How to Care for a Dog

Dog-Grooming and Bathing Tips

Even if you're too young to remember product slogans like, "Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, Be Sharp," you probably know good personal hygiene keeps you happier and healthier. Heck, if you've ever gone on a weekend camping trip, you'll understand. As nice as it is to get away from it all, there's something even nicer about getting back to a hot shower and shampoo. Well, the same goes for your dog: Clean, well-groomed fur, trimmed nails, clear eyes, and clean teeth keep her feeling more comfortable and looking and -- let's face it -- smelling better. To keep your dog at her best, you'll need to know some basic grooming skills -- and when it's time to see a professional groomer.

Coat Care

Without regular brushing and combing, your dog's hair can develop mats. Matted hair pulls and inflames your dog's sensitive skin and can be even more painful to remove. Even dogs with short, flat coats need regular grooming to distribute skin oils and remove dead hair. With this in mind, every dog owner needs to have some basic grooming tools on hand.


A fine-toothed metal flea comb will last your dog's lifetime. Also use the flea comb to remove loose dead hair. If your dog's coat is heavily tangled, don't use a comb on it; you'll just end up hurting her.

Regular brushing keeps skin healthy by stimulating blood flow and distributing natural oils. If your dog has a short coat, a weekly brushing will usually do. But a breed with a thick, long, or shaggy coat, such as an Afghan or Old English Sheepdog, may require daily care. A wire slicker brush helps prevent mats from forming, and a curry brush or rubber grooming mitt removes loose hair quickly and easily. For best results, be sure you brush all the way down to the skin.

Use a natural bristle brush on shorthaired dogs. This type of brush can also be used on dogs such as Huskies and Collies who have "double coats" -- a soft undercoat and weather-resistant outercoat. A steel pin brush is best for dogs with long coats, such as Maltese, Shih Tzus, and Yorkshire Terriers. Some dogs -- Poodles, Bichons Frises, Kerry Blue Terriers -- have curly or wavy coats requiring the use of a fine curved-wire slicker brush. For dogs with straight, flat, silky, feathered coats -- like Setters or Spaniels -- the pin brush or wire slicker brush is a good choice. Ask the breeder if your dog's coat requires a special type of comb or brush, especially if you plan to show the dog.

Before you begin brushing, mist your dog's coat with a spray-on conditioner. This helps the brush move smoothly through the fur, and cuts down on static electricity and broken hair.

To remove mats, work some baby oil or liquid tangle remover into each one. After several minutes, try to loosen and separate the mats, using your fingers or the end tooth of a comb. Carefully brush out the loosened sections, going slowly so you don't hurt your dog. In severe cases, the entire coat may need to be clipped.

You may notice your dog's skin and hair are drier than usual in the wintertime, and her coat is crackling with static electricity every time you pet or brush her. Everyone in the house will feel better if you run a humidifier during heating season. After bathing, treat your pooch's skin with a conditioner made especially for dogs. A light coating of petroleum jelly can also help soothe dry or cracked footpads.


Don't overlook routine dog foot care. Because your dog spends so much time on her feet -- without the protection of shoes -- she's prone to punctures or wounds from glass and other sharp objects, as well as scrapes and abrasions from cement and gravel walkways. Examine your dog's feet on a regular basis to make sure she hasn't picked up any foxtails or goathead stickers. If grass seeds become embedded in the paw, remove them with tweezers. Clean small cuts, and apply antibiotic ointment or cream. Seek veterinary treatment for more severe cuts.

Small cuts or mild skin disease may cause infections in the sweat glands in your dog's feet, resulting in swelling or abscesses between the toes -- a problem especially common in Bull Terriers, Dobermans, and Pekingese. Soaking the afflicted foot in warm salt water often will relieve the pain. A more severe or persistent infection calls for veterinary care, antibiotics, and other follow-up treatment.

If your dog steps in something gooey, soften it up by rubbing the foot with margarine, peanut butter, or shortening; then work it off. Apply ice to chewing gum to make it brittle and easier to remove. You can also try soaking the foot in a mixture of warm salt water and olive or mineral oil.

For dogs who live in regions with ice and snow in the winter, road salt and sidewalk ice-melt products can irritate the footpads. Washing and drying Muffy's feet after being outside helps reduce this painful condition, and it prevents her from swallowing the salt when she licks her sore pads. Booties are another option, although some owners -- and some dogs -- find them undignified. Dogs who spend time out in the ice and snow can also form ice balls between their toes. These can be prevented by using a silicon spray on the dog's feet before she heads outdoors.

Trimming a dog's nails takes equal measures of practice and perseverance. Keeping your pup's nails properly clipped means less wear and tear on your carpet and floors and less chance of a painful snagged, broken, or ingrown nail. The sooner you start getting your dog used to having her nails clipped, the easier it will be in the long run (especially if you get your dog as a puppy). Use nail trimmers made especially for a dog's nails. For best results, wait until your pooch is relaxed or sleepy. Clip just where the nail curves, beyond the point of the sensitive, pink area referred to as the quick. It's easy to avoid the quick if your dog's nails are clear, but dogs with dark nails require more precision. If you clip too much of the nail and hit the quick, use a styptic stick or styptic powder to stop the bleeding. Also, dipping the bleeding nail into a small amount of cornstarch will help stop the bleeding. Or keep a bar of soap handy when you're trimming your dog's nails. If you nick the quick, just rub the nail along the bar of soap to stop the bleeding. A dampened tea bag is also good for this purpose. Trim your dog's nails about every two weeks, or as necessary. Nails need to be trimmed if they touch the floor when the dog is standing on a hard surface or if they make clicking sounds when she walks.

Dental care

Although dogs don't usually get cavities, they are prone to gum disease caused by tartar buildup. Tartar is a by-product of plaque, which is a soft, gummy residue left on teeth after eating. When plaque hardens, it forms tartar (or calculus), which in turn can cause the gums to get red, inflamed, and sore. This condition is called gingivitis. Gum disease is one of the most common problems veterinarians see in dogs. Besides causing bad breath, if periodontal disease gets bad enough, it can interfere with a dog's ability to chew and even effect internal organs, causing bacterial infections in the kidneys and heart.

Good dental hygiene can't start too young. If you begin tooth care in puppyhood, you can greatly reduce the chance of your dog developing periodontal disease. To brush a dog's teeth, use a small, soft toothbrush or finger brush with toothpaste or tooth-cleaning solution formulated for pets. (Human toothpaste foams too much, and the additives can upset your dog's stomach.) You can also wrap gauze around your finger and gently scrub the teeth with doggie toothpaste. To make toothpaste for your dog at home, mix baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) with a little salt and water. Apply it with a toothbrush or with gauze wrapped around your finger. Don't use this recipe if your dog is on a sodium-restricted diet.

Ideally, you should brush your dog's teeth every day, but even a weekly brushing will help. Tartar buildup has to be removed by your veterinarian, with the dog under anesthesia, so the extra effort of regular brushing will save you and your dog much more effort and expense later on.


Your dog's ears are delicate, sensitive, finely tuned instruments allowing her to pick up sounds far out of the range of human hearing. Considering how picky people get about their stereo equipment, you'd think everyone would understand how very important it is to take good care of a dog's high-quality "sound system." Infections or foreign bodies can seriously damage these marvelous creations, but just taking a few minutes each week to examine and clean your dog's ears will help keep them safe and sound.

The outer ear (also called the earflap or pinna) is most vulnerable to injury and infection since it's constantly exposed to foreign objects and dirt. Keeping the outer ear clean is the first line of defense against ear problems. Begin by examining your dog's ears daily. Healthy ears are light pink inside, with no apparent bad smell or discharge. Next, check for foreign objects. If your dog spends a lot of time outside, especially in tall grasses or wooded areas, she can get foxtails or ticks in her ears. Remove foreign bodies carefully with your fingers, then clean the ear with mineral oil. (Never use soap and water to clean a dog's ears; soapy water can cause an ear infection.) If a foreign body is deeply embedded in the ear or you're not confident about taking it out, have your veterinarian remove it. The old folk method of removing ticks -- burning them with a blown-out match -- is not really very effective. The best way to remove ticks is to grasp one firmly at skin level with tweezers and pull it straight out with a gentle, steady pressure.

Give your dog's ears a complete cleaning weekly or monthly, as needed. (Floppy ears usually need more attention than pricked ears.) Moisten a cotton ball or cloth with mineral oil, olive oil, or witch hazel, and gently wipe the inside of the ears. Don't use a cotton swab; it's easy to accidentally damage the delicate mechanisms of the inner ear. Certain breeds, such as Terriers and Poodles, have hair growing inside the ear that must be plucked to prevent wax and dirt from collecting. Ask a groomer or breeder to show you how to pluck the hair.

Always be on the lookout for the early warning signs of an ear infection, which is a not-so-uncommon problem for dogs. If your dog constantly shakes her head, has sore or red ears, or if the ears smell bad or have a discharge, take her to the veterinarian. Most infections of this type are caused by lack of air circulation and occur most commonly in breeds with floppy or furry ears. The moist, warm, dark environment is the perfect place for bacteria and yeast to flourish. By catching the early signs, you'll be getting your dog's developing ear infection under control sooner, preventing more serious complications that can lead to hearing loss.

Some areas of the country have regular problems with biting flies. A dog's ears are the perfect target for these annoying little critters, and repeated bites can result in fly-bite dermatitis, which leaves the ears scabbed and prone to bleeding. To help keep your pooch itch-free, apply a pet-safe (not a human strength) insect repellent to your dog's ears before she goes outside.

If your dog shakes her head and paws at her ears frequently but has no other signs of an infection, she could be bugged by ear mites. These tiny, spiderlike creatures invade the ear canal and feed on skin debris. A telltale sign of ear mites is dark debris that looks a lot like coffee grounds. Ear mites are most common in puppies and young dogs, since they're easily spread and pups spend a lot of time on top of each other while playing and sleeping. If you've got other dogs or cats in your home and one of them turns up with ear mites, it's best to treat them all. Most of the safest and more effective remedies are available only through your veterinarian, so don't wait to make the call.

Of course, good old commonsense prevention is the most important thing you can do for your dog's good ear health. Keep the ears clean, dry, and free from foreign objects and substances. Put cotton balls in your dog's ears at bathtime (if she'll stand for it) to keep water out of the ear canal, and dry the ears thoroughly when the bath is over. Most dogs love swimming, so be sure Muffy's ears are clean and dry after taking a dip. When it comes to ear care, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.


Like the ears, your dog's "windows to the world" are sensitive organs. Check your dog's eyes daily, and wipe away dried matter from the corners of the eyes using a moistened cotton ball. Examine the eyes for redness, tearing, or discharge. Eye problems that don't clear up within 24 hours should be treated by a veterinarian. Among the eye problems affecting dogs are excessive tearing (usually caused by allergies, infections, injuries, or irritation), conjunctivitis (inflammation of the membrane that lines the eyelid, the conjuctiva), and foreign objects in the eye.

Tearing is especially common in toy breeds such as Poodles. If your dog's eyes seem to be tearing excessively, have your veterinarian take a look at her and see if it's possible to determine what the problem is and how to treat it. In some dogs, however, tearing appears to have no underlying cause. For whatever reason, they just shed lots of tears.

Especially in dogs with white or light coats, even normal tearing can cause dark stains beneath your dog's eyes. To help keep these stains under control, wash the area under the eye frequently using warm water and a cotton ball. Be sure to carefully trim stained hair. Do not use soap near a dog's eyes -- soap in the eye will cause a corneal ulcer.

An unusual amount of discharge in the corners of the eyes or a reddish or "meaty" appearance of the conjuntiva are signs of conjuctivitis. Conjunctivitis is especially common in dogs who ride with their heads stuck out of car windows or spend a lot of time outdoors in windy, dusty weather. In mild cases, conjunctivitis sometimes clears up on its own. If the problem persists, take your dog to the vet for treatment.

Dogs will paw at their eyes to clean them (although most dogs aren't nearly as fastidious as cats), but if you see your dog continually pawing at her eye or squinting, she may have a foreign body in her eye. Examine the eyes in a well-lit room so you don't miss anything. To get a good look, pull down on the lower lid and up on the upper lid. If only one eye appears to be affected, compare it to the other eye to see how they differ. If you can't find anything or if you can't remove the object, take your dog to the vet for treatment.

Bathing A Dog

Dogs don't need to be bathed frequently -- only when they get dirty or smelly -- but it's a good idea to accustom your dog to the bathing process while she's still young and open to new experiences. If you introduce bathtime as a fun, comfortable activity, it will be easier to accomplish when Lady is grown up and weighs 125 pounds.

Once again, follow the Boy Scout motto: "Be Prepared." Have everything you need laid out within easy reach before you start the water: brush, cotton balls, shampoo, and towels. Also, place a rubber mat in the bottom of the sink or tub so your pup won't slip and slide. Then fill it with warm -- not hot -- water.

Now it's time to add the dog. Brush her thoroughly, from the skin out, to remove tangles and loose hair. Tangles and mats only get worse when they get wet, so make sure you remove all of them first. Place cotton balls snugly -- but not deeply -- in your dog's ears to keep out water and soap.

Next comes the fun part: Splashdown! (Make sure you're wearing clothes you don't mind getting wet.) Place your dog in the water, holding her gently but firmly. Wet her from the head down, making sure you keep water out of her eyes and ears. Don't dunk the dog in water. Apply a shampoo specifically formulated for dogs. (Never use human shampoo -- your dog's hair covers her entire body, not just her head, and the dose of ingredients she'll get from your shampoo may be too much for her.) Now, lather her up, working the shampoo down to the skin. If you're bathing a puppy with a flea-control shampoo, make sure it's safe for dogs her age. Always read and follow label directions carefully. Avoid getting the shampoo in your dog's eyes and ears.

Keep talking to your dog during the bath, reassuring her and telling her what a good dog she is (even if she's trying to get out of the tub). Rinse her thoroughly, again using warm water. Be especially careful about getting shampoo in her eyes and ears when rinsing her head. Remove the dog from the tub, tell her what a good pup she is, and towel-dry her until she is damp. If it is hot and sunny, you can let the dog air dry in a wire crate, exercise pen, or other ventilated enclosure. (You don't want her escaping to go roll in the dirt.) Keep rubbing her with a dry towel to speed the process. If sun-drying isn't feasible, commercial pet dryers are available for home use. These are useful to have if you will be bathing your dog frequently or if your pup will grow up to be a very large dog. Otherwise, you can use a blow-dryer (if the dog is not scared of it) on a low, warm setting to finish drying her. Never use a blow-dryer set on hot or high, and avoid putting the blow-dryer too near her. Keep the dog in a warm, draft-free area until she is completely dry, especially if the weather is cold, damp, or windy.

To keep your dog clean and sweet-smelling after her bath, brush her regularly: weekly for a shorthaired dog and as often as daily for a dog with a long or heavy coat. Brushing removes dead hair, dirt, and parasites, and it distributes skin oils to keep Lady's coat shiny and beautiful. Plus, it just plain feels good. If you make bathing and brushing an enjoyable process -- especially with a young puppy -- it'll be a lot easier in the future.

The Professional Touch: When to See a Groomer

In today's busy world, a lot of us just don't have time to groom our dogs. Regular trips to a skilled, professional groomer are just the ticket for the busy dog owner. Some dogs are particularly high-maintenance, though, and it doesn't matter how much spare time you have -- it may still be best to let an experienced groomer handle long, thick, or heavy coats. Other dog owners like to let the pros do the dirty work and keep their own interactions with their dog strictly for fun and learning. A professional groomer may also catch unusual spots, lumps, bumps, or even injuries on your dog that you may have missed under all her hair.

A dog whose coat is heavily matted or soiled needs professional care. Removing mats is a time-consuming, delicate process, and mistakes can result in injury. In severe cases, some or all of the coat must be shaved. The professional touch is usually a must for show dogs, too. Grooming requirements for the showing are fairly strict (terrier coats must be plucked rather than shaved, for example), and an amateurish grooming job just won't put your dog in her best light.

Now let's move to another kind of care -- making your home safe for your pooch, and in the process keeping your possessions safe from his curiousity. In the next section, we'll cover all the elements of dog-proofing your home.