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Splash Splash, We're Taking a Bath

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Excerpted from the article “Spa Day: How to Train Your Dog to Love a Bath, a Brushing, or Even a Mani/Pedi” by Colleen Koch, as featured in Better Together: The Collected Wisdom of Modern Dog Trainers.

If your dog does not like taking a bath, it can be a nightmare to give one. 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 that 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. Once again you need to change the dog’s perception.

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 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.

The process for training baths is very similar to training nail trims. The dog’s part is getting into 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 into the bathtub

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, and so on.

·       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, and so on. Each time, be clear about moving away from the sink; moving away is a reinforcer. Finally, slowly lower the dog into the sink.

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.

Next comes the actual bath!

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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 is 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, 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 bathed, any of these training goals will take a little longer to achieve, and will require a lot more patience. Ultimately the goal is to change everyone’s perception of bathing. Ideally, both pet and owner come to look forward to the bathing as time together.