Sometimes It’s hard keeping your canine companion clean. But challenging or not, grooming is important for maintaining the health of our beloved friends. I’ve researched advice from vets and professional groomers, interviewed a Veterinary Assistant to find out the best ways to keep our dogs clean and healthy.

Dealing with Fur

The most important component to DIY grooming is brushing your dog.  How often will depend on the type of coat they have, but 2 – 4 times a week is a good average. Invest in a good brush – it will last many years and will be worth it when your home feels less like a hairy snow-globe. Remember, decreasing the amount of loose fur at the source is much easier than trying to remove it from your home once it has settled everywhere. Thinning shears are a handy tool if your dog gets mats because they will break down the knotted fur and allow you to brush out the rest of the coat more easily.

Mud Baths Don’t Count

Baths can be an ordeal for most dog-owners. But when your home is constantly moving, you have to deal with additional challenges like making sure your dog can’t escape during their spa treatment (or is it “spaw” treatment?)

Remove mats with a brush or scissors before bathing, since the water will make the knotted fur tighter.  Also, be sure that the water you are using to bathe your dog (and yourself!) is safe. Do your research to know if there is local contamination due to pollution, dangerous algae outbreaks, or other hazards.

Once you do have a secure setup and safe water (that’s lukewarm or cooler), it’s bath time! Be careful about what shampoo you use, since human shampoo can dry out your dog’s skin. You can make the shampoo last longer by watering it down – since these shampoos are highly concentrated, you don’t need much to get the job done. Chloe Dodgson, a Vet Assistant, also recommends Dawn Dish Detergent if dog shampoo is not available or is cost-prohibitive because, in addition to removing dirt and bacteria, it also repels fleas. If you have an extra-wiggly pup and are concerned about shampoo getting in their eyes, try using disposable face cloths. Wipes are also useful for dogs with skin folds or wrinkles.

Eau de Canine

For general odor-maintenance try waterless shampoos. Waterless shampoos help minimize the doggy-smell and reduce pet dander.  You can also try dog perfumes (but no human perfumes –the alcohol can irritate your dog’s skin). While these won’t replace a regular bath, they may help you reduce the number of baths needed, which also helps to prevent dry skin.

Speaking of which, try not to use shampoo every single time your dog gets muddy. Whenever possible, just rinse off any dirt or mud.  In general, aim to give a full bath with shampoo only once a month during the summer, and every six weeks during winter to prevent dry skin.

Since dogs living in small apartments typically get outside a lot more often and for longer hours than their house-bound peers, consider using doggy sunscreen. Even though a dog’s coat helps to protect them from UV rays, excessive exposure to sunlight can still cause sunburn and pose a cancer risk.

Hot Towels and Foot Massages Optional

Hours of bouldering or digging through pebbles might mean you don’t actually need to trim your dog’s nails at all! But, if you do find that a regular clipping is needed, the key is to stay calm.  If you’re nervous about trimming your dog’s nails, start small. Practice holding the paws and using your fingers to gently move their toes.

Then practice holding the clippers near their paws, with no intention of actually trimming. Become familiar with how your dog reacts, and reinforce calm, cooperative behavior with treats and praise. Only trim the tips of the nail.  If you do clip too far and you cut the quick of the nail, you can use a tightly packed container of flour or corn starch to stop the bleeding.

There are entire articles about how to safely and easily trim your dog’s nails. Make sure you are in a well-lit area (and keep your dog secure if they are prone to running away).

If you have trouble seeing the nail, use children’s scissors to carefully trim the fur around the nail. Keep your clippers sharp; never try to cut a dog’s nails with dull blades. Even if your dog does not make their pedicure easy, still give them lots of treats and praise to make the experience a positive one! After clipping the nail, you can use a file to smooth it, since even clipped nails can be very sharp.

It’s important to prevent your dog’s nails from becoming too long. Overgrown nails can lead to serious health issues ranging from ripped nails to weak or painful muscles caused by poor posture.

Look and Listen!

Less obvious, but just as important for the health of your dog, is keeping their ears and eyes clean.  Whenever your dog goes into water, or has a bath, you must clean their ears to prevent a buildup of yeast that can lead to ear infections. Depending on the breed of your dog, you may also need to pluck the hair inside their ears. This hair can trap dirt and bacteria, and also makes cleaning the ears more difficult.

To clean the ears, you can use distilled white vinegar in body-temperature water or your preferred brand of dog ear cleaner. If using the vinegar-water solution, use a cotton ball to gently wipe the outside part of the ear. DO NOT try to wipe the inner part of the ear. Be extra careful not to let any of the liquid drips down into the ear canal.  

If you’re using actual ear drops, place them directly into the ear then massage the outside part of the ear (you may want to wipe the outer part of the ear with a cotton ball to remove any excess liquid). Your dog will probably shake their head afterward, but this is good as it will help to break up any dirt or bacteria.

Only certain breeds will need regular eye cleaning.  If yours is one of them, carefully trim the fur around their eyes so it is easier to see what you are doing.  Only use dog-specific eyecare products, as human eye drops will irritate your dog’s eyes.

If there is debris near the eye (such as tear stains) gently wipe the corner of the eye from the inside-out using a cotton ball or gauze sponge. Vet Assistant Chloe Dodgson recommends using a flea comb (or any small-tooth comb) to gently pull debris or tear stain (“eye gunk”) away from the corner of the eye and towards the nose, where you can wipe it off with a damp cloth or paper towel. A warm compress can be used to loosen any hardened debris first.

My, What Clean Teeth You Have

There are lots of treats and specialty foods that can help keep your dog’s teeth clean.  But, daily brushing is just as important for dogs as it is for humans since poor dental hygiene can lead to serious diseases that damage their internal organs.

Most dogs older than 3 years will need an annual professional cleaning, although small dogs typically require more dental care than large dogs. Brushing your dog’s teeth every day will help offset the need for a professional cleaning.

The first step is to teach your dog to get used to you gently opening their mouth and lifting their lips to reach their teeth. You can use an actual brush or a finger brush, whichever is easiest for you to manipulate. Make sure you use toothpaste specifically for dogs, since they will definitely end up swallowing it.  

Time for a Makeover!

Many dog breeds don’t need a haircut, particularly if they are a short-haired dog (and Huskies should never be shaved.)  But there are many types of coats that will require a serious haircut on a regular basis.

Sometimes seeing a professional groomer is not always an option.  That said, it’s important to do your homework and research the best ways to trim your dog’s coat safely.  For example, consider whether you will have regular access to a power supply needed for electric clippers.

If access to electricity will be infrequent at best, then mechanical clippers will be your best option.  The specific types of tools you need will depend on the type of fur your dog has.

One general tip is to look for stainless steel tools when possible – they are a little more expensive, but they last longer and won’t rust, making them a good investment for dogs.

General tips for DIY grooming include going slowly (you absolutely cannot rush this if you want to keep your dog safe), gently smoothing your dog’s skin where you are trimming, and always cutting in the direction of your dog’s fur (this will change depending on the location of the fur, so you will need to stop and restart between different areas of the coat). If you’re using an electric clipper, make sure the noise doesn’t scare your dog, and make sure the blade isn’t too hot. If you turn them off and they are hot to your touch, then they are too hot for your dog.

Cleaning the Unmentionables

It’s not pretty, but expressing your dog’s anal glands can be vital to keeping your dog healthy.  Larger dogs with healthy back and leg muscles probably won’t need you to do this (phew!) but for those of us with smaller dogs, or any dogs with weakened back muscles (such as a limp), it’s time to get up close and personal with your furry companion.  

Vet Assistant Chloe Dodgson recommends that non-professionals only express the outer glands, which are at the “10” and “4” position if your dog’s rear were a clock. The anal glands are bean shaped, and to express them you should start from the outside and slowly move to the inner area, pressing gently. There are lots of videos that can show you how exactly to do it (but I don’t recommend watching these during dinner).

Just remember to be gentle, and don’t try to force anything even if it seems like nothing is being “expressed”.  Plan on doing this about once every 3 months, or any time your dog starts scooting their butt along the floor. That is always a sure sign that your dog is having trouble with their anal glands.

Worth It? Always

Dogs evolved to be our companions, and it makes sense that many nomads want to bring a furry friend along for the ride. Keeping your dog clean and healthy is challenging, but it is definitely possible. All that it takes is research to understand your dog’s particular needs, and then preparation and practice.

With the right information, tools, and some practice, you can keep your dog healthy and happy (and smelling slightly better) as you share a life of adventure!

Adam Conrad is the writer and researcher at He is very keen on eradicating canine Distemper Virus and Parvo. In his spare time, he is an avid sports enthusiast and a lover of canine companions.

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