We often refer people to our guide to painlessly bathing your dogs in 5 easy steps, but some dogs have more than average anxiety toward bath time, and it’s not always possible to start with baths during the puppy months.
What to do?
First, judge your dog’s level of anxiety
We’ll make it easy with four anxiety categories for you:
- Little or no sign of anxiety: Hops into the tub on their own or allows you to pick them up and place them in the tub with a minimum of fuss whether there’s water in the tub or not.
- Tucks tail, squirms being carried to or placed into the tub, lightly resists or protests being placed into the tub with water in it, shows increased anxiety when the water is turned on, excessive lip licking.
- Runs away at the sound of the tub being turned on, hides to avoid being carried to the tub, tries to jump out as soon as you place them in, keeps trying to jump out while being bathed. Minor crying.
- Panting, shaking, whites visible around the eye, rolling eyes, violent struggling. Clear panic, possible past bath injury to you or the dog.
#4: Panic Dog
The panic dog is a dog with serious issues surrounding the bath. We recommend beginning with a trip to the vet to assess the dog’s anxiety, health, and possible holistic treatment for anxiety in general.
Forcing the Panic Dog into the scary situation cold is only likely to reinforce the dog’s fear. Once a dog is in panic state, not much will get through to them until they are able to calm down in an environment where they feel safe.
If you feel ready to attempt to reduce the dog’s intense fear of the tub, and you’re sure you and your vet have done what is medically necessary for your dog’s health, read on for our suggestions for #3 Anxious Dog, but take the process more slowly. Even one step in the direction of the tub should be rewarded for Panic Dog.
#3 Anxious Dog
Anxious Dog may have had a bad past experience with the bath, or they may be anxious of unfamiliar things in general. Take it slow and keep it positive. If you find yourself losing your cool with Anxious Dog during bath training, cut the session short wherever it is, lead the dog to an environment they’re comfortable in, give a scratch or treat, and then go indulge yourself in some self-care.
An Anxious Dog typically won’t improve when their leader is showing signs of anxiety, frustration, anger, or upset.
Here’s a step by step slow progression you can take with your Anxious Dog which will eventually lead you both to copacetic bath time. Not all steps will happen in the first bath, and that’s okay. Build up to a successful completion of the Anxious Dog steps before moving on:
- Start with making the bathroom a friendly place where baths don’t necessarily have to happen. Something warm on the floor, either a dog bed or a towel. Treats and affection waiting for the dog in the bathroom. If you can get the dog to walk in that door on their own paws, you’re ahead of the game. Remember, if you want to use treats to encourage the dog into the bathroom, make sure your dog is hungry and has had sufficient walk or play sessions to expend excess energy. Some people find that leaving the door open when the human is using the bathroom encourages the dog to investigate the room, but not everyone is comfortable with that notion. We leave the decision on whether or not to give that a try up to you. (Although we’re pretty sure that a lot of you are already well familiar with your furry little Toilet Guardian’s presence.)
- Demystify the tub. Once you have the dog in the bathroom, the next step is getting the dog to voluntarily approach, and eventually get into, the tub. Treats are probably the best option here. A trail of treats leading to the tub. A smear of favorite peanut butter, cheese, or stinky fish treat on the tub is a great way to get a small dog to stand up high enough to see into the tub on her own. If your dog has trouble standing up or seeing high enough, consider using a short set of dog steps. Once your dog is sniffing around the tub for treats, start putting treats in the tub. By the end of this step, your dog should be checking out, and maybe even hopping into, the tub looking for Good Stuff.
- Water in the tub (oh no!) This step takes preparation. Make sure your bathroom is warm and draft-free. Set a bucket full of hot water in the tub 15 minutes or so before starting this exercise so there’s no immediate association between running water and the tub exercise. If your dog does not seem to mind the scent of shampoo, put a little bit of your own shampoo into the bucket’s water. (Usually, it’s not recommended bathing a dog with human shampoo, but many anxious dogs find the scent of their owner’s bath products soothing.) Use only a few drops to start.The hot water should have cooled to comfortably warm by the time you start. Smear plenty of treat on the inside walls of the tub facing away from the bucket and encourage your dog to come for the treats. While the dog is licking the treats, use a damp sponge to begin gently cleaning the dog’s fur.
- If the dog stops licking the treat and tries to pull away, but stays in the tub, let them. The dog should be allowed to investigate the sponge and bucket. You can even put a bit of treat on the outside of the bucket. This is a time for praise and petting, ultimately leading to either a return to the treats or, if you’re lucky, enough interest in the sponge to allow you to resume the sponge bath. After a few sessions, you should also be able to switch to your dog’s shampoo in the slightly soapy water and bring a second bucket (with clean water) into the tub to sponge rinse. By the end of this step, your dog should be comfortable having a sponge bath, whether the treat distraction is still necessary or not.
- REAL water in the tub! It’s time to remove the buckets! The first bath without a bucket should still involve the treats and only an inch or two of water in the bottom of the tub. Wet paws are uncomfortable for a lot of dogs, so give them time to get used to the idea. Lifting a paw or two, or even standing against the edge of the tub, as long as they let you bathe them, is okay. Good dog is in the tub!Avoid splashing, which is loud, sudden, gets in the ears and eyes, and makes the water feel less safe. Gradually add more water to the tub before each bath as your dog’s tolerance of water improves until the water comes up to the chest of a small dog or up to the tub’s normal water line for a bigger dog.
- Before you move on, your Anxious Dog’s tub behavior should look more like Tub Anxiety Level 2:
Let’s face it. Dogs often don’t dig bath time, even if they love to swim. Swimming is under the dog’s control, but in the bath, you’re in control, and their movement is restricted.
The most important thing to accomplish during this stage of bath training is to make the dog not only trust you but look forward to you being in charge of its bath, because humans make bath time fun.
Just call us humans Rubber Ducky!
Here’s pretty much everything you need to remember to make yourself the best bath time human ever:
- The bathroom and tub are always warm before the dog gets in. No cold water, no cold tub.
- Human won’t splash water into your eyes and ears, really!
- This is quiet, happy, friendly human time with lots of good dog and calm human voice.
- Nothing sudden or startling happens in the bath. (When we have to do something new during a bath, like adding more hot water, we talk to the dogs while we’re doing it and direct their attention that way so they see it happening and know we’re behind it but not worried about it.)
- Bath means massage. Ooh, massage.
- Bath is followed by a big warm towel and play time or treats
A great way to reduce stress and bath time nerves, especially for small dogs and puppies, is to give them “swim” time. While the bath tub is too shallow for real swimming, most dogs will automatically make swimming motions with their paws when their paws are suspended in water. The swimming motion is naturally calming to the dog and as a bonus, it makes good physical therapy for dogs with achy joints, too.
To swim your dog, support your dog’s body level as if they were on the ground and lower them into the bath water until their legs are in water, but their paws are unable to touch the bottom. Encourage the dog with praise when they start to make swimming motions. We tell ours “swim, swim, swim,” and swim they do.
We’ve also provided a list of helpful tools and bath additives we use to make bath time more enjoyable for our own dogs further down the post.
#1 Shiny Happy Bath Time Dog
This is the dog who jumps into the tub without needing to be asked, runs into the bathroom to check whether it’s bath time yet, and who sits right down in the water ready for spa time.
Encouraging your bath-happy dog to sit in the water, especially if you’re bathing multiple dogs at once, is good for your dog’s skin and for helping to keep dried fluids from building up and clogging their glands.
Bath happy dogs who are willing to hang out and soak for a while also benefit the most from paw oils and softening treatments, like Itchy & Olly’s City Dog Paw Cleanser. You can put the oil on their paws at the beginning of the bath, and by the time you’ve washed their body and are ready to move on to their paws, the oils will have done much of their work at softening skin and lifting grime.
Tools we use to make bath time more enjoyable for the dog and easier on us:
Minimize splashing with a bath ladle. These are common in Japan, and if you’re lucky enough to have a Japanese shop like Daiso in your area, you can pick one up cheaply. If you don’t, any round plastic container will do as long as you’re able to keep a good grip on it and pour a smooth stream of water from it.
Keep bath time slip-free with a grippy non-slip bath mat. We prefer the kind with holes over the kind with bumps because the holes are easier for paws and claws to grip onto in a slippery tub. Dogs who stand up against the side of the tub are most likely to fall, and a dog who falls may not want to get back in again.
Increase confidence in the human with a sock. Yep, that’s a sock on one of our hands while we bathe Ada Luna. A sock (or a bath glove, if you want to be fancy and buy a pair) helps lift out dead fur and gives a good scrubby feeling for the dog while staying put for the human. That means less fumbling, and less fumbling means more dog confidence. A sock also makes great lather which helps lift out even more of that trapped dead fur.
Keep water out of the ears with cotton balls. Not every dog will let you do this, but if your dog has a tendency to get water in her ears during baths, especially if the dog is a breed with floppy or long ears, cotton balls in the ears before the bath will go a long way to keeping the water out.
Make the water less threatening with bath additives that smell good (to dogs). Remember that dogs’ noses are much more sensitive than humans’ and that what smells good to dogs isn’t usually what humans would choose for an air freshener. That said, there are plenty of bath additives that are good for fur and skin, smell good to dogs, and don’t get in the way of getting the dog clean. One of the most common is adding a tablespoon of baking soda (not baking powder) to the tub to change the water’s ph to more closely match the dog’s. Colloidal oatmeal is another popular choice that’s good for soothing itchy skin. Our dogs love the powder bath additives we make for them as much as the oils, so we included them at Itchy & Olly’s Dog Bath Additives.
Calm your dog with aromatherapy in the bath. It should come as no surprise that dogs are sensitive to aromatherapy. Just remember that your dog’s nose is much more sensitive to scents than yours, and be certain only to use 100% natural oils derived from dog-safe ingredients. Our Itchy & Olly’s bath oils use all-natural dog-safe, aromatherapy oils in skin and fur-safe quantities designed for calming anxiety and reducing stress.
Super absorbent towels, like the kind made for drying human hair help to pull water out of dense coats as quickly as possible. The less time your dog spends being wet and cold after a bath, the better. Sometimes, you can find these towels more inexpensively when they’re sold for streak-free drying after car washes.
What are your favorite bath time stories about your dogs?
We’d love to hear them!