Going Beyond the Splash & Dash

Bathing a dog seems like it should be easy, but there are so many things to consider if you’re going to do it right.




A good bath—and the grooming that follows—starts the minute the dog and its owner walk through your door. You need to pay close attention to how they interact with one another and the salon environment. The owners that cling to their dog and continue to stroke the dog while it is shaking are sending the dog a message, or rewarding the dog for being nervous. This behavior creates a fearful dog.


Some owners will caution you about their dog. You need to really listen. In most cases, the dogs are fine the minute the owner walks out of the salon—but there are many dogs that need convincing, and there are a few that will never enjoy the process and should never be trusted.


You must make this assessment before you even touch the dog. You can foresee many behavioral issues before they happen by simply watching the dog’s body language and prepare accordingly.


I typically do not have to muzzle dogs, but there are a few exceptions. Once these aggressive dogs are safely muzzled, they settle down. Unfortunately, there are a few that just don’t give in. In every case, you must know how to control the pet safely.


If you do need to muzzle a dog, never leave it unattended. You need to groom a muzzled dog straight through and monitor it at all times.  Watch its breathing, color and stress level. If you feel that either you or the pet is in danger, stop. You do not have to groom the dog. Call the owner and explain why you feel this way. Focus on the facts—you feel the dog or yourself are at risk of injury. Many serious injuries to both groomer and pets could be avoided if we simply read the pet and know when to say no.


Always having pets properly restrained within arm’s reach when in the tub is one of the most important safety considerations in a grooming salon. Many accidents have been avoided by simply placing the dog back in a kennel or asking for another groomer to watch the pet while you step away. I use the Groomer Helper loops for everything. It keeps the dog locked in place and, if used properly, minimizes the chances that it will pull out of the loop.


Another big safety issue in many salons is allowing dogs to roam freely before or after the bath. This could cause a fall or an injury to a dog, or the unspeakable could happen—a dog could get out of the salon and run away.


While safe handling is important, there are so many other things to be aware of when bathing dogs, starting with the water itself. Keep the temperature of the water warm, but not too hot—around 100 degrees or less. If you think you may have gotten soap in an eye, rinse, rinse, rinse. You are bound to get a little water and soap in the ears, so always flush them a second time and pack them with clean, dry cotton before drying. And don’t forget to remove the cotton when you are done.


Watch for water on the floor. Keep nonskid anti-fatigue mats in front of each tub, and wear closed-toe, nonskid shoes. Keep towels picked up, and don’t allow cords to lie on the floor, or else you risk electrical shocks.


It is important to protect yourself. If you have sensitive eyes or wear contacts, protective goggles are great for keeping soap and water out of your eyes. I also highly recommend using a waterproof apron. It protects you from getting soaked and can minimize scratches. In addition, having chemical-resistant gloves on hand will protect you from any chemicals that you may encounter, such as flea products.



A Quality Bath

You also need to focus on the quality of the bath you are giving. Even if a client’s dog stays reasonably clean with regular appointments and routine brushing at home, you need to give a thorough bath every time. You might get away with a few quick baths, but eventually it will catch up to you when the owner tries another groomer.


The trend I am seeing in my salon is a lot of new bath breeds are coming in because they are not seeing the benefits of a professional bath from their current groomer. For example, I had one client who took her Yellow Lab puppy to another salon for a bath, nails, ears and blow dry. The pup had been playing in the yard and had a black strip of dirt across her chest. When the owner  got her back, the smudge was lighter but still there; and when they got home, the pup was shedding more than when she left.


Listening to the customer, I knew the dog had gotten the dreaded “splash-and-dash.” My experience told me that she did not get a thorough nose-to-tail exam identifying any areas needing special attention. It was not lathered, and the skin and coat were not completely saturated or rinsed well. In addition, the increased shedding told me that the dog was not completely dry when it left the salon and it was not properly de-shed.


The owner did not complain, she just knew she was not going to return to the salon. When she picked up the dog from my salon, she was in awe.


So, what made my bathing and drying process noticeably better? Let’s start with the pre-bath routine. I will put a Golden Retriever, German Shepherd or Labrador in the tub and do a quick pass with a slicker brush, if needed. Next, I flush the ears with either Hydrosurge ear cleaner or Davis boric acid flush. Next, I take a palm full of straight shampoo and lather the insides of the dogs’ ear leather. Then I pack the ear with cotton and shampoo the entire dog, making sure every inch of the dog is lathered. If the dog is extra dirty, I will consider lathering it up one more time.


Don’t forget the eyes. If a dog’s eyes are runny and have a buildup of dirt and debris, either wet the area directly with water, or wet a cotton or washcloth with warm water and let it soak while you work on other areas of the pet. When the debris buildup softens, simply wash it away instead of pulling it off. Pulling it off will often cause an ulcerated area on the skin's surface, right in front of the eye. Even when you do everything right, there still might be a sore under the hair in front of the eye, so this is something you want to call out during your nose-to-tail exam at drop-off.


Another key to a great bath on double-coated breeds is to run a brush, comb or undercoat rake through the coat when the dog is wet and soapy. The skin is most pliable when it is softened by the water and shampoo, and the dead hair will slide out more easily. This also helps wick any excess oil from the dog’s skin and loosen dirt on the skin surface. The end result will be an even cleaner dog that is going to shed a lot less hair and dander during the drying process. It will also speed up the drying process, as dead hair is more porous and tends to hold more water.


When bathing, you should lather your dog up from back to front, washing the face last. Rinse in reverse, starting at the head and going from the top of the dog down towards the floor, making sure all the soap is removed from the skin and coat. Then rinse one more time, just to be sure. I need to hear a squeak as I rinse over every inch of a dog’s body. If I find an area that does not squeak, I will lather that spot again.


If a dog has dry skin or coat, I will finish with a conditioner. Also, if the coat is longer, conditioning will help with the brush out and as a preventative. For dogs with super dry skin or other issues, such as allergies or genetic conditions like Sebaceous adenitis, I will use a leave-in conditioner and add a couple drops of pure coconut oil, which has given me amazing results.


Don’t forget to check the anal glands when the dog is all soaped up. My veterinarian prefers I do the anal glands, but I only express them externally. I am gentle, and if it requires a lot of effort, I refer them to the vet.


Don’t forget to brush teeth. Always take it slowly until you get to know the dog. Periodontal disease is a huge problem for dogs and occurs because owners are not educated on the importance of daily oral care.


Grinding nails following a bath is a best practice because the nail is more pliable after the bath, but I typically cut nails before the bath in case there is an issue.


Choosing the Right Products

When it comes to providing a safe and effective bath, it is important to consider the shampoos and conditioners you use. There are some ingredients you should try to avoid. Let’s start with added dyes or colorants. Some synthetic color additives for cosmetics have been linked to serious health problems—for example, blue no. 4 and yellow no. 8. In general, I try to avoid brightly colored products in favor of the natural colors in chemical-free shampoos, which usually range from an opaque white to a light yellow.


Coal tar is another ingredient that should be avoided. A known carcinogen derived from burning coal, it is a complex mixture of hundreds of compounds, many of which are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, meaning you breathe them in. Experimental studies have found that use of and exposure to coal tar produce skin tumors and neurological damage.


Added fragrance or perfumes that are derived from chemicals are another no-no. Artificial fragrances have been linked to allergies, headaches, nausea and other serious health problems. Instead, use shampoos that contain organic essential oils.


Parabens are another buzzword lately. They are an inexpensive preservative used by many cosmetic manufacturers. Parabens mimic estrogen hormones and have been linked to breast cancer. Avoid products containing any ingredient that has the first four letters “para,” and opt for shampoos that use citrus seed extracts and natural vitamins A, C and E instead.


Mineral oil is a by-product of petroleum, derived from propylene glycol. It is one of the key ingredients in baby shampoo and baby oil. People use baby shampoo on their dogs, believing that if it is good for a baby, it is good for their dog—but it is not even good for babies. It is often used as an emollient. It can actually harm the skin and is linked to many other health issues.


Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are commonly used in grooming products as detergents. Thought to be a carcinogenic, they can thin the skin and cause hair loss, eye irritation and skin rashes. A small amount of cumulative toxin in many products over many years can’t be good for your health. Use products that are made with olive oil, coconut oil and other natural fatty oils.


This is just a small list of possible harmful ingredients in dog products. Be sure to read every label, and if there is an ingredient you don’t know, look it up and see what the research says.  PB


Chris Pawlosky is a Certified Master Groomer, professional handler, breeder, grooming show judge and successful pet store and grooming shop owner (The Pet Connection) since 1985. For 20 years, she served as national training manager for Oster Professional Products, where she developed new initiative educational material to educate at schools and conventions all over the world. Pawlosky is currently working with Judy Hudson to produce the Grooming Professors (groomingprofessors.com)—a service through which the two industry veterans share their many years of grooming, competing, dog show conditioning and handling with groomers across the country via Facebook and through an interactive website where visitors can access webcasts and videos about everything grooming-related.


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