The Psychology of Successful Dog Bathing

The Psychology of Successful Dog Bathing

“Can I wash my own dog? It can’t be that hard can it?” These are the words that I hear everyday as I go about my business working at the Pooch Parlor in Northern Idaho. Each time I walk a customer through this process, I find myself wondering why in the world something so simple is so doggone hard to explain. Washing your own dog may seem simple, but – only if you think and speak ‘dog’ – the language of your own dog.

I run a shop for full service and self-service dog grooming and bathing, and I LOVE it! There are dogs, and owners, of every size, every breed, and every temperament that come in to use the self-service doggie wash. Most owners are excited, some are scared, and some are cocky, but no matter who they are, or what they do for a living, there is nothing quite as intimidating for them as washing their own dog in public! The thought of doing this can give even the most confident person, performance anxiety, and for good reason! It is a true test of trust and tolerance and friendship for the person and dog companion. And, on a very basic level, it is an honest mirror for the owner, and how he or she deals with life, and with conflict. The likelihood of a successful experience for both is completely dependent upon the psychological relationship that exists between them, and, to a large extent, the ability of both to comprehend the body language of the other. You may be surprised to know that I have found that dogs are supremely better at reading their humans than their humans are of reading them. It is this relationship between human and canine, that shows itself without modesty during bathtime, and, keeps me coming to work day after day with a smile on my face.

My clients have been giving their dogs baths in my shops for 10+ years now, and, each year is more entertaining than the last when it comes to watching regular people washing their own regular dogs. The average person that comes through our doors is highly successful, which usually means – intelligent – and, because like attracts like, so is their dog. And, so why oh why, they ask me, should this simple task of cleaning their dog be so difficult? I ask them time and again, “Well, how well do you speak dog?” Invariably, their reply is a blank stare. So, this is the time to ask yourself, “How well do YOU speak dog?”

There is a lot to say about the theories of why dogs and humans behave the way they do, but I’m going to get back to the practical things to look for while bathing your own dog. The bottom line to remember is that your dog’s energy and personality traits are a mirror to your own. Take this into consideration when attempting to get him into the tub and have him be happy about it.

1. Deciding when to bathe your dog. Timing and Personality traits: Timing is important. Look at your own needs regarding timing to know how your dog will react. Are you the kind of person that is up for anything anytime? Or do you need to accomplish your day in a scheduled, systematic way? How do you do with new experiences? Do you find them refreshing and fun, or do you feel fearful until comfortable with a new activity? Your dog is going to deal with the bathtime experience in the same way you deal with life experiences. Remember that your dog is going to reflect your own personality traits – not necessarily the traits you show the world, but the traits that are truly inside you.

a. Fun-loving, extroverted, and social humans. If you enjoy regular physical activity, then so will your dog. For this type of person and dog, I suggest you take your dog out for a bout of exercise before the bath. In the city where I work, we are fortunate to have a designated beach on the lake just for dogs and their humans – dogbeach. There is a long path to run or walk on, and there is a large beach area to swim and play in. This is the perfect scenario for pre-bath timing. The dog can choose to get muddy, run, socialize, or just enjoy being outside. In any case, the dog is able to spend big reserves of energy outside in a fun way, just like letting human children play before naptime. If you love exercise, do something like this with your dog before taking him into your own tub or a professional facility for a dog bath. A common fault of the social dog and owner: Just because you are friendly, out-going person does not mean everyone wants to accept your friendly, and out-going gestures. It’s hard to fathom, I know, but it is true. If you have a very social dog (if you are a social person), it is easy to forget that many dogs (like their owners) are not social and do not appreciate the social requirements (like butt-sniffing) of others. Please remember to respect their space when in public or otherwise. Keep your dog restrained and under control, even if your dog has the friendliest intentions.

b. Non-social, active, or inactive humans. If your personality is not conducive to social interaction, then I still suggest that you walk your dog or do something that is comfortable within your life that involves light exercise before bathing your dog. Taking a walk with your dog does wonders to alleviate excess tension or stress for both human and dog. By getting rid of stressful energies during a walk, it does not present itself during bathtime. Getting exercise is especially important for those humans,( I mean dogs), that are highly nervous. I recommend giving your dog Valerian root (liquid form) or Rescue Remedy (liquid or spray) orally 30 minutes before the bath. Both of these products are natural remedies to calming down jittery nerves- and it works great for humans too. If timing is important in your life, take your dog to a self-service bathing facility when the least amount of people are there, usually early or late in the day. A common fault of the non-social dog and owner: they communicate poorly within their own species and with other species. Many people that tend towards isolation, often do this because they never figured out how to communicate effectively in human society. Their dogs typically have the same problem. I have seen it happen many times that owners of aggressive dogs unwittingly encourage their dog’s unwanted behavior, when they think they are doing the opposite. They do this by projecting their worrying thoughts about the ‘what-ifs’ of a social situation. Dogs of this type of owner act out their dog interpretations of their human owners signals. The dogs often pick up the ‘what-if’ fears of the human as the request of their human, actually creating the ‘what-if’ behavior to occur. Without human intervention and boundary setting by the owner (requiring advanced communication skills), it is quite common for this type of dog to exhibit increasingly aggressive behavior. Most owners are dismayed by their dog’s aggressive behavior, but they simply lack the skills required to communicate what behavior they will and won’t allow from their dog. I recommend that if you have a dog that is displaying increasingly aggressive behaviors to consult a professional dog behaviorist or trainer. Just a few simple tricks will convey an accurate message to a dog that is most likely misunderstanding your expectations.

Language barriers for humans and dogs. Its no surprise that miscommunication between owner and dog happens often. If you are a human that is finding you don’t understand why your dog does what he does, remember, you are learning a whole different language and culture. Give yourself time and give your dog time to understand each other. Just don’t expect your dog to act like a human, especially during conflict. It takes time and practice for anyone to learn a new human language. It’s no different learning dog language. We all know how to interpret a human smile in society. When a dog pulls his lips back over his teeth, it typically doesn’t mean he’s happy! Would a human dream of greeting a new acquaintance by sniffing their butt? Right! But, in doggie language, that’s the equivalent of shaking hands. A dog that shakes his head to get the slobber off of his mouth is no different than a person smoothing his slacks or dusting off his shirt to look more polite. The differences are huge, so give yourself and your dog a break if you have hit a communication block wall.

2. Deciding where to bathe your dog: There are not a lot of choices when it comes to bathing your dog. A. You can use your own bathtub at home which requires no human socializing – hard on your back, it’s very messy with extended after cleaning, and potentially traumatizing to human and dog. B. Bring your dog to a self-service doggie wash shop – easier on your back, requires some basic social skills by owner and dog, can be noisy and hairy, requires no after cleaning, and it does cost more than just the shampoo. C. Tie the dog to a fence and wash him with a hose in the yard (hopefully on a hot, sunny day) – not easy on the back, hard on the dog with cold water, potentially traumatizing for nervous dogs, but does not require human or dog socialiaing. D. Wash the dog in your nearest lake -which is very popular in my neck of the woods – hard on the back, requires advanced human and dog social skills, is potentially harmful to the environment, and how clean can you really get a dog in lakewater?

Regardless of where you wash your dog, take into account your own physical limitations, and your dog’s physical limitations. Is it worth wrecking your bathroom and hurting your back to wash your dog at home? For the clients I see, the answer is a definite, no! Emotional requirements are often a factor for dogs. For instance, (in general) Labrador retrievers have no issue being bathed in a lake (even though they don’t get clean), but they often resent being restrained in a tub with a sprayer hose pointed in their direction. For a farm dog that has never been away from home, tying them to the fence is a better solution than trucking them to the city and asking them to have manners in a grooming shop, or in a populated lake. At least next to the fence, even with cold water, they are comfortable with where they are and what is expected of them.

My vote is, of course to find a self-service doggie wash facility. The equipment is professional and easy to use, the water is warm (most of the time) and typically the dogs get treats when they walk out the door, which makes them happy campers. So, for those that want to know about washing your dog at a laundradog facility, here you go:

2. Getting your dog in the tub and getting him to stay there! At this grooming shop, the average dog that comes in for self-service is around 100lbs. All the dogs are washed at waist level where they stand on a grate in the tub. Getting them in the tub can be a trick. It’s kind of like asking a human to put ice skates on, and stand on the ice and not worry about how to do it. The easiest way for dog and human is to not give the dog time to decide whether or not he wants to. (Not the easiest task for shy or overprotective owners). The owner is given a large choker chain or cloth noose which goes around the dogs neck.

Leading: We have the owner quickly lead/pull the dog up the stairs with another person on the other end of the dog to give a quick boost on the butt end. The dog is on the grate, and in the tub before he has decided to be worried about it. Once the dog is in the tub, the owner hooks them in (not something you can do in your tub at home) to a variety of metal hooks inside the tub.

Choking: The dogs that are new to having a bath will sometimes turn in the tub and pull on the choker chain. We prefer the choker chain to a regular noose because the dog quickly learns with a choker that he is in control of whether or not he feels the choking sensation. The second the dog realizes he controls his own choking, AND realizes his owner is going to allow him to learn this (this is very difficult for the overprotective and/or mother types of owners-most all of us!), the pulling behavior stops. With a regular cloth noose, or one that does not self-regulate, the dogs will pull and pull and often never learn that they have the control over their own pulling more than any other behavior during the bath. Owners feel like they are directly causing their dog injury and should rescue them immediately when they hear them coughing and sometimes gagging. It is natural to feel concern over your dog choking, but it helps to think of the dog’s pulling and coughing similar to putting a toddler into his crib for a midday nap.

Many human toddlers HATE taking a nap and will cry hard enough to cough and gag. If parents rescue them from their cribs when this happens, they are reinforcing this coughing behavior for their child. Parents that monitor the crying, and coughing from a safe distance where the toddler cannot see them, soon find that their babies submit quietly to naptime without expecting to be rescued each time he utters a sound. Naps and baths may not be pleasant to begin with, but they are both essential habits of life. Dogs have the same learning behaviors regarding rescue. Owners that react with excessive concern over the pulling (as the dog is expecting), or crying and screaming tantrums, find they are only encouraging more pulling and tantrums from their dog. This point is so crucial that it is worth repeating. The more upset and worried the owner gets over the dogs behavior, the more they get of that dog behavior. If the owner is calm and without fear – and projects this to their dog, it is not long before the dog understands that pulling on the chain is only hurting himself, and that tantrums are a waste of their energy. When the owner believes everything is fine despite pulling and tantrums, the dog does too, and he stops the undesirable behavior accepts that today is bath day!

So many nurturing owners find this part difficult, but try to remember, when you expect your dog to learn how to control his own anxiety, he will learn, but it requires that you LET him learn. The best ways to learn to control ones own anxiety is to actually go through the experience of having the anxiety and dealing with it. If you are the type of owner that cannot allow your dog to experience this emotion without taking over and stopping the experience, your dog will learn to go into an anxious state more and more easily because of the reaction that he can expect from his owner. This becomes upsetting for both dog and owner and as you can see becomes an escalating cycle. If you allow your dog to go through this experience of the bath, anxiety and all, you will see that they will calm down and before you know it, you have a dog that allows you to bathe him! And having clean dog is essential to most dog owners. When your dog does calm down, i.e. quits pulling on the noose and allows the bath experience, that is the right time to express heightened emotion of happiness through praise and treats. If you take this time to praise your dog, it won’t be long before your dog asks to be washed with a happy, wanting-to-please attidude.

However, as with any rule, there are a few exceptions: old, very young, asthmatic, and dogs with neck or throat problems should be closely watched if they exhibit excessive pulling on the choker chain.

Ignore or not to Ignore: Most of the time, I recommend to owners to simply and quietly ignore their dogs protesting to get the behavior to stop (and it does), with the only exception being a small puppy (like a yorkie) or an old and fragile dog. Both the young and the old dogs that are not used to baths can injure their tracheas or create a medical problem (like asthma) if their nervous behaviors are allowed to escalate. It is in this circumstance that I tell the owners to use a harness to hook the dogs in the tub or in the case of a small and wild puppy, to use a sink or bucket in which they can immerse the dog in warm, soapy water. Puppies are wired to swim and that’s what they do if they find their bodies in water. Swimming is easier to work with than a freaking out jumping bean. If you do choose to ignore your dog’s protesting to the bath, REMEMBER to give lots of praise when the dog show’s signs of acceptance and/or begins to calm down.

Drying Your Dog: Drying a dog depends on the type of hair, type of temperament and grooming experience the dog has. If you have a shorthaired dog, towel drying is generally adequate. In the grooming shop, we use high-power dryers that blow the water out of thick or double-coated dogs like shepards, collies, and huskies – and in this case – standard poodles.

Put cotton in the dog’s ears before you begin as the dryer is loud. Make sure there is a minimum of play in the noose or chain that connects the dog to the tub, as the more room the dog has to throw a tantrum, the more room he’ll use. Start the dryer on the back end of the dog and aim the dryer side to side moving towards the head until the water is not dripping off the dog any longer. Most private owners go home with their dogs still dripping because of the tantrum factor. This is where the above information comes into play. The majority of dogs are nervous at first, but they quickly learn that the air is only loud, not painful. If the owner stays calm, the dog will quickly find this state during the drying process.

There are a few more minor steps that do occur in the grooming shop, such as brushing, nail trimming, anal expression, ear plucking and cleaning, teeth brushing and scaling and more. You can check out more ‘how to’ information on these specific techniques at Regardless of who you are or what you do for a living, the chances of your dog having a pleasant experience during the bath is highly dependent upon the ability of the dog’s owner to understand his or her own needs regarding life and society. Consider all the factors, energy reserves of your dog – spend them before the space wherever you go will increase your odds for success. Consider how much you actually do know about dog language. Above all else, remember that you, the owner, are in charge, and that if your dog is temporarily distressed with a new situation, you have to stay calm long enough to allow your dog to understand and accept the experience. It’s a curious notion that a human would have to delve into the basics of his or her own psychological needs to give their dog a great bath experience, but if you do that, you and your canine friend will have many years of happy and successful bathing experiences.

Author DuAnn Lustig-Chambers has been grooming since 1997 and owns Pooch Parlor Pet Groomer Training Academy in Sandpoint, Idaho.