Mastering Brushing and Bathing Basics

Mastering Brushing and Bathing Basics

In This Chapter

  • Tackling brushing and combing basics for any breed
  • Bathing and drying your dog without bother

Good grooming is a part of caring for your dog, but most of what you do is just maintenance work — that is, just keeping your dog clean and healthy. If you start with a clean dog and maintain a clean and healthy coat, you prevent headaches and disasters later on.

In this chapter, I cover the proper techniques for brushing, combing, bathing, and drying your dog. You can find out about other grooming basics like clipping your dog’s toenails and cleaning his ears and teeth in Chapter Giving Your Dog a Great ’Do: Clipping Basics.
The key to a successful grooming session is making it a fun and enjoyable time for you and your dog. Read on for advice on how to do just that!

Brushing and Combing Basics

Brushing and combing form the foundation of good grooming. Most dogs don’t actually need baths all that frequently. They usually need them only when they get noticeably dirty or have to go to a show. However, they must be brushed and combed often — usually twice weekly or more often, depending on the breed and coat (check out Part III of this book for specifics). Brushing and combing are great for your dog’s skin and coat, because they distribute oils from the skin throughout the coat and get rid of bits of dirt, tangles, and loose hair. This aspect of grooming is the one thing you really need to do, even if you don’t do anything else and decide to hire a groomer.

Always brush and comb a dog before you bathe her, because doing so helps prevent tangles and keeps your dog cleaner. See the section called “Rub-A-Dub-Dub: Washing Your Dog” later in this chapter.

Beyond pulling hairs: Making the experience pleasant

Brushing and combing can be an enjoyable experience or one that ends up as a total nightmare. Usually, dogs who hate to be brushed and combed are the ones with long hair or thick coats that tend to mat easily. Owners often don’t tackle the thick coat early or often enough, and these sessions wind up being much more painful than they have to be. Brushing and combing don’t have to become a hair-pulling event.


Here are a few tricks to brushing and combing your dog:

Start young. When your dog is a puppy, get her used to the procedure. In many cases, dogs love the attention, and you’ll enjoy working on her. However, even if you do start early, some dogs never quite take to grooming entirely. In many instances, you may have to work through some bad behaviors, and in other rare cases, you may need to muzzle or sedate the dog. (See Chapter Mastering Brushing and Bathing Basics for more information about handling a difficult dog.)

Stick to a routine. Where on your dog you first start brushing, combing, and grooming doesn’t matter, but being consistent when you work does. By following the same routine every time you groom your dog, you won’t forget to do anything, and your dog will be happy there aren’t any surprises.

Relax with your dog. Taking time to relax — both dog and owner — goes a long way toward calming your dog’s fears. Your dog may get nervous when she senses it’s grooming time, regardless of whether you’re breaking out a grooming table (which I highly recommend using) or simply reaching for a brush and comb. Giving her treats, a good massage (see the “Massaging your dog” sidebar for advice), or just talking to her in a soothing tone helps relieve your dog’s tension before and during a brushing session.


If you use a grooming table to groom your dog, never leave her unattended. She can hurt herself jumping off or even strangle herself if she’s hooked into a noose.

Brush your dog after she’s exercised — when she’s a little bit tired. She’ll be calmer.

Never hurry, and always be gentle whenever possible. One bad experience can be traumatic and turn your dog off grooming entirely.

Use the right tools. The right tools make the job not only easier but also less stressful and less painful. Use the wrong tools and you’re likely to pull on your dog’s hairs — ouch! Chapter Training Your Dog for Grooming introduces you to common grooming tools, and the section that follows suggests specific brushes and combs to use when grooming each type of dog.

Massaging your dog

Massaging your dog may sound a little odd, but it’s a great way to bond with him and get him to relax. If your dog has never been massaged, he may find it a little strange at first. The first goal when massaging your dog is to get him to relax. Start with gentle stroking movements in areas where he’s normally accustomed to being petted. Don’t touch areas that your dog isn’t quite comfortable with you touching, and don’t use a lot of pressure until your dog gets used to it. Pick up a copy of How to Massage Your Dog by Jane Buckle (Wiley, 1995) or Dog Massage by Maryjean Ballner (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) for the basics of massaging your dog.

Gathering the tools you need

Before you get started with brushing or combing your dog, gather all the tools you need for the session. Having everything you need in one place and within reach makes the brushing and combing session go much more smoothly; it can make all the difference between a pleasant experience and one that’s not so pleasant.


If you live in a flea-prone area, make sure that you have a flea comb handy, especially during flea season. (Flea season often begins in spring. If you live in the U.S., give you a general idea of when to be especially on guard.)

If your dog has a long coat, you need the following tools (Chapter Training Your Dog for Grooming includes some illustrations and descriptions):

An undercoat rake or long comb: To remove the loose undercoat hairs. Some groomers prefer using wide-toothed combs first and then changing to progressively narrower or finer-toothed ones. This strategy is good whenever your dog has really snarly hair. However, if you’re simply maintaining your dog’s coat, you can choose to go over her with a fine-or medium-toothed comb and then a slicker brush.

Detangler solution and a mat splitter or mat rake: For tangles and mats (electric clippers can be used in extreme cases).

A shedding tool: For removing the soft undercoat when the dog is blowing coat (shedding profusely).

A slicker brush: For removing dead hair and stimulating the skin and coat.

If your dog has a shorter coat, you need these grooming tools:

A Zoom Groom or short curry brush: For removing dead hair and polishing the coat.

A short-toothed comb: For removing dead hair and getting through any tangles.

A slicker brush: For removing dead hair and stimulating the skin and coat.

Brushing up on basic techniques

Some groomers like to work from tail to head, but others prefer to work from head to tail. No sensible reason exists for doing it one way over the other, except to say that you need to work whichever way is more comfortable for you and your dog. Nevertheless, you do need to start at one end and work your way to the other so you can be sure that you don’t miss anything in between.
Various methods of brushing include line brushing and combing — that is, parting the fur and combing and brushing out each section (which works well on long coats addressed in Chapter Poodles: A Breed Apart) — and spiral brushing, in which the dog’s hair is brushed and combed in a circular pattern. Spiral brushing works well on any coat.


Regardless of the method of brushing and combing you use, you need to brush all the hair and not just the top coat. That means getting down to the skin and brushing upward.

You can brush out your dog’s coat in a variety of ways. One common way is to brush backward against the lay of the fur and then brush it back into place (see Figure 5-1). Brushing that way usually loosens and removes dead hair and stimulates your dog’s skin. Some breeds have hair types that won’t allow the use of this method. Breeds with corded hair, in particular, just can’t be brushed backward, so make sure you remove all the tangles as you go. For more about specific breed coats, check out the chapters in Part III of this book.

Dealing with the dreaded mat

Because brushing or combing out mats and tangles can cause any dog a great deal of discomfort, don’t keep pulling on them after you find them. Instead, follow these instructions to gently remove tangles and mats:

Figure 5-1: Brushing against the grain to remove dead hair and stimulate the dog’s skin.
1. Spray the mat with detangler solution and use an appropriate comb to slowly work the hairs in the mat free.

Work from the outside of the mat (where the hair isn’t tangled) and slowly untangle the hair. Hold the base of the mat (closest to your dog’s skin) as you work to avoid pulling your dog’s skin.

2. If the mat doesn’t come out with the comb, try using a mat rake next.

Mat rakes are equipped with sharp teeth that work at cutting through the mat. You use the mat rake the same way you would a comb but simply rake along the lay of the hair. The teeth will cut through the mat.

3. If the mat rake doesn’t cut it (so to speak), try using a mat splitter — but don’t put away the rake just yet.

Start by splitting the mat of hair in horizontal or vertical strips and then using either a mat rake or a comb to tackle those smaller pieces individually. Watch to make sure no skin is pulled up into the mat as you work.

Be careful when using mat rakes or mat splitters. They’re quite sharp and can cause cuts if used improperly.

4. In the worst conditions (that means the rake and the splitter have failed), use electric clippers (any blade should work) to slowly shave away the mat.

Be aware that this step should be considered as a last resort and that it can leave a bare patch that will ruin a show coat until it can grow out again.

Short of that, you can also ask a professional groomer or veterinarian to help you get rid of the mat.

Whatever you do, don’t use scissors to cut out a mat! No matter how careful you think you are, accidentally cutting your dog’s skin is all too easy, and that means a trip to the emergency vet for a suture.

Heading down the right grooming path

If your dog’s coat or the hair on her face is short, use a soft slicker that’s made specifically for the face, and even then, brush gently. The skin and hair around a dog’s face are particularly sensitive.
Be especially careful when working around a dog’s eyes. It’s easy to scratch a dog’s eyes with a sharp implement like a dog comb or brush.
On the other hand, if your dog has long hair on the face, such as the fall (hair over the eyes) or beard found in breeds such as Old English Sheepdogs or Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers, put your fingers behind the long hair and gently comb it out. You need to place your fingers behind these long facial hairs to protect your dog’s sensitive skin and face from the sharp, pointed teeth of the comb.


If you find mats or tangles around your dog’s face, don’t spray them with detangler solution, because you risk getting some in your dog’s eyes. Instead, dip a washcloth into the detangler solution, gently rub it into the hair, and then gently comb out the tangle, starting from the bottom of the hair. If the mat is really serious — yes, they sometimes have minds of their own — use an electric clipper with a guarded blade to clip out the mat while also guarding your dog’s face and skin (and keeping her reassured and still) with your other hand.

When your dog has long hair on her ears, you can use a comb to hold the hair so that your hand is between the comb and your dog’s tender skin. If the ear fur is matted or in knots, use the washcloth dipped in detangler solution to slowly try to comb out the tangles. If the knots of ear fur are too big, (many dogs get them behind the ears), use electric clippers (sliding your hand between the skin and the clipper) to remove them or just ask a professional to do it for you to avoid cutting the skin.


Never use scissors to cut out a mat or a knot, because you can seriously injure your dog, even if you are careful about it. If you don’t have grooming clippers, ask a vet or a professional groomer to remove the mat for you. Most are happy to remove the mat or knot at little or no charge.

Smoothing the ruff-les on the nape of your dog’s neck

The neck and ruff areas of your dog’s coat (see Chapter Inside and Out: What Affects a Dog’s Coat and Grooming for more about your dog’s anatomy and appearance) may also be sensitive, so start brushing them with a soft slicker. Brush backward against the lay of the hair (if appropriate — otherwise, brush with the grain). If your dog is shedding, the slicker may fill up quickly. You can use the comb to dislodge the hair from the slicker and deposit the hair in the trash. If your dog has a ruff (the longer, thicker fur around the neck, shoulders, and chest), pay particular attention to it; you need to use a comb or undercoat rake whenever your dog has a long or thick double coat in those areas. Comb through the hair you just brushed before brushing it back the way it should lay.

Brushing and trimming feathered forelegs

Short hair on a dog’s forelegs usually doesn’t need to be brushed, but if your dog has feathering — that is, long hair on the backs of the legs that runs from armpit to paw — you have to comb it out. Feathering, like the hair behind the ears, has a tendency to tangle more so than the rest of your dog’s coat, so use a detangler solution whenever the feathering on your dog’s legs is tangled and comb it out carefully, or use a mat splitter or mat comb.
If your dog isn’t a show dog but nevertheless has feathering that’s either too matted or too much of a pain to brush out all the time, consider using a guarded clipper to remove the feathering on each side for a cleaner look. Be sure to keep your fingers between the clippers and your dog to protect his skin, trimming the hair so that it looks neat.

Belly-rubbin’ for laughs

The next step is to brush out your dog’s chest and belly. Use a slicker to brush against the lay of the hair (if appropriate — otherwise, brush with the grain), remaining keenly aware that your dog’s underside is sensitive, especially around the belly and private parts. If you can get your dog to lie down on one side — as explained in Chapter Mastering Brushing and Bathing Basics — do so. Be gentle while brushing around your dog’s privates — she will appreciate the care taken.


Don’t pull on any mats on your dog’s sensitive underbelly, and don’t use a mat rake, because one slip can cause problems in these sensitive regions. If you find any mats, take your dog to your vet or a professional groomer who can use electric clippers to carefully remove them.

Sidewinding and backing up

Your dog’s sides and top are probably the easiest areas to brush and comb. Take the slicker and brush backwards against the lay of the fur (if appropriate — otherwise, brush with the grain) and follow up with a comb. Use detangler and mat splitters as required for removing any mats.

No butts about it

Like the belly and underside, your dog’s the rear end can be particularly sensitive, but it’s also often the first area from which a dog may shed. Use a slicker brush first to find out how tolerant of being touched your dog is, especially along the back legs, where the fur may be feathered or in pantaloons, tufts of hair that make your dog look like she’s wearing bloomers. Anyway, brush the fur against the lay (if appropriate — otherwise, brush with the grain) and then follow up with a comb. Use detangler solution and a mat rake if you run into any mats, but be extremely careful around the base of the tail near the anus and around the dog’s, um, equipment.

Handling those hind legs

Like the forelegs, your dog’s hind legs shouldn’t require much brushing, but if your dog has feathering, you have to comb it out. Feathering, like the hair behind the ears, tends to tangle a lot, so use a detangler solution if needed and comb the feathering out carefully or use a mat splitter or mat comb.
If your dog isn’t a show dog and has feathering down her back legs, you can trim it just like you trim the front legs in the earlier section “Brushing and trimming feathered forelegs.” Removing the feathering makes your job easier when it comes to grooming. Don’t forget to use an electric clipper with a guarded blade, and carefully trim the feathering back so that it’s nice and neat.

Tweaking that dratted tail

Depending on what your dog’s tail is like — smooth and sleek or furry or like a plume — you may need to carefully comb it out. If it’s short, fuggetaboutit! Otherwise, if it’s long and furry, you need to use a comb. If you find mats in your dog’s tail, use detangler solution and a mat splitter or mat rake.

Shedding time

Some double-coated breeds shed profusely once or twice a year. Others shed year-round. If your dog has little tufts of hair that look like pieces of cotton candy scattered throughout his coat, he’s blowing coat, or shedding. You can pluck these tufts of hair out, but most dogs find that annoying. A better solution is to use a shedding blade or an undercoat rake.
The shedding blade looks like something you’d use on a horse. It’s a flexible piece of steel with little saw-like teeth that catch the hairs. You can operate the blade in a one-handed U-shaped configuration, or you can keep the blade straight and use two hands. The undercoat rake is a rake with either long sets of teeth to pull the dead hair out or a dual set of teeth that work both the undercoat and top coat.
Be forewarned that shedding blades need to be used carefully on thin-coated dogs because the blades can scratch the skin. However, if you own a thick-coated dog, you’re not likely to have this problem.

Getting pesky fleas to flee!

During flea season, which varies from one region to the next, you’ll be using a flea comb in addition to the other grooming implements. After you brush out your dog’s coat, you want to go over her again with a flea comb.
At one time, I would have recommended that you use old-fashioned flea control substances such as flea dips and powders while grooming, but no longer! Unless you have an extremely bad flea problem (and even then, the following recommendations hold true), you need to talk with your veterinarian about putting your dog on a systemic flea-control product, which is what the name implies — a flea-control product that’s distributed throughout your dog’s system either in topical (spot-on) form or pill form. The topical products are usually applied between your dog’s shoulder blades and at the base of her tail; you feed products in pill form to your dog. These systemics have rendered other flea-control substances virtually obsolete, except when a dog exhibits undesirable side effects from using systemics. Ask your veterinarian what’s right for your dog.
When using any systemic, read the directions thoroughly and follow them carefully. Otherwise, the product may be ineffective. For example, some topical systemics can be ineffective if you wet your dog shortly after you apply them. Use common sense, and if you’re not sure, ask your vet. Also, dosages and the amount of time the systemic is effective vary, so always have a clear understanding of the product you’re using.
These flea products likewise often control ticks. Talk to your vet for other possible tick-control solutions as needed. See Chapter Grooming Emergencies: Knowing Doggie First Aid for more information concerning ticks.

Rub-A-Dub-Dub: Washing Your Dog

One of the old wives’ tales about grooming dogs is that you shouldn’t bathe your dog unless he’s really dirty or stinky. The story goes that if you do, you’ll remove essential oils and dry out his coat.
This story is so prevalent among dog people that it’s repeated as a mantra by folks who should know better, namely breeders and dog experts. Even I used to prattle on about this nonsense.
At one time, dog shampoo really was pretty harsh stuff that could strip a dog’s coat, leaving it feeling pretty icky. However, show people (and groomers) needed to be able to bathe dogs frequently to get them ready for dog shows without ruining their coats.
Today, dogs enjoy some pretty decent shampoos, conditioners, cream rinses, mousses, gels, detanglers, and just about any other hair-care products that humans enjoy, only formulated for dogs. Although I think bathing your dog every day probably is a bad idea (plenty of work, to say the least), don’t think that you’re hurting your dog’s coat just because you’re bathing him.
Bathing, like brushing, doesn’t have to be a pain, but it tends to be a pretty traumatic experience for many dogs. Most dogs try to avoid a bath when they’ve had bad experiences with it. Again, patience is the key.

Just (rubber) ducky: Making bath time a pleasant experience

Because most dogs hate baths, getting your dog to a point where he actually likes them can be rough.


Here are a few tricks that can help you smooth over those rough spots when bathing your dog:

Start young. Get your dog used to bathing at an early age, when he’s just a pup. Like with brushing and combing, experience is key to preventing bad bath-time behavior. In many instances, you may have to work through the bad behavior. In fact, in some rare cases, you may have to muzzle or sedate the dog. Sound familiar? It is; I say the same thing about brushing and combing.

Use the right tub, and give your dog easy access. If you’re using your bathtub, putting your dog in it may be as easy as walking him in. With a groomer’s tub, you may have to use a ramp or stairs to walk a big dog into it, especially if you have a bad back (or if you have a good back and don’t want to have a bad back). Use the sink only for small or toy-sized dogs. Don’t use the shower for any dog.

Although you may be tempted to use an outdoor hose for bathing, resist the temptation. It isn’t ideal because the water is usually too cold, and the dog will get dirty all over again from being outside.

Keep your dog in one place in the tub. Most dogs don’t like to stay still in the tub, so you may want to use a special tub or bathing noose that attaches to the tub to keep him in place (see Chapter Training Your Dog for Grooming).

As is true of the nooses used on grooming tables, you should never leave a dog restrained by a tub noose alone.

Don’t hurry, and be gentle whenever possible. One bad experience can be traumatic.

Make bathing as comfortable as possible. To prevent a painful experience, gently put some cotton balls in your dog’s ears — don’t shove them into the aural canal at the base of the ear, mind you. The cotton balls merely help keep water out of your dog’s inner ears. You can also protect your dog’s eyes by applying an optic ointment before bathing him.

Gathering the tools you need

Before you start to bathe your dog, make sure that you gather all the tools you need. (Chapter Training Your Dog for Grooming describes the necessary tools in more detail.) Having everything in one place makes the bathing process much smoother and makes all the difference between a pleasant experience and one that’s not so pleasant.
When bathing your dog, you need the following supplies:
  • A pH-balanced shampoo for dogs (and possibly a pH-balanced conditioner for dogs)
  • Cotton balls for ears
  • Bathing noose (if required)
  • Washcloth
  • Blow-dryer
  • Towels for drying


You may want to look into the tearless variety of shampoo if you’re not used to bathing dogs.

Scrubbing bubbles

No, I’m not recommending that you use a toilet bowl cleaner to wash your dog, but before you think about wetting down and lathering up your pooch, remember that you need to thoroughly brush and comb your dog’s coat. If you don’t brush dogs out before you bathe them, most dogs end up with nasty tangles and mats from those scrubbing bubbles. The same is true for a dog who’s shedding heavily. Although warm water loosens the hair, clumps of shedded hair tend to mat and make for a grooming nightmare.
Some dogs’ coats require a prebath clipping. After thoroughly brushing out your dog and getting rid of all the tangles, you may need to use the clippers to lop off frizzy or flyaway split ends so they don’t become a tangled nuisance during the wash. You can find out more about taking just a little off the top with the clippers in Chapter Spiffing Up Short- and Medium-Coated Breeds.
The following steps explain the basics of bathing. Before you begin, you may want to place sterile cotton balls inside your dog’s ears to keep water out while bathing. Just don’t forget to take them out when you’re done!

1. To start, place your dog in a tub that’s an appropriate size for your breed of dog.

2. Wet down your dog’s hair thoroughly with tepid water (that’s a fancy way of saying lukewarm water); use a washcloth to gently wet your dog’s face.

You may like a hot shower, but that temperature is too high for your pooch!

Some bathtubs nowadays come equipped with sprayer attachments that enable you to focus the flow of the water. They’re great for soaking your dog’s coat and for being gentle around the face.


While your dog’s wet but before you apply shampoo is as great a time as any to express your dog’s anal sacs, if you were planning to do it as part of your grooming routine (see Chapter Giving Your Dog a Great ’Do: Clipping Basics). Who said dog grooming wasn’t fun . . . ? Yuck!

3. Apply enough pH-balanced dog shampoo to lather up your dog’s coat thoroughly except around the face and sensitive eyes — which you must do separately with a wet cloth (see Chapter Giving Your Dog a Great ’Do: Clipping Basics).
4. Rinse thoroughly sliding your fingers along your dog’s skin so that you get out all that soap.

Soap attracts dirt, and a dog with dried soap in his hair is prone to those dreaded mats.

5. Apply a good pH-balanced conditioner or cream rinse for dogs.

Using a conditioner that prevents tangles and also keeps the coat from drying out is a good idea for most coat types (see Part III).

6. Thoroughly rinse away the conditioner.

With regard to attracting dirt and causing mats, conditioner residues are equally as bad for your dog’s hair as soap residues, so rinse even better than you did in Step 4.

7. Get out those towels and start drying.

As you squeeze the towels into the coat, look for soapy water. If you find any, go back to rinsing. The next section provides addition advice about drying your dog.


After you’ve thoroughly rinsed your dog, dry his coat off as thoroughly as possible first using towels. Blot the coat. If you’ve managed not to get wet thus far while bathing your dog, you will get wet at this point, because he will shake off all that excess water and shake some more. After toweling off and allowing for a few shakes, you can move your dog onto the grooming table for a blow-dry and style.

Some professional groomers like to use cage dryers. They’re devices that attach to the outside of a cage or crate and force warm air inside to dry off your dog. Cage dryers can be efficient, but watch your dog carefully when using them. A dog can quickly overheat in a warm area he can’t escape.


Whenever you use a cage dryer, never leave a dog unattended in it. Dogs have overheated and died because the groomers forgot to watch them. Unless you’re planning to open a grooming shop (or you care for several dogs), I suggest you skip the cage dryer and work with the hand-held blow-dryers only.


When using a blow-dryer, make sure you use one that’s made specifically for dogs (see Figure 5-2) or one that doesn’t use any heat. Hot air from human blow-dryers is much too hot and can hurt your dog’s skin and frazzle the fur. You can use a human hair dryer on the no-heat setting to dry small dogs, but blow-dryers intended for humans don’t have enough power to handle drying a larger, long-haired dog.

Always thoroughly dry your dog before you let him outside.
After your dog is dry, you need to brush him again. At this time, you can use mousse or other leave-in coat conditioners if you’re getting him ready for a show.
Figure 5-2: The epitome of a drying dog. Use a blow-dryer that has a no-heat setting, like this one made specifically for dogs.
by Margaret H.Bonham