Ultimate Guide to Dog Grooming at Home | Learn How to Groom a Dog at Home
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Now is the perfect time to learn how to groom your dog at home. It can be easy to injure your dog if you don’t know what you’re doing, however, and there are many steps involved that you may not even be aware of.
That’s why we’ve compiled this extensive guide on how to groom a dog at home. I was a professional dog groomer for more than 12 years before becoming a freelance writer. I want to give you as much information as possible to help you and your dog have a good experience.
Ready? Here we go!
On average, dogs need their nails trimmed once a month. Some dogs who walk on the pavement a lot may file their nails naturally and need trimming much less frequently. Small dogs and puppies who don’t spend as much time walking on pavement and have quick-growing nails may need them trimmed every other week.
Before trimming your dog’s nails, they need to get used to having their feet handled. Before you try to cut their nails, practice just holding your dog’s foot and looking at each toenail. Does your dog let you do this without a problem? Or do they try to yank their foot from your hand?
In my years of experience as a groomer, I can tell you that short-legged dog breeds, in particular, tend to hate having their feet touched and nails trimmed. If you have a Dachshund, Basset Hound, Corgi, or Pug, you are likely to struggle with cutting your dog’s nails.
Okay, so Pugs don’t have short legs, but they tend to hate having their nails trimmed just as much as the short-legged breeds. These sweet animals turn into a Tasmanian Devil the moment you touch their feet.
Give your dog a treat after every time you handle their feet, so your pup learns to associate having their feet touched with getting a yummy treat. When you start trimming your dog’s nails, increase the number of treats even more to help them look forward to nail trims rather than dread them.
It may take weeks of daily practice just holding each of your dog’s feet before you could feel comfortable enough on grabbing nail clippers or a nail grinder. Remember that the ultimate goal is for your dog to tolerate the process; you gain nothing by forcing them through it.
Types of Nail Clippers
Before we talk about how to trim your dog’s nails, let’s talk about the different types of tools you might use to do it. Here are the most common types of nail cutting or filing tools:
- Pliers-style – This is the most common type of nail clipper and arguably the easiest to use. They come in different sizes and may include guards to prevent trimming too much at once. However, the guard blocks your view so you can’t see how much you’re cutting off. If you can’t find nail clippers without a guard, make sure it’s one you can move out of your way.
- Scissors-style – This style of nail clippers is best for small dogs and puppies. They aren’t strong enough for large nails, but they’re ideal for small ones.
- Guillotine nail clippers – This nail clipper style requires you to poke your dog’s nail through a hole and is less popular now than other clipper styles. However, with a sharp blade and a cooperative dog, they can be amazing.
- Nail grinder – If your dog tolerates the noise and vibration, a nail grinder is the safest way to get your dog’s nails as short and smooth as possible.
How to Trim Your Dog’s Nails
Your dog’s nail has a vein inside called the quick. If you cut into the quick, it hurts your dog and causes them to bleed. If your dog has white nails, you can see the quick – it’s the pink part of the nail. With black nails, it’s harder to spot. You have to take off a little bit of the end of the toenail at a time until you see a black dot appear in the middle of the cut area.
Even professional groomers (myself included) “quick” dogs from time to time. Since most dogs don’t hold perfectly still, it’s basically inevitable that accidents will happen. It’s hard to hit a moving target with consistent accuracy.
As a nonprofessional, it’s a good idea for you to keep a styptic powder handy. This will stop the bleeding and ease the pain if you accidentally cut a nail too short. If you don’t have any styptic powder handy, flour or cornstarch will work in a pinch.
Either way, you’ll want to press the powder to your pup’s cut nail and apply pressure. If you cut deep, you might need a lot of powder to get the bleeding under control. The key is to hold the powder tightly to the nail to help with clotting, which can be hard to do if your dog is flailing around, upset about being hurt.
Now that you have your nail clippers or grinders and styptic powder handy, and you’ve taken the time to get your dog used to have their feet handled, it’s time to trim the nails.
Whether you’re trimming bits of nail off with clippers or filing it down with a nail grinder, the process is basically the same. It’s usually easiest to see what you’re doing if you flip your pup’s paw backward so you’re looking at the bottom of the foot. Take off a little bit of nail at a time, and stop when you see a pink or black dot in the middle of the nail, which signals you’ve reached the quick.
You don’t have to do all the nails at once if your pup hates it. In fact, you can reward a hesitant pup by giving them a treat and a break between each toenail. You can even do one nail a day as long as you keep track of which nails are due.
Important note: Don’t forget your dog’s dewclaws! Some dogs have their dewclaws removed shortly after birth. However, many dogs have an extra claw (like a thumb) a little up their front and/or back legs. The dewclaw can curl all the way around and start to grow into your dog’s skin if neglected, so make sure you don’t forget it.
All dogs need their ears cleaned out from time to time (at least once a month). Dogs with floppy ears need more frequent ear cleaning (at least once a week) to help prevent ear infections. All dogs should have their ears cleaned after a bath or a swim because water left in the ear canal can cause an ear infection.
Ear cleaning is relatively simple. Most ear cleaners instruct you to squeeze the product directly into your dog’s ear canal, then wipe it out with a clean cotton ball. You could even make it simpler than that: pour witch hazel onto a cotton ball, then use that to wipe out your dog’s inner ear.
Never push too far into your dog’s ear canal, and never use cotton swabs (Qtips), because you can damage your dog’s ear canal.
If your dog’s ears are red, itchy, or stinky, they may be infected. You should take your dog to the vet so they can diagnose what type of ear infection your dog has (bacterial vs. yeast) and give you medication for your dog’s ears.
Did you know that more than 80% of dogs show signs of gum disease by the time they’re 3 years old? We’re led to believe that eating kibble and gnawing on the occasional bone is good enough for our dog’s teeth, but it really isn’t.
Ideally, you should brush your dog’s teeth every day. At the very least, make a point of doing it while washing your dog.
NEVER use human toothpaste – it can make your dog sick.
Use a soft toothbrush and dog toothpaste. Gently hold your dog’s upper lip out of the way with one hand while brushing their teeth with the other. The toothpaste is enzymatic, so you only need to get the toothpaste on the teeth – there’s no need to scrub.
Dog toothpaste comes in a variety of tasty flavors, so you can turn this into a daily treat for your dog if you’re gentle enough.
You can also use dog dental wipes, which many dog-owners find to be a convenient alternative to toothpaste.
All dogs (apart from hairless breeds) need regular brushing. Even short-haired dogs benefit from brushing. Not only does it remove loose hair before it falls all over your house, but it spreads your dog’s natural oils, keeping their skin and coat healthy. All dogs should be brushed at least once a week, and the longer your dog’s fur is, the more often you need to brush it to prevent painful mats from forming.
Different coat types need different types of brushes, so let’s break the brushing section into coat type. Note that I link to my favorite example of each brush or tool type so you know exactly what to look for.
Short-Haired Dogs (Labrador Retriever, Pug, French Bulldog)
You can brush your short-haired dog as often as once a day with a rubber curry-style brush. This type of brush is great at removing loose hair and spreading your dog’s natural oils throughout their coat.
You can also use it during the bath to massage shampoo into your dog’s coat. For best results, use light to moderate pressure while brushing in the same direction the fur grows.
If your short-haired dog sheds a lot (most-short-haired dogs shed more than you would expect), you can use a de-shedding tool like the ones offered by FURminator up to once a week. FURminator’s products (and similar tools) can rip out good hair, cause bald spots, and scratch your dog’s skin if you aren’t careful. Make sure not to go over the same part of your dog more than a couple of times, use light pressure, and restrict your use of de-shedding tools to once a week.
Short-Haired Dogs with a Thick Undercoat (German Shepherd, Siberian Husky, Shiba Inu)
These breeds of dogs tend to shed their undercoat in thick clumps a few times a year and one hair at a time the rest of the time. For these coat types, a slicker brush will be your best friend.
You can use a slicker brush every day to help reduce shedding and spread your dog’s natural oils. Just be careful not to use too much pressure, especially in areas where your pup’s coat isn’t as thick – you can scratch your dog.
When your dog “blows” their undercoat one to four times per year, you’ll want more than just a slicker brush. A long-tooth undercoat rake can help pull out more undercoat without the risk of damaging your dog’s fur. This tool is safe enough to use daily.
If that isn’t enough, you can occasionally use a curved-tooth undercoat rake to pull out even more undercoat. The undersides of the curved teeth are sharp to help cut through thick hair, so don’t go overboard with this tool, or you’ll cause bald spots.
Medium-Haired Dogs (Golden Retriever, Border Collie, Australian Shepherd)
Dogs with this coat type both shed undercoat and can develop thick tangles called mats. Mats can be painful and pull on your dog’s skin, so you want to do your best to prevent them.
You can accomplish that by thoroughly brushing your dog at least once a week with a slicker brush and focusing on places that are more likely to mat, such as behind the ears, in the armpits, between the back legs, and around your dog’s butt area. A greyhound comb will help you find tangles that need more attention.
When your dog starts blowing their undercoat, you can use a long-tooth undercoat rake and a curved-tooth undercoat rake to help pull out dead fur before your dog sheds it all over your house.
Straight-Haired Dogs (Maltese, Shih Tzu, Yorkie)
Many people opt to keep their straight-haired dogs in short pet clips. Even so, your dog will benefit from regular brushing, especially if you like to keep their ears or tail long. The best type of brush will depend on how long you keep your dog.
For fur shorter than 1 inch, a slicker brush will be the best way to brush all the way down to your dog’s skin. You should brush your pup at least once a week, though daily is best.
For fur longer than 1 inch, a pin brush is the best tool for brushing your dog’s luxurious locks. It sort of acts like a comb and brush in one and is great at separating long hair strands from each other.
Either way, you should follow up every brushing session with a greyhound comb. You should be able to get the comb through every inch of your dog, all the way down to the skin. If it gets stuck anywhere, you need to spend more time in that area.
If you come across mats that are too thick to brush out, you can use a small dematting tool to tease the mats apart. The blades are sharp and cut through the mat, so be careful that you don’t cut your dog (or your fingers).
Wavy and Curly Dogs (Poodle, Bichon, Kerry Blue Terrier)
Curly hair is the most difficult to keep brushed out and requires daily care, especially if you want to keep any significant length on your dog.
Typically, you’ll want to start with a slicker brush. If the fur is very long, you could also use a pin brush. You always want to follow up brushing with a greyhound comb. If your dog has exceptionally long or thick hair, you may also want a Poodle comb. A Poodle comb’s widely spaced teeth can get through thick hair easier, but it can miss pin mats.
Your curly-coated dog is likely to get mats at some point, so you will also want a small dematting tool to tackle them before they become so involved that you need to shave them out.
You can get a lot of your dog’s shedding under control with the brushes mentioned in the previous section. However, as a groomer, I can tell you that the best tool to help your dog shed less isn’t a brush at all.
It’s a high-velocity dryer. This is the type of dryer that professional groomers use, and it will blast more hair off your dog than you can imagine. You can use it on your dirty dog (preferably outside) but it works best after washing your dog, especially if you use a deshedding shampoo and conditioner.
High-velocity dryers are loud and powerful, and some dogs can be afraid of the noise. It’s best to introduce the dryer to your dog slowly. Let them sniff it while it’s off, then turn it on the lowest speed and let them get used to that before blasting them with the full force.
When using a high-velocity dryer, make sure to stay away from your dog’s face, ears, genitals, and anus, because you could accidentally hurt your dog. Take the nozzle off or turn the speed down to dry those areas.
Above, I linked to a moderately priced dryer that will work for most pet owners. However, for the ultimate blasting power for large, thick-coated dogs, you should invest in the K-9 III Dog Grooming Dryer. If you can afford it, it’s worth every dollar for how powerful it is. I’ve used many different dryers over the years, and the K-9 III is simply the best.
Despite your best efforts, your dog is liable to end up with mats from time to time. If your dog just has one or two mats, you may be able to brush them out, depending on their location and severity. We’re big fans of “humanity over vanity,” though, so it may be best to shave mats out rather than dematting them (NEVER use scissors to cut mats out of your dog!).
With that in mind, here are a few different ways to handle dematting.
A lot of mats happen as a result of not brushing close enough to the skin. The topcoat is nicely brushed, while the fur next to the skin becomes increasingly tangled. Line brushing is the best way to prevent (and tackle) many types of matting.
Line brushing is typically done with a slicker brush or a pin brush. Start down by your dog’s feet. Use your non-dominant hand to lift up your dog’s fur, then brush the exposed hair underneath. Move in vertical lines up your dog’s legs and body.
Note that it is possible to cause “brush burn” if you aren’t careful. Be mindful of how much pressure you’re applying, and don’t stay in one spot too long. Large mats may need several different brushing sessions to remove.
Using a Mat Splitter
A mat splitter can be either a miracle tool or a disaster waiting to happen. If you think you can be careful enough, it can be a great tool for breaking mats into smaller pieces that are easier to demat.
A mat splitter is essentially a razor blade on a handle. You must always be conscious of where your dog’s skin is while using this tool. As long as you pay attention to what you’re cutting, you can slide the mat splitter right through mats to break them up.
Simply slide the mat splitter between your dog’s skin and the mat (with the sharp side toward the mat and away from the skin, obviously). Carefully saw through the mat until it splits where you want it to. Repeat as desired.
The mat splitter works best on ears, tails, and butts. It’s not as effective on body mats.
Using a Small Dematting Tool
Many small mats can be picked out a little at a time using a small dematting tool. This tool uses curved blades on a handle to pick apart mats. Again, you always need to be aware of where your dog’s skin is. You can easily cut your dog with this tool, despite the rounded ends on the blades.
To tackle mats with this tool, pick at the mat from the top layer down to the bottom layer of the mat. Be very careful as you approach your dog’s skin. Mats can sometimes pull skin up into the mat, so you really need to be aware of what is fur and what is skin.
The small dematting tool can be used on nearly any type of mat (as long as you’re careful). As a dog groomer, this was my primary dematting method.
Using a Large Dematting Tool
If you have a medium or large dog with long hair and an undercoat, they may develop mats in their butt or tail that can be tackled with a large dematting tool. Large dematting tools come in comb styles and rake styles.
In either case, they work best on mats that aren’t right next to the skin. Actually, they work best on mats that are primarily stuck undercoat. Use them much the same way you would use a comb or an undercoat rake to pull out undercoat and pick out mats.
Be aware that these tools are made with sharp blades. One of my coworkers tried to catch a rake-style dematting tool after dropping it and sliced open several fingers. From then on, we referred to it as “the danger brush”!
Bathing your dog seems pretty straightforward, but there are some things you should know and be prepared for before you start.
First, you should only use shampoo made for dogs; never wash your dog using your own shampoo. Why? Dogs have a different pH than people do, so human shampoo is much too drying for a dog’s skin.
Speaking of drying your dog’s skin out, you should try not to wash your dog more than about once a month. If you need to wash them more than that, look for a shampoo that’s formulated for dry skin (usually oatmeal-based). Better than that, follow up the shampoo with a good conditioner to help rehydrate your dog’s skin.
It’s crucial to make sure you rinse out all the shampoo and conditioner from your dog’s coat. That can be trickier than you expect, especially if you don’t have a sprayer and are using a cup to rinse your dog. Even once you think you have it all rinsed out, go over your dog again, and focus especially on your dog’s belly, armpits, and other places where shampoo can hide. Shampoo residue can cause itchy, dry skin at best and skin infections or chemical burns at worst.
Make sure you have everything you need nearby before you start the bath including towels. You don’t want to have to leave your soaking wet dog alone in the tub to go looking for supplies!
Be careful about using your own hair dryer on your dog. Human hair dryers use heat to dry hair, which will at least dry out your dog’s skin, if not cause a heat stroke. Only use a human hair dryer on the cool setting. It’s best to invest in a dog hair dryer if you can afford it. Or, let your dog air dry.
Always make sure your dog is completely dry, all the way down to the skin, before doing any other grooming, even brushing. Damp fur doesn’t brush out well and it’s a nightmare trying to tackle it with clippers or shears. It’s not a bad idea to groom your dog the next day after a bath to ensure they’re fully dry.
Shaving Your Dog with Clippers
It’s important to understand that even the best professional dog groomers occasionally injure a dog with clippers. You need to be mentally prepared for the idea that you could hurt your dog. If you’re very careful, shaving your dog should be a fine experience for both of you, but you need to take it very seriously.
It is definitely possible to cut a dog with clippers. Skin flaps like ears, armpits, and where your dog’s back legs meet their body are the most common places for this to happen. Keep skin taut and shave toward the edge of a skin flap, not along it.
One of the worst injuries I caused to a dog when I was a groomer was when I was just beginning my career. I held a Yorkie up by its front legs to shave their sanitary area and wound up shaving off a strip of skin several inches long from the flap that connects the back legs to the hips. Try not to do the same with your dog!
Matted dogs are the most likely to be cut by clippers. Tight mats can pull skin up inside the clump of fur. If you’re too rough, you can jab the clipper blade right into the skin and slice your dog open. Always make sure you know where your dog’s skin is and use short, gentle strokes to remove mats. Let the blade do the work to remove mats; never try to force the clipper blade through a mat.
Cutting your dog isn’t the only way to injure them. Clipper blades are composed of two metal pieces (usually) rubbing together, which causes friction, which leads to heat. Despite how much the manufacturer claims their blades won’t get hot – they will.
You always want to make sure you have blade coolant handy when shaving your dog. If you buy detachable blade clippers, keep at least one spare blade handy so you can switch out your blades. Keep in mind that the shorter the blade, the faster it will heat up.
To help prevent clipper burn, shave your dog’s most sensitive areas (around the anus, genitals, paw pads, and face) first, before the blade has much time to get hot. Still, every couple of minutes, touch the blade to the inside of your forearm. If it feels warm, add cooling spray.
OK, now that we got the safety stuff out of the way, here are some more tips for shaving your dog:
- Unless your dog is matted, wash and dry them before shaving them. Clean, dry hair cuts best.
- Water makes mats worse, so matted dogs should be shaved before the bath. Also, matted fur prevents soap and shampoo from getting all the way down to your dog’s skin, so they won’t get thoroughly clean if you wash them while they’re matted.
- Blades should be held at an angle to your dog’s skin, while attachment combs should be held flat against the skin.
- Always shave your dog in the direction that their hair grows. Going “against the grain” results in a shorter cut than you’re probably expecting and can irritate your dog’s skin.
- Use long strokes as much as possible. The shorter the strokes, the more likely you are to cause divots that will be impossible to blend out.
- Be gentle and let the clipper blade do the work. The more you try to force the clippers through your dog’s hair, the more likely you are to cut your dog.
Trimming Your Dog with Scissors
Even if you shave your dog first, you’re going to want to do finishing touches with scissors (which groomers call shears). Sharp shears and moving dogs are a bad combination. There is a very real chance that you could cut your dog.
Dogs who like to lick are the worst. Their tongues are FAST. As a groomer, I probably saw a tongue cut an average of once or twice a year. Twice, I saw other groomers cut off a small piece of a dog’s tongue – time stood still as every groomer turned to look at the lump of pink flesh lying on the grooming table.
Once, a coworker somehow nicked the underside of a large dog’s tongue. The dog wouldn’t stop shaking its head, flinging blood everywhere. It wouldn’t stop bleeding. My coworker had to take that dog to the vet to have the tongue cauterized while I cleaned up what looked like a murder scene. I even nicked a few tongues of my own, especially early in my grooming career.
I need to emphasize here that accidents happen to even the best groomers. Dogs are alive and unpredictable. There’s a lot a good groomer can do to reduce risk, but there is always risk involved using sharp shears on a live animal, especially near their face. Tongues bleed a lot, and it can start to look like a crime scene before too long.
Want to know a secret trick? The best way to get a dog’s tongue to stop bleeding is to get them to lick sugar. I don’t know the science of how this works; all I know is that it has saved many dogs from trips to the vet.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much first aid that you can do for a cut tongue. It’s not like you can slap a bandage on there. If it doesn’t stop bleeding, you need to take your dog to the vet to get the wound cauterized.
You should still keep a first aid kit handy before trimming your dog because there are plenty of other places you can cut your dog besides their tongue. In your first aid kit, you should have antiseptic, gauze pads, and vet wrap.
Now that you have a healthy respect for the shears, let’s talk about how to use them:
- Use them with your thumb and ring finger. I know, it seems like you should use your middle finger, but you’re supposed to use your ring finger for better control and ergonomics.
- You only want the tips of your thumb and ring finger in the hole rather than your whole finger. That gives you the best leverage and control.
- Try to open and close the shears using only your thumb, rather than your whole hand. This helps reduce hand strain and gives you more control of the shears.
- Practice a smooth scissoring motion against a wall to learn how to avoid choppiness.
- Always know where your dog’s skin is and use your other hand to protect it as much as possible.
- Shears with rounded or ball-tips are great for beginners because there is less risk of poking your dog (although they’re still sharp enough to cut your dog).
- Try to be hyper-aware of your dog’s movements. Try to anticipate when they might try to shove their toe, tongue, or eyeball into the path of your shears.
It might be tempting to grab your favorite perfume and douse your pup with it once all is said and done. However, dogs have noses that are MUCH more sensitive than ours. If you want to add cologne to your dog, look for one that’s made for dogs rather than people.
Bows are a great finishing touch on female dogs. Always make sure the rubber band only goes around hair, not skin. Also, you need to take the bows out and brush the hair within about a week to prevent that hair from becoming matted.
Want to know a groomer’s secret for putting in bows? Use hemostats. Wrap the rubber band around the hemostats a few times, slide it down past the hinge, pinch some of your dog’s fur with the hemostats, then slide the bow onto your dog’s fur.
Bows aren’t for every dog, though. Some people like to finish off their pup’s grooming with a fresh bandana. You don’t have to buy bandanas pre-made though – it’s easy to cut bandanas out of any fabric you buy by the yard.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I use human hair clippers on a dog?
No, human hair clippers generally won’t work on dogs. Why? Humans only have an average of 2,200 hairs per square inch. Meanwhile, dogs have about 15,000 hairs per square inch. Human hair clippers simply don’t have enough power to cut through that much hair.
Do I need to buy professional-grade grooming tools?
You know the expression, “You get what you pay for?” That expression definitely applies to grooming tools, especially clippers and shears (scissors).
With that being said, professional-grade grooming tools can be quite an investment. There’s nothing wrong with starting out with cheap tools, as long as you understand that you will probably need to replace them sooner rather than later, and they may not work very well.
It’s easier to get away with going cheap on brushes, combs, and nail clippers. Even a cheap brush or comb will probably work, even if it won’t last forever.
If you can afford it, though, it’s worth investing in quality clippers and shears. Cheap clippers might not have the power you need to give your dog a smooth haircut, while cheap shears have a tendency to fold your dog’s hair instead of cutting it.
My favorite clippers are the Andis UltraEdge. They’re powerful enough to get through even matted coats, and it’s easy to replace just about every piece, so they can last many years, even with full-time use. There are many companies that make great shears. In general, the more you can afford to spend on shears, the better.
Do I have to wash my dog before giving them a haircut?
As long as your dog isn’t matted, it is best to wash and dry your dog before giving them a haircut. Dirty hair dulls shears and clipper blades. Clean hair cuts much more nicely. Plus, your dog will really look the best once they’re clean.
Having said that, water makes mats worse. If your dog is severely matted, you’re better off shaving them before the bath. You can (and probably should) go back over the haircut once your dog is clean and dry.
It’s important to note that dog hair, unlike human hair, should be completely dry before you cut it. If you don’t use a professional dryer, you might want to wash your dog one day and do the haircut the next (heck, you might want to do that anyway to reduce your dog’s stress level).
What Should I Do if I Cut My Dog?
Unfortunately, accidents are bound to happen when working with live animals. If you cut your dog’s tongue, have them lick sugar to stop the bleeding. Otherwise, clean the wound with antiseptic, apply a gauze pad, and wrap it up with vet wrap.
It’s best to take your dog straight to the vet rather than waiting for it to heal. Your dog may need stitches or antibiotics.
The hardest part is forgiving yourself. Even professional groomers cry when they accidentally hurt a dog. Just remind yourself that accidents happen, and you were trying to do what you thought was best for your pet. Your pup loves you and will probably forgive you before you forgive yourself.