One of the things that shocks people the most when we talk to them about our service dogs is that they get bathed every day or two. People understand the logic that service dogs need to be clean as a public courtesy for their increased access, but the idea of bathing two dogs daily seems overwhelming.
They’re even more shocked when we tell them our dogs come running for a bath whenever they hear the tub turn on. They’ll even try to get into the shower with us.
I’d say we’re lucky in that our dogs love baths, but luck had very little to do with it.
Here are our steps to making it happen.
1: Start Young, and get them used to baths as a fact of life
From the time we brought Fruit Bat and Ada Luna home, they’ve had a bath every 24-48 hours. Getting a dog used to the bath is half the battle. When they were little, we would make sure to play with them while the tub was running to connect the sound with fun and attention.
Obviously, if you’re getting started with an older dog who has a fear of baths, you have a bigger challenge ahead of you, but it is possible, with positive reinforcement training and treats, to change a dog’s mental association with the sound of the tub. Start slow, with lots of praise, play, and treats, and build up slowly for the day your dog is chill enough with the sound of the tub to move on to step two.
2: The bath is always warm and safe
It’s not surprising so many dogs hate the idea of getting into the tub. Think about it: They’re getting onto a slippery surface filled with stuff that goes up their noses and makes them sneeze only to be turned out onto another slippery surface, rubbed down with a towel, and let go to freeze their butts off while their fur dries. Sometimes, they’re getting hosed down with cold water that’s a shock to the skin the moment it goes through their coats. It’s not cruel, but it’s not fun for them, either, and the more they struggle, the more annoyed their humans get.
So keep the bath warm, safe, and fun. If your dog is small enough, hold them above the water until they start instinctively paddling. The paddling motion is soothing and calming for dogs, and helps them get out a bit of energy. Your hands holding the dog up, and your praise voice, tell the dog this isn’t something to worry about, even if puppy’s reluctant to get into the water.
When you set puppy down, keep a hand under the chest if you don’t have a non-slip tub. We were lucky enough with Ada Luna that she doesn’t hold our early mistakes, and her early dunks underwater, against us. (Ada’s poor muscle tone as a puppy is a story for another post.)
Keep up with the praise voice, and watch out for shivering. Scoop some water over that puppity at the first sign of a shiver.
3: There is no wrong way to take a bath (as long as you stay in the tub)
Dogs and puppies in new situations are uncertain what’s expected of them. Make it clear from the beginning, with lots of positive reinforcement, that all that’s expected of a dog in a tub is that the dog stays in the tub and lets the washing happen.
Standing up? Fine. Exploring the tub? Fine. Doing her best flamingo impersonation? Also fine (but get the camera).
Attempts to prematurely exit the tub should be met with gentle but firm return to the water, more praise, and more warm water scooped over the coat.
4: Tub means massage
This is the best part for the dog and the owner. If you’ve ever had your hair cut professionally, you’ll be familiar with the shampooing station massage. Ahh.
Work in the direction the fur goes, and concentrate on lathering up the body first. Use slow, firm touches, and really work in the shampoo. As an added bonus for the dog, puppy gets your undivided attention in the bath, which is a treat in itself.
When you rinse off the body shampoo, you’re ready for the head, and you should have a more relaxed dog at this point. We use a wash cloth with a light amount of shampoo for our dogs’ faces and heads. This cuts down on the chance of water getting into the ears and makes the touches more predictable for the dogs.
5: Take care of the skin
Washing a dog frequently runs the risk of dry skin and an itchy dog. If you’ve ever had an itchy dog, you know they’re more than capable of scratching themselves until they bleed and lose their fur.
To avoid that, we use shampoo and conditioner only meant for dogs and their more alkaline bodies along with dog-safe pure oils, which naturally have no ph. Dry skin gets a jojoba rub while damp, and any rough paws, dried out noses, or hot spots get shea butter massaged into the skin.
We also condition with Buddy Wash, which they seem to like the feel of. Conditioning them once in a while with human conditioner shouldn’t do much harm, but it also won’t do their skin any good, even if it can make their fur cloud soft. So don’t get mad at grandma when she uses her own products on the puppies to keep them sweet smelling and happy. She means well. Just keep using your products meant for dogs, and maybe give her a care package of dog spa goodies for canine visits next Christmas.
6: The bath is over, but the fun never stops
After the bath, it’s important to be mindful of your dog’s body temperature. This is less of an issue with larger mature dogs, but small dogs and puppies can struggle with regulating their body temperature.
Wrap up in a big towel, and dry all over, and when I say big towel, I mean a big towel. We use 100% cotton bath sheets made for humans on our 5 and 8.5lb dogs, and the towels are soaked after the bath.
For longer haired dogs, it’s also a good idea to get your dog used to the hair dryer. Use the same technique you used with the running tub. Lots of praise and treats while they hear the dryer turn on and off. When they’re calm with that, give them a little puff of air from the dryer while treating and praising. Work your way up to a dog who sits under the dryer like he’s in a shampoo commercial, and your work there is done.
Unless we’re in a hurry or the day is especially cold, we let our dogs dry in the ways they’re happiest with. For Ada Luna, that means snuggles while we towel her off, and then letting her race around the house like a mad naked thing, tumbling around with Fruit Bat until they’re both dry. For Fruit Bat, sometimes it means snuggling in bed with her until she’s warm and letting her sleep it off under the covers.
So there you have it.
We have clean and happy dogs, and every bath is a bonding experience. They’re comfortable enough with water that when we’re in a great hurry, we’ve been known to give them showers instead of baths.
It’s a matter of building trust and connection with your dog, making water mean good times even if your dog doesn’t love water, and being consistent in what you expect of them in the tub.