DIY Dog Shampooing Made Easy

The old conventional wisdom “don’t bathe your dog too often” has recently taken a turn.

It seems veterinarians have finally accepted the fact that, despite their insistence, many of us are still letting our dogs up on our couches and beds, which means, yeah, there actually may be some benefits to bathing our dogs once a week.

Frequent bathing is definitely a benefit to dogs that live in rainy climates, or who spend a lot of time in the great outdoors. But it’s also a good treatment for itchy skin, reducing allergies (in both humans and dogs), and helping heal skin infections.

Get Set

Before bathing your dog, give him a good brushing. If you don’t get all the mats out of his fur you won’t be able to fully clean him. Also, swab out his ears with a good enzyme cleaner and add a couple drops of an enzymatic otic like Zymox. Don’t try to do this while shampooing, though. Most dogs are already not too crazy about baths, and some are downright resistant to it. Digging in his ears while you’re trying to bath him could make him very unhappy, and unruly.

Get your towels laid out and ready next to where you plan to bath him. Having 3-4 towels on hand will be helpful: one to soak up water outside the tub, one to dry off his head and back, one to dry the underneath and bottom, and one extra in the likely event that he shakes water all over the place.

Shampoo

Grocery and pet supply stores are filled with dog grooming shampoos. Most are pretty expensive and may include unneeded and unwanted chemical additives. Veterinarians typically recommend therapeutic shampoos that address specific allergies or infections. Whatever you decide to use, avoid shampoo made for humans. Human skin has a much different pH level than dogs. Human shampoo is typically too acidic for dogs, which means ingredients can be irritating, won’t clean as well and can leave a dirt-attracting film on his fur.

If you’re interested in making your own super gentle, all-natural dog shampoo, check out the recipe at the bottom of the article.

Shampoo Tool

Buy a nubby rubber dog brush (like this one  or this one) designed to remove loose hair, and stimulate capillaries and sebum oil for healthier skin and coat. These tools also help get the shampoo deeper into the coat as well, and act like a massage tool to help your dog relax.

The Tub

Bathing is very stressful for most dogs. You can count on resistance in the way of wiggles and squirms from him, especially if you have him on a leash (which may be the only way to handle a bigger dog in a tub). No-slip adhesive pads on the basin surface (whether you use a utility sink, bathtub or shower) will keep him safe and put. Also, make sure you have a strainer or hair catcher in place—you don’t want dog hair clogging up your drain or pipes.

If you are using a sink or tub, fill it about a quarter of the way with warm water before you place him in it. Use the water and a cup to wet him down. It’s worth picking up a handheld showerhead that can temporarily replace a regular showerhead for easier, more complete rinsing. A handheld showerhead will let you can saturate his fur better and later rinse him from all angles. Before you aim it at him, turn on a gentle stream of warm (not hot!) water and test it.

If you using a shower basin, use the handheld showerhead to get his fur well saturated before you begin shampooing.

Shampoo Time

Start by talking to your dog in a calm, soothing voice. Coax—or, if you have to, place—him into the tub or shower, and continue to speak in a calming way. Wet his coat completely, top to bottom, including stomach and feet. Start shampooing at the front or back and work down the chest, stomach, legs, and even paw pads. Once you have his whole body covered in shampoo, turn the water on slowly again and start rinsing from the top down, paying extra attention to the chest, rear, groin, and stomach. Rinse until no more shampoo can be seen, and then turn the heat down a bit more, and do a final rinse with cool water. The fur should feel squeaky clean and bit course.

©istockphoto/Sonja Rachbauer

Drying Time

After the last rinse, quickly place a towel over his head. To stop the inevitable incoming body oscillations that are about to happen, try this tip from professional groomers: Hold his muzzle with a thumb and forefinger, and keep holding it as you dry with the other hand (or get someone to help). Stabilizing the head this way will keep him from turning toward his spine. If he can’t pivot or rotate his head, he can’t get the oscillation going. Interesting side note: Researchers have actually looked into this and discovered that a dog can shake nearly 70 percent of the water from its fur in about 4 seconds (long story but it’s basically a genetic necessity/propensity). His backbone can’t twist quickly enough or far enough to get the job done (he can only move around 30 degrees in either direction; you imagine a clock face with the backbone at 12 o’clock it’s really just twisting between 11 and 1). So he tunes the frequency of the shake to generate enough force to throw the water off of his body, getting a good assist from the very loose skin canines have. As the oscillation begins, his skin swings 90° in each direction. This generates a force between 10 and 70 times that of gravity — high enough that he has to close his eyes to prevent damage from the extreme centripetal forces.

So now you know what he’s up to and why he squeezes his eyes so tight when he’s starting to shake water off his body. 

OK, now quickly dry the face and ears with your towel, and work methodically toward the back. Wrap another towel beneath him and work it back and forth. Once you’ve gotten him as dry as you can, move him into a garage, basement, utility room, or other open space, and let him pridefully finish that job. 

Most dogs hate the sound of hair dryers, but if your dog has a thick long coat, you may want to consider investing in a dog-specific dryer.

DIY Dog Shampoo Recipe

  • 1 quart (32 oz) warm distilled water
  • 1 cup unscented, all-natural baby shampoo, non-toxic cleaner (like Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap), or unscented, all-natural dish soap
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1-2 tablespoons aloe vera gel
  • 1/3 cup glycerine
  • *Optional additions for dogs with itchy skin: 6 sachets of chamomile tea steeped in 8 oz of hot water and cooled, or ½ cup of uncooked organic steel cut oatmeal.

Pour all ingredients into a 64 oz squeezable bottle and shake until well blended. For a 45-pound dog you should be able to get about 8-10 shampoos. Double that for smaller dogs. Shake before each use.

Avoid using essential oils unless you’re trying to address a flea problem. Some essentials oils can be toxic to dogs, so do plenty of research before adding oils to your dog’s skincare products.

Meet the Author: Jo Ostgarden

Jo Ostgarden is a former Dog Life columnist, and has helped vet and foster more than 100 dogs with a rescue group in Oregon for the last 15 years. She has a fur child named Nik, a tri-color English Springer Spaniel, whom she walks or runs daily, rain or shine.

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