See this video of Preventive Vet team member Finnegan learning how to feel comfortable with the blow dryer.
Make time for regular brushings
Whether they need it or not (odds are they need it!), set aside time to brush or comb your dog a little each day. If you have a pup that’s anxious or scared of combs or brushes, start off slow and make some games out of this time together. The first thing to help make this a success is getting them comfortable with these objects. Set them down, and let them look at, smell, and even lick the brush and comb. Let them know that they are harmless. (This can also apply to your pup’s nail clippers!) One nice trick is to start using the back of the comb and brush at first. Just make simple strokes across their body without the brush bristles or comb teeth touching or pulling on them. Hopefully, this will be a short-term tactic resulting in long-term results. Then you can gradually start letting their coat go through the brush and comb.
Many groomers recommend getting the ZoomGroom as your puppy’s first brush. This sets a foundation for the tools you will need to groom at home. Depending on your puppy’s coat, you may need a firmer bristle brush and a comb. Your groomer can always make the best recommendations.
Get your pup used to being in a tub or sink
Though there may be a direct correlation between the size of your dog and the ease of getting them in and out of their place to bathe at home—acclimating your dog to getting wet goes a long way in making your pup a better bather.
The idea here is just like their crate training — let them know that a tub is not just a safe place to be—it can also be a comforting (even fun) place to be. The key is starting slow and using plenty of positive reinforcements, i.e., cuddles and treats. You may want to do this several times before you ever actually turn any water on.
Once they get settled in the tub, and it’s time to get them wet, remember to go slow and see how they react. If you feel they are either frightened or experiencing a high level of anxiety, just stop the water and begin giving them a little doggy massage. Gently rub their sides, stroke their back, and caress their face. Make them feel as relaxed as you can. And whether you resume getting them wet or not, finish their experience on a positive note. Again, treats are usually the answer here. Keep trying until they become more comfortable.
If you can get your pup to love bath time half as much as this little guy, you're set!
This sweetie will definitely need the inside of his ears dried for sure! Hope he likes that too!
Teach your puppy how to stand on request
Just as you taught the importance of SIT to your pup, the command of STAND is as important when it comes to your dog being groomed. Odds are, your vet will appreciate this skill as well.
Work on easing any separation anxiety
One of the most stressful aspects of leaving your pup at the groomer is the actual LEAVING part. Once you hand over their leash and they see you walking out that door, a dog's anxiety may spike. You can help mitigate this reaction in advance by working with your dog to reduce any fears of separation.
In addition to leaving your pup with the groomer (or even a sitter, kennel, or veterinarian), working on their separation anxiety has countless other benefits for the health and happiness of your dog.
Make each spa day as safe and comfortable for your pup as possible
Once the big day happens — and you just can’t wait any longer to get them all cleaned up — keep in mind these very important steps in making this experience safe and comforting to your pet:
- Give your pup a surface that they feel comfortable and confident on. Most all dogs want to be on a non-slip surface during their bath. The slipperiness of most bathtubs can actually increase their anxiety. So laying down a non-slip mat or a towel can really help them out.
- When bathing them, make sure the water temperature is neither too cold nor too hot. Always start with a nice warm to lukewarm temperature.
- To minimize the risk of post-bathing ear infections, take a simple step to help keep water out of their ears in the first place — wash and rinse their head only with a damp washcloth or sponge. Don't dump a cup or pitcher of water over their head, and never spray their head with the shower nozzle or an outdoor hose. Regardless of how carefully you think you're doing so, you’re almost certain to get some water in their ears — setting up the perfect conditions for an ear infection!
- Use only shampoos that are specifically created for dogs. Dogs don’t need to be washed with shampoo on a regular basis. A good shampooing every one to three months (depending upon breed, coat type, activities, and lifestyle) is all most dogs really need. (Feel free to give them water-only baths in between.) So don’t feel bad about splurging on higher-end dog shampoos with quality ingredients. Considering how infrequently you’ll actually use it, it’s well worth the money. Even if you only shampoo your dog once a month, a single bottle can last a good year — or longer. However, check out this article on the shampoos NOT to use on your dog.
- Gently massage your dog’s body while they are lathered up. This helps soothe and relax them. This will be the most pleasurable part of the bathing process — for both of you! It also helps build the bond the two of you share.
- Avoid getting any shampoo or soapy water in your pup’s eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. Whenever using soaps or shampoos on your pup, always keep a wet washcloth within arm’s reach. If any soap, suds, or lather gets too close, simply wipe the area to keep them free of these irritants.
- Be sure to rinse your dog well. You don’t want to leave any soapy residue on your pup’s skin. This can lead to irritated skin — making your dog itchy and causing him to do lots of scratching.
Do yourself and your puppy a favor, and begin each of these preparatory steps as soon as your dog comes to live with you in your home. All your work will pay off because each of these activities can be frustrating and stressful to dogs (of any age) if they are not properly exposed to all the elements of grooming. And if things don’t go well with any of these experiences — you too will feel frustrated.
An important added benefit of your dog being comfortable as they're being handled is when they’re standing on their vet’s examination table. A dog that is properly trained to stand confidently while being thoroughly examined up and down their body allows veterinarians to better search for lumps, bumps, and other abnormalities that can put your dog at risk — potentially saving your pup’s life.
And just like the veterinarian you chose, understand that the best groomers and grooming salons are a worthy investment for the proper care and health of your pup — even if that groomer is you. And the time you put into preparing your pup for their next big spa day will be well worth your efforts.
Judi Anderson-Wright, MA, CPDT-KA contributed to the contents of this article.
Judi is the Co-owner and Director of Canine Education at Great Dog, located in Seattle, WA. Great Dog offers its clients a wide range of services, including: boarding, grooming, and obedience classes.