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How to Groom Your Dog at Home, According to Experts

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

With in-person dog-grooming appointments off the table for a while due to social distancing, pet parents who previously relied on professionals to keep their pups looking sharp are having to make other plans. Yes, at-home grooming is a hassle (at best), for even the most patient dog owner. But regular grooming is key if you want to avoid unpleasant smells or having someone mistake your beloved pet for a feral dog. Whether your Shih Tzu’s mane keeps getting tangled, your Rottweiler’s nails are overgrown, or your Chihuahua suffers from dry skin, we can help.

We asked groomers, pet experts, and veterinarians for advice and recommendations on the best products and grooming tools for dogs. “It’s important to keep any grooming sessions short,” says Erin Askeland, pet behaviorist and training manager at Camp Bow Wow. According to her, pet owners will have the most success if they can get their dog to associate grooming sessions with attention, treats, and praise rather than stress and being upset. Below, Askeland and six other experts on everything you need to bathe, brush, and trim your dog yourself in a way that’s safe and as easy on your pet (and you) as possible.

Bathing your dog

Dr. Jamie Richardson, chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary, recommends bathing your dog no more than once a month (unless it comes in contact with a skunk or has a medical condition). Otherwise you risk drying out its skin. When it is time for a bath, Samantha Schwab, a resident pet expert at Chewy, likes the Booster Bath grooming center. She calls it “the ultimate bathing experience without stepping foot inside a groomer’s.” This portable tub takes as much stress and anxiety as possible out of bathing: It comes with a safety harness that gently holds your pet in place, while you get 360-degree access to wash every inch of it quickly and painlessly — which you certainly can’t do in your kitchen sink. The tub also comes in three sizes to fit a variety of breeds.

The best bath accessories

Schwab recommends these gloves because they “allow you to give your pet a massage with an added benefit of cleaning and de-shedding with its fur-nabbing rubber nodules.” The gloves can be used to de-shed your pet both in the bath and out.

Unlike traditional shower heads and hoses, the Aquapaw gives you “direct control over your pet and the water flow for a clean and quick wash,” says Schwab. Plus, since the water flows from a scrubber in the palm of your hand, you can lather, scrub, and rinse at the same time, giving your pet a much deeper clean.

Shampoos and conditioners

Melissa Mitchner, CEO and founder of the Bark Shoppe, is a fan of Nature’s Specialties shampoos and conditioners because they are made in the U.S., and are nontoxic, biodegradable, and concentrated, so you get a lot for your money. She recommends the EZ Shed Conditioner for double-coated breeds like Shiba Inus and Pomeranians, because it breaks up excess pet hair, reducing future shedding.

“The scent of TropiClean’s papaya and coconut shampoo and conditioner immediately sends you on a mental vacation to Mexico (even though you’re at home giving your pet a bath),” says Schwab. Plus, a two-in-one product ensures that you spend more time playing with your pet and less time bent over the sink.

For in-between bathing, Askeland and master groomer Joshua Morales suggest using waterless shampoo to keep your pet looking and smelling fresh. Morales recommends this one from AdVet Hygienics, a brand he likes for its all-natural, soothing ingredients like aloe vera, vitamin E, arnica, echinacea, and horsetail extract. He recommends spritzing your pup with waterless shampoo before brushing or combing to help break up tangles without pulling hair or hurting your dog.

Wipes

For keeping your pup’s face free of drool, eye boogers, and food debris, Mitchner recommends using a washcloth and warm water, or some of these gentle hypoallergenic conditioning wipes around their eyes, ears, and chin. Wipes are also a great way of keeping whatever your dog steps in outside out of your house. Schwab loves the “durable and extra wide” wipes from Pogi’s that “are perfect for getting in the nooks and crannies of your pet’s paws after a long and muddy trip to the dog park.”

Dog hair dryer

Both Mitchner and Morales told us that letting your pooch air-dry after a bath is a bad idea. Morales says it’s a recipe for matted fur, and Mitchner says leaving your pet wet can lead to skin irritations and yeast infections. Although Mitchner says you can use any hair dryer on your dog, dryers such as this one that are designed specifically for pets don’t have heating elements, which is safer and won’t dry out your dog’s skin. If you do use a traditional hair dryer, she advises starting with the dryer on a cool low setting. If your dog is comfortable with the experience, you can turn it up higher.

Combs and brushes for long-haired dogs

For dogs with curly hair that tangles easily, Morales recommends using a gentle pin brush while the dog is still wet. Adding conditioner, detangler, or waterless shampoo will help the brush slide through knots and prevent matting. Mitchner also suggests a pin brush, specifically a brush with rounded ends like this one that will avoid giving your dog brush burn or irritating the skin. “It is important to comb and brush a long-haired pet every other day, or a minimum of three times a week,” Mitchner says.

According to Mitchner, “A common misconception is that brushing a pet removes mats and tangles but in reality brushing only removes the tangles on the surface and matting can still be at the root.”  Releash NYC head groomer Kriz Khoon-Aroon cites the Buttercomb as “the best comb out there for gliding smoothly through coats.” The Buttercomb features a flat spine and rounded core top which “allows it to glide through the coat flawlessly without pulling on the hair.” And while the price point is a little high, the handcrafted stainless steel pins ensure that this is a long-lasting tool that you (and your pet) will enjoy for years to come.

Brushes for short-haired dogs

For short haired dogs Richardson and Mitchner recommend using the Furminator Deshedding tool to help remove the undercoat and additional shedding hair which gets worse during the change of seasons. The Furminator has a metal comb with teeth that are long enough to reach under your dog’s topcoat.

Mitchner and the groomers at the The Bark Shoppe recommend the ZoomGroom to remove shedding fur while bathing your pet. Khoon-Aroon adds that the brush also massages while you go, which makes for a calming, enjoyable experience for your dog.

Schwab loves the SleekEZ Deshedding Grooming Tool because it’s effective enough to be used on dogs, cats, horses, livestock, and even furniture. “That’s right, furniture. You can use this tool on upholstery and carpeting to remove excess fur from your home,” she says.

Scissors and clippers

If washing, drying, and brushing doesn’t rid your pet’s coat of knots, or if the hair hanging in their face (and their food bowl) is out of control, you will need a pair of safety scissors. Everyone we spoke to warned of the dangers of wielding sharp instruments around unpredictable animals, and both Morales and Mitchner recommend using scissors with rounded tips to minimize those dangers. Richardson says she doesn’t recommend owners cut their dog’s hair at all. But if you are dealing with a shaggy Labradoodle who can’t see past its own bangs, Mitchner gave us a few tips for safely framing their face: “Comb bangs to the front, then sandwich the hair between your index and middle fingers at the half point of the bangs, creating a dividing line. Next cut only the bangs that stick out below your fingers.”

Most of the experts we spoke to were not in favor of pet owners using clippers on their dogs at home. However, if your pup’s fur is matted and causing them discomfort Morales says your only option might be to shave the dog and start fresh. His advice is to skip buying sharper, more advanced professional clippers and go for a kit like this one from Wahl, which includes a variety of guards and a DVD with styling tips. Morales says to avoid cutting or burning your dog’s skin you should always move in the direction of the hair growth and not against it (i.e., from neck to tail), always work with the plastic heal of the clippers flat against the dog’s body rather than angled or hovering along the edge of an ear, elbow, or tail, for example, and make sure to oil your blades often so they don’t overheat. You want to avoid touching your dog’s thin skin with the clipper’s moving blades. Morales also warns that dogs’ skin is more fragile and loose than human skin, making it much easier to get stuck in the clipper blades, cut, or punctured. So for at-home trimming he suggests avoiding areas where skin folds or flaps, like the armpits and underside of the hips. For dogs with a lot of loose skin, you’ll want to pull it tight in each area as you trim. “Your dog probably won’t look the same as when you take it to a professional groomer,” Morales says “but it’s better to leave it choppy than to have to rush to the vet to sew up a puncture wound.”

Nail trimmers

It is essential to “use a nail trimmer that has a safety guard” and “to feel confident when clipping your pet’s nails,” otherwise “your pet will sense that energy and will give you a hard time,” cautions Mitchner. Schwab recommends this nail trimmer from Safari that “allows you to cut the nail with just one clip, making the process quick and easy.” Plus, the non-slip grip and safety guard helps prevent painful accidents. This trimmer is best for medium to large dogs.

For owners who would rather not risk cutting their dog’s nails Mitchner recommends this Dremel nail-filing tool, which she says “is much easier and safer.” However not all dogs will tolerate an electric nail file. To get them used to the sound start with quick sessions accompanied by lots of praise and treats.

For teeth

“Ideally brush your dog’s teeth daily or at least a few times a week,” suggests Dr. Rachel Barrack, a veterinarian and the founder of Animal Acupuncture. Since dogs do not spit, it is critical to use dog-safe toothpaste that they can swallow. This gel toothpaste has both anti-fungal and anti-bacterial ingredients to fight tartar and plaque buildup, whiten teeth, and freshen breath.

Barrack notes that “toothbrushes formulated for dogs are more angled than human brushes.” Schwab recommends the Virbac Pet Toothbrush because its size “allows you to get to those hard-to-reach places in the back of the mouth” and the “soft bristles” keep your pet comfortable throughout the process. This one is ideal for small breeds.

If your dog won’t let you use a full-size, handled toothbrush, Barrack says that “an angled finger brush makes for easy access.”