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Spa Day: How to Train Your Dog to Love a Bath, a Brushing, or Even a Mani/Pedi

Aren’t you beautiful!

Imagine a life where your dog loves being groomed. When you pull out the brush or nail trimmers, your dog comes running—just as if you opened a new bag of treats. How would that make you feel?

Dog in a tub

It is never too late to train your pet to love being bathed or brushed. With a little time and patience, you and your puppy, adult, or senior dog can look forward to sharing relaxing grooming time.

Be sure of your strategy: attitude, time, reward

All grooming interactions should be positive experiences for both the groomer and the one being groomed. Any time you are thinking that training for a good grooming experience is a chore is not a good time to practice. Wait until you are in the right frame of mind so that the training time is positive for both you and your dog.

Short training sessions are always the most productive. If you notice your dog is reluctant to participate, then you are probably going faster than the dog would like. Slow down and use a higher-value treat or reward to make the time more comfortable for your dog. There is no rule that says you have to trim every toenail every session.

It is never too late to train your pet to love being bathed or brushed.

Train (and practice) in small steps that emphasize fun and rewards. When I start to train a new behavior, I like to use my dogs’ favorite treats. However, once my dogs understand what I am asking them to do, I start to decrease the value of the treat.

The mani/pedi: staging and tools

Many people are afraid of trimming their dogs’ toenails. They are worried that if they trim the nails too short, the nails will bleed or it will hurt the dog. This is an especially common fear if a dog’s nails are black, since then it is more difficult to locate the blood supply to the nail, called “the quick.” The blood supply is more visible with clear nails than with black nails. But, if a dog is trained to hold still when the nails are trimmed, then the risk of cutting the nails too short is decreased.

If your dog has long hair, first train your dog to allow you to place a stocking over the toes. This will let you trim the nails without getting the hair caught in the nail trimmer. Remember that even training your dog to accept the stocking cover should be attempted slowly, and should always be fun. If your dog does not enjoy this part of the routine, it is not very likely that the nail trimming will be enjoyable either.

Nail Trimming Tools

There are quite a few styles of nail trimmers, including guillotine, scissor, and powered nail trimmers. It is important to find the type that you are most comfortable using. My favorite non-powered nail trimmer, and my tool of choice for many years, is the scissor variety that looks a lot like a tree pruner. I feel like I have a lot more control and can make super-thin slices of nail. Recently I have come to prefer the powered dremel because it allows me to make the nails very smooth and rounded. All three of my dogs were initially afraid of the sound of the dremel until we did some training.

Mani/pedi: training overview

The best way to train your dog to accept and be comfortable with nail care is with clicker training, specifically shaping. Shaping is when you click and treat for progressive behaviors that lead to the ultimate behavior goal.

To shape a behavior, it is important to break down the process to very small steps. For nail care, the dog must learn the following small steps, in order:

  • Hold still and offer a foot
  • Place the foot in your hand
  • Place the foot in your hand while the nail trimmer is in your other hand
  • Accept the nail trimmer moving progressively closer to the foot
  • Accept the nail trimmer touching the foot
  • Accept the nail trimmer touching the nail
  • Accept the nail trimmer tapping on the nail
  • Accept the nail trimmer trimming the nail

If you use a powered trimmer, first shape the behaviors with the trimmer turned off. With any trimmer, first shape the behaviors without actually trimming the nails. Make the dog very comfortable with the entire process. Your dog should enjoy the presence of the nail trimmer long before any nails are trimmed. When that is true, you can train/shape all of the steps above, including any sound and/or vibration of the trimmer, and then move on to actually trimming nails.

Note that, like you and me, some dogs will prefer one type of trimmer tool over the other. I find that if a dog does not care for the scissor type, the dog will be fine with the dremel, and vice versa. You can train your dog to accept your preferred tool—it will just take a little more time and patience. View it as more quality bonding time!

Mani/pedi: ready, set, go!

Here’s the message to convey: The nail trimmer means good things.

Here’s the message to convey: The nail trimmer means good things.

Regardless of the type of nail trimmer you choose, the first step is to create a positive emotional response to the nail trimmer. Bring out the trimmer and then feed your dog. Your dog will learn that after the nail trimmer appears, a meal appears. It is important that the nail trimmer (something bad) is presented prior to the appearance of the food (something good) so that the trimmer predicts food—and not the other way around. You don’t want your dog to anticipate a nail trim each time you bring out a meal or treat.

Once a dog associates the nail trimmer with food, then bring the nail trimmer a little closer. If your dog stops eating, it means the anxiety level has increased. Slow down the training process—move the nail trimmer a little farther away until your dog can accept the trimmer’s presence while he eats. Your dog is learning that the nail trimmer is an opportunity for reinforcement.

When your dog is comfortable eating in the presence of the trimmer, get out your clicker and some really good treats! Start to shape the nail trim, following the small steps outlined above. The first goal is for your dog to hold still in the position where you are most comfortable trimming the nails. Don't worry if you decide later that the position you trained your dog to hold still in is not comfortable for you; you can change it later. Once your dog looks forward to a nail trim, simply reshape the dog’s position so that it is comfortable for you. It is important to find, start with, and maintain a position that is comfortable for the dog, however, in order to move forward successfully with training.

Train for a very short time—offer 5-10 treats for no more than 5 minutes at a time. Try for a high rate of reinforcement, as the high rate keeps your pet interested in the new “game.” When you are clicking at a rate of 15 clicks per minute, you know your dog really understands what you are training and the specific behavior you desire. When you reach this point, you can ask for the next step in the shaping plan.

When your dog can hold still in the presence of the trimmer, the next step is getting your dog used to the sound of the nail trimmer (the click of a traditional trimmer or the whirr of a powered trimmer). Click and treat when the dog remains still during the sound of the trimmer. This is a good opportunity for you to practice your own technique, clipping a small amount of a pasta noodle “nail” at a time. Use any spaghetti or macaroni noodle. For thick nails like those of a Basset hound, try elbow macaroni!

Start trimming the noodles at a distance from your dog and click and treat the dog for standing still. For dremel-type nail trimmers, turn the tool on low. Remain at a distance from your dog. The distance should be determined by the dog: how close can the noise be and the dog will still eat a treat? How close can the tool get before the dog will not eat a treat? Be sure to start where the dog is comfortable and taking treats.

(Your dog will probably think you are a bit crazy at this point. All he has to do is stand still and let you touch him with the nail trimmer, or watch as you trim noodles nearby, and he gets clicked and treated!)

If the dog moves closer to the sound of the dremel or holds still as you approach, click. I like to let the dog choose to come closer to me with the dremel, and then shape the hold still behavior.

Keep the rate of reinforcement high as you go through this process.

Move on to each of the shaping steps above as you and your dog are ready. If the dog moves away, remain quiet and wait until the dog returns to the position you want, and then click and treat. Keep the rate of reinforcement high as you go through this process. Remember to keep training sessions short and to stop at a success point, even if you have to go back a step in the shaping plan.

Trimming those many nails, step-by-step

Here is some specific advice for a few of the nail care training steps:

Moving the trimmer (in this case, a powered dremel) closer and closer to the nail:

In this home video, Colleen demonstrates the
nail trim process with her dog, Scooter.

  • Move the trimmer all around the dog’s body. You want the dog to get used to standing still while you lean over him and while the sound of the dremel comes from behind and beside him.
  • Eventually touch the bottom of the dremel to the body of the dog, ever so lightly. Once the dog is used to that, increase the duration of the touch and then start to move the dremel over the body.
  • When the dog is standing still reliably while the dremel moves over its body, start to move the dremel down a leg.
  • Touch the top of the dog’s foot while the dog is standing still and click and treat that stillness.

Touching the foot and nail:

  • Place the dremel bottom on the big foot pad first, then click and treat.
  • Hold the foot as you would for a nail trim and touch the nail with the bottom of the trimmer.
  • Barely touch the tip of the nail with the dremel. Do this very briefly so that you can be successful.
  • Work on duration. If your dog doesn't mind a quick touch with the dremel, repeat daily to keep up your skills and the dog’s. To work on duration I like to use the A, B, C method. Instead of counting one one thousand, two one thousand, etc., I recite the A, B, Cs. This way I feel more precise with my timing. If I get to "F" before the dog moves, the next time I go only to "E," and then maybe to "C," then back to "F" and so on. Ping-ponging back and forth starts to increase duration.

When the dog holds still during any of these nail care steps, it is a clickable moment, since the goal of this clicker training project is to trim your dog's nails by yourself. To do this successfully, your dog must be a willing partner and not require any type of restraint. When it all “clicks,” you will have a fun spa day rather than a challenging chore.

When it all “clicks,” you will have a fun spa day rather than a challenging chore.

Now we're stylin’!

Like nail care, brushing your pet should be relaxing for both you and your dog—quality bonding time. Like us, most dogs have preferences for brushes. A brush has to be the right combination of soft and comfortable, but it also must be the proper tool for keeping your dog's luscious locks mat-free.

To train your dog to enjoy being brushed, use your clicker and favorite food treats. Or, use favorite toys or playtime as reinforcers. Keep things fresh and exciting.

If your dog has a hard time sitting still and wants to go, go, go, then holding your dog down to brush him will result in a very frustrated dog, a dog that will try all he can to avoid you and the brush. That is not exactly a scenario conducive to a well-coiffed dog or to quality bonding time!

If you are starting with a dog that would prefer to leave town when you bring out a brush, then a little classical conditioning is in order. Just as with the nail trim, by pairing the brush with meal or play time you can change the perception of the brush. Have your dog target the brush, and then click and toss the toy. Repeat just a few times; stop the game before your dog wants to stop. Training sessions like this short one can be repeated several times a day.

Use the following steps to shape brushing your pet. Remember, in shaping it is important to include all the little steps in between even if, like some people, some dogs like to skip steps!

In shaping it is important to include all the little steps in between even if, like some people, some dogs like to skip steps!
  • In the presence of the brush, the dog holds still
  • The brush can approach the dog
  • The brush can touch the dog—gradually add duration without actually brushing
  • The brush barely moves, but gradually builds up to one stroke of the brush, then two strokes of brush, etc.

There are areas where dogs are a little more sensitive to brushing. It is especially important to go slowly and to make the brushing highly rewarding for the dog in these circumstances. Touch the brush in the sensitive area and then brush in the area the dog loves.

Each step above is a clickable moment, but not all treats have to be food. When I am training a dog to be brushed, I like to use toys and play time. I often throw a ball or toy (good if your dog likes to retrieve). One brush then click/toss ball, two brushes then click/toss ball, one brush then click/toss ball, etc.

If a dog learns that good things happen when he is brushed, he is more likely to allow and even enjoy a full brushing. At first, every brush should prompt a click and a ball throw or a toy tug. Eventually, increase the number of times you run the brush over the dog’s coat (increased duration) before clicking and treating.

Start the brushing routine before the dog grows a thick or long coat, or before the coat gets matted. If a dog is trained to accept brushing early, and when it is a comfortable experience, the dog is much more likely to enjoy the brushing process.

If your pet is matted, and does not enjoy brushing, have your pet groomed or shaved professionally so that you can start the training process on a positive note. From there, you can prevent the mats from forming.

Splish splash, we're training a bath!

If your dog does not like taking a bath, it can be a nightmare to give one! Once again, make the process enjoyable when the pup is little. Many times clients will tell me, "He's ok with a bath—he just stands there." My question is, will the dog take a treat (or favorite toy) when you are bathing him? If the answer is no, then your pup is not too happy with bath time. There are a lot of really good dogs out there who "put up" with taking a bath. But, I want the time I spend with my pets to be enjoyable for both of us. Taking time to make a bath a positive experience pays large dividends for the future.

If your dog does love baths, that is great. If you have a dog that runs the other way and hides or is so scared he shakes the whole time, then this part of the article is for you! Once again you need to change the dog’s perception. If you are starting out with a new pup, follow these simple guidelines and bathing should always be a breeze!

First visualize your bathing set up—what is there that is appealing to the dog? By design, sinks and tubs are made of slick surfaces that do not provide traction for our four-legged friends. People think that this lack of traction gives us the advantage since the dog can't get traction to jump out. That is true, but not having traction also makes a dog very nervous and fearful, and those are not the feelings you want your pet to have about bathing. Making the tub comfortable with a non-skid mat, small rug, or a bath towel can go a long way toward decreasing your dog's anxiety. This is an excellent opportunity to teach “go to mat." The mat can be placed in the tub area, and eventually in the tub.

Make the bath area a place where good things happen. Regardless of where you bathe your dog, the kitchen or the bathroom, watch to see how close your dog will get to that area. If you are standing or sitting there, click and treat any movement closer to the dreaded tub! The area now becomes an area of opportunity. Feed some of your dog’s meals in the bathing area to reinforce the idea that the tub is a great place.

Feed some of your dog’s meals in the bathing area to reinforce the idea that the tub is a great place.

The process for training baths is very similar to training nail trims. The dog’s part is getting in the tub and standing still. Use targeting so that you can get the dog to face one way or the other in the tub—it makes it easier to clean both sides of the dog. The dog must get used to the sound of the water as well.

Shaping getting in the bath tub

Colleen's dog, Ben, training near
the bathtub for the first time

Break down into the smallest steps possible the process of getting into the tub. This helps the dog be successful.

  • Look at the tub
  • Walk toward the tub. If your dog is really fearful, break down this step into very small steps—one step in the direction of the tub, then two steps in the direction of the tub etc.
  • Touch the tub
  • Nose in the tub
  • One foot in the tub
  • Two feet in the tub
  • Three feet in the tub
  • Four feet in the tub

Next, have the dog stand in the tub for short periods, gradually increasing the time. Feel free to feed your dog in the tub.

For dogs that are bathed in the sink, click calmness as you pick them up. Work gradually toward lowering the dog into the sink: pick up the dog near the sink and then put down the dog, pick up and move closer to the sink before putting down the dog, etc. Each time, be clear about moving away from the sink; moving away is a reinforcer. Finally, slowly lower the dog into the tub.

When the dog is comfortable in the dry tub, it is time to add just a little bit of water. I do this at first with the dog near but not in the tub. That way the dog can get used to the sound of the water. Start with the water just dripping and then increase the speed the water comes out of the faucet. Repeat the process with the dog in the tub—don’t get the dog wet but get him used to the sound of the water.

Ben's second bathtub training session,
adding water and targeting for positioning

Next comes the actual bath!

The bathing process should proceed at a pace that is comfortable for the dog. By following gradual steps, you have established a very good foundation. Remember that if your dog was fearful of baths, if you start squirting, spraying, or dumping water on him he will most likely become fearful again. Progress slowly. Just get your dog’s feet wet and see how your dog responds. Then get his legs a little wetter, then the body. Finally, very carefully wash the head, ears, and neck of your dog. Gradually increase the stream of water coming from the faucet into the tub.

You might not choose to use shampoo during the first bath session, because the goal is to stop the process before your dog gets upset. If you start shampooing, you are obligated to rinse, and this increases the time in the tub considerably. Maybe pretend to lather up and do a follow-up rinse. That way you are setting up everyone for success.

If you want to blow dry your pup, you can train that as well. You would use the same process that you used for the nail trim. Here, the shaping steps would be:

  • Introduce the presence of the blow dryer
  • Turn the blow dryer on at low speed
  • Move the blow dryer closer and closer
  • Try blowing on the dog for short increments of time

Cute, clean, calm—and clickable

Keep in mind that if your dog is older and/or has always hated being groomed, any of these training goals will take a little longer to achieve, and will require a lot more patience.

Your dog should always set the pace.

Ultimately the goal is to change everyone's perception of grooming. Ideally, both pet and owner come to look forward to the grooming time as time together. The common denominators for successful nail trimming, grooming, and bathing are taking your time and going slow—your dog should always set the pace. If you keep this in mind, you set yourself and your dog up for success.

When your dog is comfortable with all aspects of grooming, that type of care becomes a treat—a true spa day for the dog that you love. And, when your dog looks forward to a spa day, maybe it’s time to treat yourself to one, too!

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