Puppy Grooming Tips

How to Prepare Puppies for Grooming

Girl and dog in bathtub

Dan Porges / Stockbyte / Getty Images

Your new puppy is home, a cute and cuddly ball of fluff that loves everyone, making you laugh with kisses and cuddles—and puppy grooming may not be on your radar. You are aware that it is important to teach your pup to sit, come and walk nicely on a lead but it is also important to teach your puppy that grooming is enjoyable, especially if you plan to use a professional groomer.

Positively introducing grooming allows the pup to build a nice association with brushes, combs, clippers, nail trimmers and the handling that is associated with the grooming process. This must start right from the first day the pup is home as puppies learn best aged between 7 to 16 weeks. Hopefully, the breeder was handling your pup in its very early life.

Step 1. Handle Your Puppy

The first step is to teach your puppy that hands are associated with nice things like food, toys, and pats. Follow these tips.

  • Hold your hand just in front of their nose. Most puppies will automatically smell your hand, and when he does, say YES! (or click a clicker) and give a nice small morsel of food. Do this a few times about three or four times a day for about a week.
  • Once they are happily touching your hand, start touching the pup’s body, firstly under the chin, then around the collar, shoulders, and back. Take another week to do this. Touch, say YES! (or click) as you do it, give a treat and remove the hand. Do this quietly and gently.
  • If the pup starts to bite or gets scared, you have gone too fast and need to backtrack to earlier steps. If the puppy is comfortable with these steps, move on to touching (but not holding) areas dogs are not so comfortable having touched. These may include the face, top of their head, feet, bottom, and tail. These early steps must be done slowly as they are formative stages for the rest of the process.
  • At times the puppy will be lying down next to you asleep or cuddling. Use this time to softly rub your hands over the dog. Use nice gentle soft circles over the body at first.
  • If the dog is accepting of this, gently run your open hand loosely down the leg. Go straight down and off the leg slowly and gently. If the dog does anything other than stay completely relaxed while you are doing this, return to earlier steps.
  • If the dog pulls away as you touch a limb, then you have been too fast, your hold is too tight or the pup is sore at that spot. The aim is to for the pup to stay completely relaxed.
  • The next progression of this step is to keep one hand on the top of the leg while another hand touches the foot, but only if the dog stays still.
  • Gradually get the dog used to you touching all areas of its body such as its ears, eyes, tail and all four legs.

Step 2. Hold Your Puppy

The next step is to condition the puppy to holding and containment. This step needs to be done very carefully by an adult, as not all puppies tolerate being held.

Sit next to your puppy and very loosely and gently put two hands one on either side of their ribs; you should just barely be touching their body. Most puppies will try and move away initially and then relax.

Do this for only a few seconds and then release and let them move away. You are conditioning the puppy to relax as it feels hands touching it.

Initially touch for only one or two seconds, and then give them a nice treat or play a game with a toy. Build up the hold time very slowly. This is when it is important to watch to see that the dog is not getting upset by this process. If they become upset, please seek professional advice.

Step 3. Restrain Your Puppy

Once the pup is accepting of the previous two steps it is time to move onto restraint.

  • Very gently hold the puppy still until the pup relaxes, but ensure you allow no more than a small amount of stress. It is helpful if you are sitting next to the puppy or it is on your lap. This must be a very gently hold that is close to not holding at all.
  • Many pups will initially struggle, slightly wriggling and twisting as dogs do not like being held. Relax the pressure a little but you mustn't let go while the puppy is still struggling, as this teaches them to struggle while being held. If the puppy struggles for more than a few seconds, then you must return to the holding/containment stage.
  • As soon as the muscles relax or the pup licks his lips, yawns or takes a deep sigh, immediately release, give a treat or engage in a fun game. This way puppies learn that relaxing is the way to be released.
  • This restraint should occur for a very short period only. A puppy that bites, cries or struggles should be immediately released, and you should seek professional assistance.

At all times handling MUST consist of gentle movement that guides the dog to move and there should be no resistance to this guiding movement. With the previous steps completed, you should now have a dog that is relaxed while being touched or constrained.

Step 4. Move Your Puppy

You can now move onto teaching the puppy that movement of limbs and even its whole body will not cause undue stress. This is best done while the dog is lying in a prone position next to you after sleeping.

  • Gently pick up one leg and move it slightly forward and backward. Do this for all four legs.
  • Move the head, tail, and ears as if you are checking each part for a veterinary examination.
  • Cup the muzzle gently with the first three fingers of your hand and move the head up and down and from side to side always watching to see if the dog is tolerating the movement.
  • Don’t forget the feet, moving each nail and examining between the pads and toes.
  • Reward regularly while doing this; however, by this stage, the dog should be finding the touch rewarding.

If the pup does react negatively to touch on any area, have it investigated by a vet for any issues, and return to the earlier steps. As with all other stages, if the dog is reacting aggressively or finding this anything other than a calming, relaxing bonding session, you should seek professional assistance.

Introduce the Equipment

While the puppy is being conditioned to be touched and handled in a positive way you should start to introduce grooming equipment. The right brush and comb is essential for your breed of dog and should be one that will effectively brush the entire depth of the coat.

To introduce each comb or brush, arm yourself with some tasty small treats. Then show the brush to the pup and then feed a treat. Do this a few times, and then brush a few short strokes on the back and reward with a treat for good behavior.

Do the same process with combs and nail clippers. It is important that you show the item first, feed the treat, and then remove the item as you stop feeding. This sets up a positive association in the dog's mind between a very nice thing (yummy treats) and the grooming equipment and process.

Grooming sessions should be short but frequent for puppies. If you decide to send your pup to a professional groomer they must go as soon as possible so they can get used to the person and the place. Most groomers are happy to have short initial sessions for babies to get them used to grooming. They will also be able to counter-condition, using the technique outlined above, to the dryers and clippers they use.

Additional References:

Karen Deeds Canine Connection – Behaviour Rev. 004 2013. Created by Bob & Karen Deeds