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The Basics of Brushing and Bathing

In This Chapter

Good grooming is a part of caring for your dog, but most of what you do is 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.
This chapter covers 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 Caring for Nails, Teeth, Nose, Ears, Eyes, Face, and . . . Elsewhere.

Do-It-Yourself Canine Hair Styling

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. 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 hire a groomer.


Always brush and comb a dog before you bathe her. Doing so helps prevent tangles and keeps your dog cleaner (bathing is covered later in this chapter).

Beyond pulling hairs: Making the experience pleasant

Brushing and combing can be enjoyable or 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.


A few tricks can make brushing and combing easier for you and your dog:

Start young. When your dog is a puppy, get her used to brushing. In many cases, dogs love the attention. However, even if you do start early, some dogs never quite take to grooming. In many instances, you may have to work through some bad behaviors, and in other rare cases, you may even need to muzzle or sedate the dog.

Stick to a routine. Where on your dog you first start brushing, combing, and grooming doesn’t matter, but being consistent does. By following the same routine every time you groom your dog, you won’t forget to do anything, and your dog won’t have 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 (highly recommended — find them online or at pet stores) or simply reaching for a brush and comb. Giving her treats, administering 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 on it 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 less stressful and less painful. If you use the wrong tools, you’re more likely to pull on your dog’s hairs (tools are covered in the next section).

Massaging your dog

Massaging your dog may sound a little odd, but it’s a great way to bond with him. 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), or Dog Massage, by Maryjean Ballner (St. Martin’s Press), for the basics of massaging your dog.

Gathering the tools you need

Before you get started 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 an experience that’s pleasant and one that’s not.


If you live in a flea-prone area, make sure that you have a flea comb handy, especially during flea season (which begins in spring). Flea combs, along with all kinds of rakes, brushes, combs, and clippers, are available at all good pet stores.

Tools for long coats

If your dog has a long coat, you need the following tools:

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 him 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 (use electric clippers in extreme cases).

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

Slicker brush: For removing hair and stimulating the skin and coat.

Tools for short coats

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

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

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

Slicker brush: For removing hair and stimulating the skin and coat

Brushing up on basic techniques

You can work from tail to head or vice versa. Just start at one end and work your way to the other — and 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) — 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, 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 2-1). Brushing that way usually loosens and removes hair and stimulates your dog’s skin. Some breeds have hair types that don’t go well with this method. Breeds with corded hair, in particular, just can’t be brushed backward, so make sure that you remove all the tangles as you go.

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:
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 do a comb, but you simply rake along the lay of the hair. The teeth will cut through the mat.

Figure 2-1: Brushing against the grain to remove hair and stimulate the dog’s skin.
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 that no skin is pulled up into the mat.


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. 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. Also be especially careful when working around a dog’s eyes with 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 the Old English Sheepdog or Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, lift the hair by putting 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 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 stubborn, 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.

If 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 around the 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 ask a professional to do it for you, to avoid cutting the skin.


If you don’t have grooming clippers, ask a vet or a professional groomer to remove the mat for you. Most are happy to do so at little or no charge.

Smoothing the ruffles on the nape of your dog’s neck

The ruff areas (the longer, thicker fur around the neck, shoulders, and chest) of your dog’s coat 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 brush 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, 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 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, do so. Be gentle while brushing near your dog’s privates.


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 backward 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

As with the belly and underside, your dog’s rear end can be particularly sensitive, but it’s also often the first area where 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. 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 out the feathering carefully or use a mat splitter or mat comb.
If your dog isn’t a show dog and has feathering down his back legs, you can trim it just like you trim the front legs. Removing the feathering makes your grooming job easier. 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.

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 out these tufts of hair, 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 sawlike teeth that catch the hairs. You can operate the blade in a one-handed U-shape 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 out the hair out or a dual set of teeth that work both the undercoat and top coat.
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.

Tweaking that dratted tail

Depending on what your dog’s tail is like — smooth and sleek, 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.

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 brushing, go over your dog again with a
flea comb.
Talk with your veterinarian about putting your dog on a systemic 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 your dog gets wet 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 often control ticks, too. Talk to your vet for other possible tick-control solutions as needed.

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 she’s really dirty or stinky. The story goes that if you do, you’ll remove essential oils and dry out her 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.
At one time, dog shampoo really was harsh stuff that could strip a dog’s coat, leaving it feeling pretty icky. However, 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. You’re not hurting your dog’s coat by bathing her.
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.

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. A few tricks can help you smooth over those rough spots when bathing your dog:

Start young. Get your dog used to bathing as a pup. Experience is key to preventing bad bath-time behavior. In many instances, you may have to work through the bad behavior. In fact, as with grooming, in some rare cases you may have to muzzle or sedate the dog.

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 a good back and you don’t want to have a bad back). Use the sink only for small or toy-size dogs. Don’t use the shower for any dog. And although you may be tempted to use an outdoor hose for bathing, don’t. 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 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” (available at pet stores — a poor name for a useful tool) that attaches to the tub to keep him in place. Never leave a dog alone restrained by a noose.

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 help keep water out of your dog’s inner ears.

Gathering the tools you need

Before you start to bathe your dog, gather all the tools you need. Having everything in one place makes the bathing process much smoother and means all the difference between a pleasant and an unpleasant experience.
When bathing your dog, you need the following supplies:


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

Scrubbing bubbles: Bathing your dog

Thoroughly brush and comb your dog’s coat before bathing her. If you don’t brush out dogs 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 later make for a grooming nightmare.
Some dogs’ coats require a pre-bath 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 To Clip or Not to Clip: Dog Haircuts.

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


While your dog is wet but before you apply shampoo is a great time to express your dog’s anal sacs, if you were planning to do it as part of your grooming routine (see Chapter Caring for Nails, Teeth, Nose, Ears, Eyes, Face, and . . . Elsewhere — if you dare).

3. Lather up your dog’s coat with a good pH-balanced dog shampoo, except around the face and sensitive eyes — which you must do separately with a wet cloth (see Chapter Caring for Nails, Teeth, Nose, Ears, Eyes, Face, and . . . Elsewhere).
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 her 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.

6. Thoroughly rinse away the conditioner.

With regard to attracting dirt and causing mats, conditioner residues are as bad for your dog’s hair as soap residue, 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 additional advice about drying your dog.


After you’ve thoroughly rinsed your dog, dry his coat as thoroughly as possible, first using towels. Blot the coat. Meanwhile, your dog will shake off all that excess water and then shake some more. After toweling off and allowing for a few shakes, you can move him onto the grooming table, if you have one, for a blow-dry and style.

Some professional groomers like to use cage dryers, devices that attach to the outside of a cage or crate and force warm air inside to dry 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), 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 2-2) 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.

Figure 2-2: Use a blow-dryer that has a no-heat setting, like this one, made specifically for dogs.
Always thoroughly dry your dog before you let him outside.
When 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.
by Eve Adamson, Richard G. Beauchamp, Margaret H. Bonham, Stanley Coren, Miriam Fields-Babineau, Sarah Hodgson, Connie Isbell, Susan McCullough, Gina Spadafori, Jack and Wendy Volhard, Chris Walkowicz, M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD
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