Bath Time!

By Kathy Santo | Updated: April 30 2019

There will come a day in every dog owner’s life when they’ll have to bathe their own dog.   Whether it’s because the groomer was booked, or the dog decided to roll in the mud two hours before your entire family arrived for a barbecue, or he had a close and personal meeting with a skunk, it’s inevitable that it will happen.

And for some, that’s the precise moment when they realize that their dog doesn’t share their excitement for the bathing event at hand.  Not only that, some dogs can have a panic-stricken reaction that leads to more fear, hysteria, and in some cases aggression.

Let’s take a look at the most common bathing scenarios and how a bit of training and behavior modification can help create a better experience for all involved.

“My Groomer Said My Dog Loves To Get Groomed, So Why Is He Freaking Out In MY Bathtub?”

Um, right. So, unless you’ve actually seen your dog at the groomer having the time of his life, let’s quantify that statement. Remember, groomers are dog professionals (like the groomers at our new grooming shop), which means that they know their way around a resistant, hysterical dog, they have equipment that makes their job easier (slip-free bathing tubs, for starters), and they make the right decisions at the right times. Because of that, most of the time, the grooming experience results in a successful, positive outcome. Unless you have professional training and years of experience under your belt, without some guidance your result may be different.

Canine ‘Aqua Phobia’?

Some dogs dislike water. A lot. It could be because of the way is shoots out of the hose, or the temperature it is when it comes out of the hose, or it could be the unpleasant sensation coming from your “regrettably still set on ‘Power Jet’ mode” handheld shower head.  (Helpful hint: starting out with a gentle setting like “Rain” is less stressful to most dogs).

And while we’re on the subject, let me debunk the myth forever that sporting dogs and dogs who have “water” in their name are genetically engineered to love water. They aren’t. There are Portuguese Water Dogs who don’t love water, just as there are Golden Retrievers who don’t love to retrieve. Every dog is a unique individual. Know thy dog!

But whatever the reason, you’re going to have to find a way to convince your water-resistant dog that bath time is at least tolerable. My Doberman would head for the hills when my golden retrievers came out of the pool just in case a rogue droplet of water hit him when they shook!

To prevent his bath from being a traumatic experience, I didn’t use a hose or even a handheld shower head. I used a sponge similar to what you might use for a horse, dipped it in a bucket of warm water and soap, and gave him a sponge bath. When it was time to rinse him off, I had a second bucket of clear warm water and a sponge at the ready. The time it would have taken me to empty the first bucket and rinse the sponge would have increased the length of the bath, thereby increasing the length of his stress.

It’s worth mentioning that I did tether him so that he wouldn’t be able to take a field trip around the yard during his bath. In addition, I would turn on the hose just a tiny bit so a little stream of water trickled out. When I picked up the hose, he got a treat. Once I saw that he was happy and relaxed when I was reaching for the hose (as he was anticipating a cookie!), I would run a little water over one of his paws and then reward him. After he was relaxed about one paw getting wet, then I’d progress to two, and so on, and so on. This process took two months (at least!), and I was very careful not to push him over his comfort threshold. My goal each session was a happy, relaxed dog.

Fear Of The Tub

There can be many reasons for this fear. I’ll skip over “Because one day he was muddy and you carried him upstairs against his will and forced a bath on him” and go right into the many other reasons dogs dislike being in a bathtub. Whether it’s their long nails, the slick tile, or the small confined space of the tub, there’s not much for a nervous dog to love. Here are a few ideas that can help reduce the stress for your dog:

Your Bathroom Is Now His Dining Room. The quickest way to get your dog unstressed about the bathroom is to start serving him meals in it.  Start with feeding him in the bathroom doorway and gradually migrate his bowl closer and closer to the tub. Don’t shut him in the room and proceed SLOWLY. Once you have a happy dog that runs into the bathroom anticipating a meal, you can drop an extra special treat into the (empty) tub. Letting the dog reach in and get his reward will lead to the dog hopping into the tub, especially if the treat is accidentally on purpose placed farther away from him than he can reach by standing outside it. But before you get to that point, you have to remember that……

Dogs Hate Slipping. This seems obvious, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. Go out and buy a rubber bath mat and put it in the bottom of the tub.  For extra nervous dogs, take your bath mat (yes the one that you step on when you come out of the shower) and put that on top of the rubber mat. Then add the water to the tub. Yes, I know that your mat will be soaking wet. That’s why dryers and clotheslines were invented. Your dog’s comfort and safety in the tub comes first.

Memo To You: Your Dog Is Not Getting Dive Certified

He isn’t taking a PADI home study course; therefore you don’t need to fill the tub up to the tippy top.  Start with an inch or two of warm water to acclimate him to the idea that his feet can be in water without him panicking.  Preferably you’ll have the water already in the tub when the dog arrives, especially for those fearful of running water.

Haven’t I Seen You Before?

If you’re going to desensitize your dog to the bathroom, water, and hoses, you may as well add his shampoo bottle to the list. A rarely thought of trigger, the sight and smell of the shampoo bottle can set off a negative reaction, too. When the sight of the shampoo caused my student’s great Dane to race around the house in an attempt to avoid a bath, the first thing I had her do was to change to a different brand of dog shampoo. My feeling was that it would be easier to acclimate her dog to a new scent then to change her feelings about the old one.  

Next, the shampoo bottle made regular appearances in her life outside of an actual bath.  Like the Travelocity Gnome, the bottle appeared near her food bowl when she was eating, by her leash on the counter, in her basket of toys (of course she was supervised, silly!), and next to her cookie jar. Every time her owner picked up the bottle, the dog got a treat. Her association with that shampoo bottle was that she was about to get a cookie, NOT that something unpleasant was going to happen that she needed to avoid. Eventually, when bath time was imminent, we took the extra precaution of putting the shampoo in a plastic bowl and carrying it upstairs to the tub. That way, if her dog had a negative association with the squeezy/slurpy sound of the shampoo coming out of the bottle, this prevented a regression.

In And Out Bother

To avoid the drama of the dog that jumps out of the tub, an inexpensive tub tether is the answer.  If you have a dog whose training is at the stage that you can ask for a “Stand/Stay”, then give yourself a round of applause and use a tub tether anyway. You just never know when even the best dog is going to decide that jumping out of the tub is an option.

NOT A Hot Tub Party!

At the other end of the stick is the dog that thinks “Whoopee!  Water!” These are the dogs that are constantly biting at the hose, chasing the spray, and generally engaging in unbridled joy at the idea that they and their human are “playing” in the water together. Those of you with a fearful dog think this would be a better problem to have. Those of you whose dog inappropriately celebrates bath time think differently.

Individuals with this type of dog should do themselves a favor and make sure that the dog comes to the party already tired. A nice long walk or run, a rousing game of fetch, or maybe even working on some homework from obedience school will result in a mellower dog (the term “mellow” being relevant, of course).

If at all possible, see if you can get a friend or family member to help you. When my daughter holds a peanut butter stuffed Kong, my golden retriever lets me bathe him as long as I want to without moving a muscle. That is, as long as the peanut butter doesn’t run out…..

In addition, this is an excellent time for your obedience training to go to work for you. One huge reason to have training in the first place is to (among other reasons) make day-to-day living with your pet an easier experience for the both of you. At bath time, consider using your “Stand and Stay” command.

Personally, I think that teaching your dog to calmly accept a bath is an important life lesson. During the bath a lot of handling occurs that teaches your dog to be tolerant of being touched. That skill comes in handy when you need to clean his ears when he has an ear infection, when you need to brush a mat out of his coat, or if someone has to grab his collar to prevent him from doing something that could be harmful (bolting out a door into the road, for example). Instead of having a flight, fear, or aggressive response, your dog will be calm, cool and accepting. And not to mention that when you do take your dog to a groomer, at least you know that he’s been trained to understand what acceptable behavior in the tub is.

Kathy Santo has spent her entire career as a dog trainer and handler, training dogs and winning over 500 obedience, agility and Canine Good Citizenship titles. Working with her own dogs, she has achieved every competitive obedience title the American Kennel Club (AKC) has offered and earned the prestigious AKC “Obedience Trial Champion” title (OTCh) multiple times.

In Waldwick, Kathy teaches classes, private lessons, and oversees the training of her student’s dogs using her extensive knowledge, experience and intuition to handle problems from the benign to the serious. Her engaging personality has won her the respect and friendship of her many students, who now consider themselves part of her extended family.


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