How To Undo Your Dog's Tangles

The Delicate Job Of Dematting

Teenage boy (12-14) grooming golden retriever, outdoors
Philip and Karen Smith/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

No doubt in your arsenal of dog grooming supplies you may already have some of the tools for dematting your dog. But, are you a little chicken to actually tackle the job? Have you been leaving it up to the groomer? If Rover is having a bad hair day, who do you think he would prefer to take care of this snarly job? His kindly master or the busy groomer who has many dogs backed up waiting for attention? Ouch, ow, youch, yow, ooh, aargh... it's an easy answer!

OK, so let's get right into the nitty-gritty of dematting 101.

Mats - What Are They And Why Do They Matter

Mats are nasty entanglements of hair that may involve the topcoat, undercoat, dirt, burrs, loose hair hanging around and just about anything your dog may have gotten into. Basically, they are pesky little nuisances we'd rather just avoid in the first place if we could! But, because they can be quite damaging and even painful for Rover, the only solution is to remove them before they become more serious matters! Keeping your dog free of them is, unfortunately, an ongoing task that begins by establishing a foundation of regular grooming habits. Dead hair is a breeding ground for mats. A coat that is brushed and clean stays in better condition and is less likely to develop them. But, even with our best efforts, almost every dog owner will inevitably have to "go to ground" with a mat!

How Do Mats Get Started?

You may be wondering what causes these fur devils that seem to come from out of nowhere, and what you could have done to prevent them. The cause isn't always very obvious. Many everyday activities can lead to them. Perhaps a few got started while your dog was at the pet boarding hotel. Or maybe while you were on a vacation and slightly less attentive to the daily brush! Even your backyard where Rover romps could be the place that gets the mat rolling.

Another common pitfall is the notion that a puppy does not need regular brushing until the coat is more mature. The reality is that a dog's coat is much more susceptible to matting when it is in the process of changing to an adult coat. Yet another reason is that some coats are just plain high maintenance and much more vulnerable to the problem. Long, silky or double coats fall into this arena, as do dogs that like to play in the water. Wet hair tends to stick together and before you know it, a mat follows.

An often overlooked culprit could be your choice of grooming tools. Inferior brushes and combs can actually damage and weaken a dog's coat, making it far easier to develop a mat.

And lastly, even your dog's diet or allergies may lead to coat problems. A strong healthy coat relies on sound nutrition to stay in peak condition.

Snarly Solutions And Matting Methods

When it comes to actually removing a mat, there are differing opinions about whether the coat should be bathed first. Some pros are adamant that dematting should be done prior to hitting the bathtub in the belief that water tightens a mat, making it more difficult to deal with.

While others claim that a clean and conditioned coat is easier to handle, in the belief that the hair will be softer, come apart more readily and be less likely to suffer damage from the abrasive effect of dirt in the hair. Experimentation may be the only way for you to decide who wins!

Whatever the case, Rover will be mightily pleased if you just learn how to get rid of these furry disasters, with the least amount of suffering of course. Be sure to let him know that getting mats out is not only important to maintain his good looks, but also to avoid more serious consequences such as skin problems and infections from parasites.

So, without further ado, let's get down to business and talk about the ways and means to remove the snarls and restore good order to your dog's coat.

Let me say first that there is no real easy way to remove a mat - aw shucks - now don't get disheartened! Dig in your heels and go gather up some supplies: good quality combs - both wide and narrow spaced; slicker brushes - include one for under the armpits; blunt-nosed scissors; stripper knife; mat splitter and some detangling spray. You may not need all of these tools, but as you are learning the techniques you'll be able to see which ones work best for you and your dog.

Now come on back and begin the process by sectioning off Rover's hair to make it easier to locate the little rascals. Don't forget to inspect his paws, as this is a common hiding place for mats and a very sensitive area for your dog. Also, under the armpits and along the inside of the legs.

Pretreat the mats with detangling/dematting spray and let it sit for about twenty minutes or so, to really penetrate the hair and begin the softening process.

After this has soaked in, the first tools you want to use are your most convenient ones - your fingers! Work with the matted hair from the outside in, gently easing it apart a little bit at a time. Never pull or stretch the hair. At some point you'll be able to use the comb or slicker brush, again starting from the outside and working your way in, to finish brushing out the mat.

When you're working on the armpits, it's much easier to use that triangular-shaped slicker brush. Just be careful not to over brush or be too forceful when brushing in this spot. You may even elect to gently clip out ones you find here, or in other sensitive places, where the hair loss is not seen. Use your blunt nosed scissors to do this.

Ok, so this is the process that I consider ideal, though time-consuming, and will result in the least amount of hair loss and discomfort to your dog if done correctly. However, if you encounter much larger mats or ones that are a real challenge, you may need to bring out the big guns, so to speak. This is where the mat splitter comes in. Use this tool to carefully slice a large mat into narrower pieces going in the direction of outside to in. You will find that smaller sections of hair will be less difficult to untangle. Now fetch your wide toothed comb and use it with a picking action to loosen and untangle the hair, before combing it out. If the hair is still damp from the spray, let it dry out first.

For those of you who choose to bathe your dog prior to dematting, here's what to do. Apply the dematting/detangling product first, let it dry, then follow with the bath and a high-quality leave-in coat conditioner at the end. While the coat is still wet, start separating out some of the worst tangles with your fingers and a brush. Put your hand on the mat when you brush so as to avoid pulling or making contact with your dog's skin. When you have most of the bad guys separated, you can begin drying on a low setting, as this will further help loosen the mats while you are combing or brushing.

What about dogs with long hair? Groomers often favor the stripping tool for this type of coat and you can try your hand at it too. This knife, which has a beveled edge, is helpful in releasing tangles by working on the hair above the mat. Again, use some dematting spray and after you get the hair loosened up, you can switch to a comb to finish the job. Some people like the sprays containing silicone, which make the hair more slippery, while others use something right off the kitchen shelf that does the same thing - cornstarch.

Final Thoughts On The Matter

Once you get into dematting, you will find many other tools and products on the market that you may choose to try. By all means, analyze each product to learn which ones might be best for your dog's coat. After a bit of experimentation, many of us choose to stick with a method which mat only gets the job done, but also keeps us on good terms with Rover!

Lastly, some of you may have acquired a dog through a shelter or rescue, that is severely matted. In this case, and to avoid further stress on the dog, the best course of action is to consult a professional and most likely have the dog shaved to give the coat a fresh start.

Having enjoyed years of unconditional love from dogs, no greater motivation was needed to inspire me to write about the many ways owners can return the love of their best friends. The website I have created, is an ongoing project dedicated not only to my favorite dog pals, but to dogs everywhere in the hope that they may all live long and happily. I support the efforts of the HSUS and Dogs Deserve Better. - Val Witt