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How to Properly Wash Your Dog at Home

How to bathe your dog

For some dogs, bath time is a cause for celebration. For others, turning on the bath water may cause them to run and hide. But whether your dog is a soap and suds enthusiast or is the kind of dog who relishes the moment you dry them off, keeping your pup clean is a must.

For those who wish to tackle the task of bathing their dog at home, the following tips will help make the most of bath time for your pup.

How often you should bathe your dog

If you're a pet parent who has wondered, "How often should I wash my dog?"—you're not alone. Washing your pup depends on various factors, including their breed, hair length, activity level and overall health. For example, canines who spend their days outdoors hunting, playing in the mud or the ocean will require more baths than dogs who primarily remain indoors.

In general, most dogs should be bathed every 6–8 weeks. Bathing your dog too frequently can actually strip their skin & coat of its protective oils. 

Consult your veterinarian or a professional pet groomer to come up with a personalized cleaning plan specific to your four-legged pal's needs. They can recommend a hygiene schedule, dog bathing supplies and care instructions for any special conditions.

Where to bathe your dog

If the weather is nice and your pet is healthy, bathing outside with the hose in a big tub often works well. You can purchase specialized dog grooming tubs, which often include a convenient nozzle for rinsing, or use a small plastic swimming pool. Larger dogs can even stand on the ground while you bathe them. Make sure to have a collar and leash on your dog, or that they are in a secure area, so they don't escape—you may even want to recruit a helper. You can also invest in a groomer’s loop, which can free up your hands while you bathe your dog safely.

Indoors, a shower with a handheld showerhead is the easiest. Bathing a dog in a bathtub with a standard faucet can be messy and hard on your back. Small dogs can even be bathed in a kitchen sink—just make sure you maintain control of them so they do not jump out of the sink.

You can also visit a self-serve dog wash station, which allows you to wash your dog in a professional grooming tub and leave the mess behind.

Here are some pros and cons of bathing in these three different locations: 

  Indoors Outdoors Self-Dog Wash
Pros

Handheld showerheads help with controlling water

Small dogs can be bathed in a kitchen sink

The great outdoors provides a lot of space and saves you from cleaning your bathtub or shower post-bath

All you need is a hose and, ideally, something that can function as a tub with a nozzle for rinsing

Good option for pet parents who don't have a spacious tub or backyard

Most self-dog washes provide professional grooming tubs, dog shampoo, conditioner, towels, aprons, combs, brushes, and blow dryers

The mess stays behind

Cons

Bathing a dog in a regular bathtub can get messy and is often hard on your back

Water may be too cold making it important to bathe on a day the weather is nice

Depending on your landscape, your pet could quickly get dirty all over again

Travel time can be difficult if your dog doesn't like car rides

The key to getting your pup accustomed to bath time is to make it enjoyable. Both you and your pet should see bathing as an opportunity to bond and connect. By creating a welcoming environment—whether it be outdoors, indoors or at a self-dog wash station—you'll help ease them into the process. For example, putting stairs in place to help a senior dog climb into the bathtub easier or using a favorite treat as a special incentive for standing still during bath time can help make for a positive experience.

The supplies you need for bath time

There is a wide assortment of products that help make bath time a success. For dogs with white fur, there are shampoos that help brighten their coats, while plant-based products can soothe an itchy dog’s dry skin. For pups who are shedding, there are products to help remove all the loose fur, as well as flea & tick products for dogs who need assistance in removing pests. By understanding your furry pal's specific skin and fur needs, you'll be able to select a product that's right for them.

Before you get started on your dog's bath, gather the following supplies:

Petco Products for At-Home Grooming

A brush will help you get rid of mats or excess loose hair, and your comb will help you check your work. This will make it easier to apply water and soap. Make sure to look for a brush that is designed for your dog’s fur type.

As you bathe your pup, you can help make the experience positive by reinforcing good behavior with treats and praise.

Soap and water can make for a slick bathtub or outdoor space. Put down a non-slip mat to keep your dog from slipping.

During the bathing process, your dog's collar and leash will become soaked with water. Swapping out their collar and leash for a waterproof option will keep their normal set from becoming soaking wet.

Make sure the collar and leash you choose will not bleed its color once wet.

Dog-specific ear cleaner or wipes will help you carefully clean out your dog's ears—an important part of the bathing process. These products are designed to reduce ear odor and dissolve ear wax safely, without harming your dog’s ears.

Use cotton balls to keep excess water out of your dog's ears. Water in your dog's ears can lead to infections.

Shampoo will help you remove dirt and odors, and conditioner will leave your dog's fur shiny and restored. Make sure to keep both stocked before bath time and look for a product designed for your dog’s specific fur type.

Make sure to read the bottle to see if it needs to be diluted. If so, make sure to dilute. Using more will not help your dog’s skin & coat—in fact, it could potentially cause some skin & coat issues.

After bath time, you'll need to dry your dog, which gives you the perfect excuse to invest in a few fun towels specifically for your pup. Turn your freshly bathed dog into a whimsical unicorn or a cozy bear with a hooded towel designed just for their stature.

Can you use human shampoo on dogs?

having their supplies on hand a must. But what if you come home to find your four-legged pal rolling around in the trash and realize you don't have the right supplies? Can you use human shampoo on dogs?

The answer is no. While human and dog products may seem interchangeable, the different pH balances in our skin play into how dogs are affected by human products. For example, human skin has a pH balance that is on the acidic side of the spectrum, which means using human shampoo on your pup—whose skin has a more neutral pH balance—could expose them to parasites, viruses and bacteria. It can also cause dry and irritated skin, making it essential for you to select a dog shampoo formulated with them in mind.

How to bathe your dog

How to wash your dog

Now that you've gathered your supplies, it's time to prepare for your dog's bath. By performing these steps and having the right bathing supplies ready to go, you'll be setting yourself and your pup up for a more successful bath time.

  1. Before any washing takes place, brush your dog and check for mats. Long-haired or double-coated dogs need to have mats or excess loose hair brushed out before bathing. If not, the mats become tighter—which can cause pain—and more difficult to remove and may have to be clipped out by a professional.
  2. Cover the bottom of the bathing area with a non-slip surface such as a bath mat. Make certain the sink, tub or shower is clean and free of soap or other residues.
  3. Make sure the shampoo you have selected is right for your dog's coat. If you're using a spot-on flea product, avoid flea shampoos and read the label to ensure the flea protection won't wash out with shampoo. You may need to apply after the bath once the coat is dry—generally 24 hours later. 
  4. Keep a leash on your pet so they can't escape when bath time is underway. This could turn into a mess or even a danger with a slippery, wet dog on the loose.
  5. Using an ear cleaner, gently wipe around the perimeter of the ear. Do not go down into the ear canal as you risk injuring your dog. Let your dog shake their head a few times and put cotton balls in both ears to help prevent water from getting down into their ear canals. Don’t forget to remove the cotton balls once bath time is over.
  6. To bathe your dog, start at the back of the dog and work forward, as this will help them get used to the water before you get to their head. Soak your dog's coat with tepid, not hot, water. You will need good water pressure to reach their skin and thoroughly wet the coat of long-haired dogs. Offer treats and praise throughout the process as positive reinforcement for good behavior.
  7. Once thoroughly soaked, start at the tail area with shampoo and follow the manufacturer's dilution recommendations—too much shampoo can be harmful if used at full strength. Work up a good lather, being careful to avoid ears and eyes as you move toward the front of your dog's body. Make sure to follow label directions. Some products—like flea or skin-conditioning shampoos or conditioners—may need to be left on for several minutes. If you do not follow the recommended time requirements, you run the risk of the product not working effectively.   
  8. Starting at the head this time, thoroughly rinse until no more shampoo washes out and the water runs clear. If you leave shampoo in the coat, it can cause dullness and skin irritation. Make sure to cover your dog’s eyes when rinsing so you do not get any soap in them, and do not spray water directly into their ears.
  9. When all shampoo is out of the coat, condition your dog if necessary and rinse thoroughly again. Once finished, remove the cotton balls from your dog's ears.
  10. Use a towel to dry your dog's skin & coat, then use the recommended brush to brush out the coat. For long-haired breeds, this will separate the coat and help it dry quicker; for all dogs, it will help to pull the moisture out of the skin and redistribute your pet's natural oils. Long-haired dogs may need blowing out with a hair dryer on the cool setting.
  11. Be sure the dryer is not hot or too close to your dog's skin or ears. Introduce the hair dryer to your dog slowly if they are not familiar with it, starting at the back end of your dog. Don't leave your dog in a crate with the dryer blowing on them, as it will quickly get too hot. Leave this method to the professionals who have specially made dryers. 
  12. On a nice day, air-drying outside is fine as long as your pet has shade—otherwise, try indoor air-drying on a towel in your dog's crate. Keep in mind that if you air-dry outdoors, your dog may head straight for the grass and roll around in it.

A special note about your dog's ears

Always dry out your dog's ears after a bath with an ear pad. Never put anything smaller than a finger down your dog's ears. Cotton swabs can push dirt and debris deeper into the ear canal and could even puncture an eardrum.

Floppy-eared dogs—especially Cocker Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers—are prone to ear infections. If your dog swims regularly, dry out their ears after swimming.

If the ears smell or are excessively dirty, a trip to the veterinarian is in order. Regular maintenance on your part will help prevent infections and keep your dog's ears healthy. Products specifically designed for ear washing are available at Petco. Follow label directions, and don't forget to dry your dog's ears after cleaning them.

What to do if your dog dislikes bath time

Knowing how to bathe your dog is only half the task. What happens if your dog hates bath time and refuses to get wet? For some dogs, just the word "bath" can cause them to flee the scene.

The following tips can help encourage less-than-enthused pups learn to at least tolerate their bath: 

  • Start slowly. The younger you can introduce your dog to bath time, the better. If you have an older dog, perhaps adopted into your family later in life, the key is to take things slowly. You can begin by introducing your dog to stepping in and out of the bathtub, providing treats to reinforce a positive experience. Next, you could pour a little water on their back, drying them off right away and providing more treats and praise. Over time, you can introduce more components of bath time, helping dogs that might simply be scared of the unknown process.
  • Look for specific fears. In some cases, your dog might not hate bath time. They might simply dislike a specific item or task associated with bath time. For example, some dogs are afraid of garden hoses but can handle being bathed indoors. If you can pinpoint what is causing them to be afraid, you can work around their fear. Talk with a Petco certified dog trainer on ways to help your dog get over their fears and/or anxiety. 
  • Rule out underlying health issues. For older dogs, climbing in and out of a bathtub might cause their joints to ache. For others, an underlying health issue might be causing them pain which is worsened during a bath. If your dog seems distressed, panting or whining during a bath, take the time to visit your vet to rule out an underlying health concern.
  • Get creative! If your dog hates the water, try a dry shampoo or a dog wipe. This will work great if your dog is not extremely dirty and just needs some spot cleaning, but it won’t work for a pup that has just rolled in a mud puddle. 
  • Invest in professional training. Often, a professional trainer can help you overcome your dog's disdain for baths. Consider talking to a trainer and working on a positive reinforcement plan to acclimate your pup.

Prefer someone else to handle the messy job? Learn more about Petco's professional pet grooming services, including full-service baths!

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Wendy Weinand

Wendy is Petco’s Manager of Pet Services and Grooming Education. She has over 30 years’ experience and is certified through International Pet Groomers and the International Society of Canine Cosmetology. Wendy also sits on the board of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, ensuring legislation is made in the best interest of pets, pet parents, groomers and salons.