Growing up, we had a dog who was terrified of water. If we played under the sprinkler, she’d abandon her usual job as guardian and retreat inside, keeping sullen vigil from behind the screen door. If someone filled the tub with the bathroom door ajar, Sophie would nervously glance at each of us in anticipation of impending doom. Even our tropical fish tank –- which made a steady, trickling water sound -– was her devout enemy.
Sophie was a rescue dog who joined our family later in life, so we assumed some sad, water-related memory was etched in her mind. She was otherwise a happy, social dog, so we didn’t mind keeping her away from all things wet: no outings to the lake, no washing the car in the driveway. But the biggest issue was bathing.
Before we understood her hang-up, we assumed she’d take the occasional bath. A few weeks after she came to live with us, we filled the kiddie pool with warm water and coaxed her over. She tried to comply; perhaps it was her doggie-version of being polite. But once it was clear that we expected her to go inside the pool, panic surfaced. Her eyes turned wild, she barked incessantly (something she did rarely), and she scrambled frantically out of anyone’s hold.
After a few discussions with our vet, we seldom tried to bathe our frightened girl again, instead wiping her down with wet washcloths and relying on regular brushing to keep her fur cleaned. And Sophie lived a long time, thankfully never mixing it up with a skunk or rolling in rotting trash.
Some dogs love a bath –- any chance to romp in water is good fun. Others tolerate it, standing pitifully in the tub like a wet rag, waiting for that moment when they’re free to indulge in that satisfying shake. But some dogs, like Sophie, have pronounced anxiety around the experience, trembling and whimpering until it’s over.
If your dog is of the latter varieties, don’t despair. Follow our tips to make bath time a happy time.
1. Get your station set up properly
First, make sure you’ve got everything set up correctly:
- Use the right size tub, something your dog can comfortably turn around in, but not so large that he can squirm out of reach.
- Be sure he can get some traction, both in the tub and room. “A slip and fall incident may be detrimental to the process, since then they’ll have a painful or scary memory. Try a full-sized rubber bathmat for improved footing,” suggests Jennie K. Willis, applied animal behaviorist at Animal Behavior Insights in Fort Collins, Colorado, and instructor at Colorado State University.
- Make sure the water is warm, and not too deep; a few inches will do the job. “They don’t like things hot or cold, so choose a warm temperature, like choosing a baby’s bath,” Willis suggests.
Also be sure to gather all the items you need ahead of time, so you can give your dog your uninterrupted attention. Have another adult or dog-savvy child on hand to help out as need be.
2. Figure out what disturbs your dog about baths
If bath time is always a source of stress, take a step back to think about what’s causing the problem.
- First, see if there’s something about the environment that might be upsetting him. If you’ve been bathing him outdoors, perhaps he’d rather be inside, or vice versa. He may react to the glare of the lighting in the bathroom, the slippery tiled surfaces, or even the way your voice echoes in the different room.
- Examine the bath products you’re using. Be sure they don’t irritate his eyes or coat, or have a scent that he may not enjoy. Use products formulated for a canine; human products can irritate a dog’s coat.
- Experiment with different times of day. Some dogs are more playful in the morning, so a bath at that time of day may seem like fun. Most dogs are more agreeable after they’ve had some exercise, so a bath after a nice long trip to a park might be more acceptable. Try different approaches to see how your dog responds.
- Also consider your own behavior. Despite your best intentions, it’s possible that you’re transferring anxiety to your dog, either by rushing the process, excessively gushing out words of comfort, or even acting too businesslike. Try to interact with your pup as you usually do, being calm and cheerful, to relay the message that there’s nothing to be wary of.
3. If you have trouble, return to square one
If you’re not having success in making your dog happier, back up the process, suggests Jennie.
“Practice counterconditioning — making a new positive emotional memory with aspects of the bath. Feed your dog treats just for sitting in the bathroom, then with water running, then inside the bath tub without water, then with a little water running,” she says. “Break the whole process into small steps, and only progress to the next step when your dog is calm and happily waiting for a treat.”
Frustrating as it may be, don’t try to force your dog to comply with the process if he’s clearly unhappy. You may end with a clean dog, but he may fight harder to avoid baths in the future. “Forced compliance can also lead to injury of the dog or the owner,” Jennie says. “So unless a bath is absolutely necessary — like with skunks or mud — go slow and help them learn to enjoy the process so that future baths are anticipated positively.”
4. When all else fails, seek outside help
If nothing you do seems to help, consider trying groomers, who are more experienced with dog behavior, and their advanced equipment may help put your dog at ease. Clearly explain your dog’s bath history, and make sure that the groomer understands and is experienced working with fearful dogs. Once you find a groomer you like, bring your dog for a meeting ahead of the appointment, so he can meet her, have a treat, and sniff the area.
Also, be sure to discuss the problem with your vet, as there could be a medical reason behind your dog’s distress.
It’s difficult knowing how to react to a dog’s phobias, particularly when there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason. Patience, understanding, and a nice dose of treats will usually help turn a problem around.
Do you have trouble bathing your dog? Has you found anything to make it easier? Let us know in the comments!
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