How to Bathe a Nervous Dog

If bath time is causing you real problems, we hope that the following training, tips, and tricks will help to get you and your pup well on the way to a stress-free bathing process.

While some dogs are confident in the bath, others feel vulnerable, anxious and are difficult as a result. Even dogs who usually enjoy jumping in bodies of water can have a totally different outlook when it comes to bathing.  

The following article is divided into three separate stages:

The steps you choose to follow may depend on the severity of your dog’s demeanour, but each one is there to serve you and help your dog to become more confident in the water.

Preparation Training

This stage involves acclimatising your dog to the area that you are going to bath them in.

  1. Feed your dog in the bathing area.

Why? This makes your pup associate the bathing area with positive reward via classical conditioning. The benefit of this being that your dog will be more willing to enter that room without anticipating a negative experience. You can also provide treats in this area and let the dog play with its toys here for a similar outcome.

  1. Brush your dog.

If your canine has a longer coat, it is suggested that you brush them prior to washing. Having completed step 1, brush your dog once they have finished eating. This will get them used to the brushing activity and allow them to make associations between the different activities that take place at bath time.

  1. Practice getting your dog in and out of the bath without any water.

Use simple commands such as “bath” or “up” to entice your dog into an empty bath. This can be accomplished in smaller stages.

Firstly, get your dog to walk towards the bath, secondly to touch the tub, third to have paws up on the side of the tub, and finally to hop in the tub with four paws touching the bath floor.

If you need to lift your dog into the tub, you can still complete the first three aspects of this step before calmly lowering them in. Reward your dog (with treats, fuss and/or toys) during and after they have completed these steps.

Immediately Before the Bath

Follow these steps to make the bath time go as smoothly as possible.

  1. Exercise your dog

Exercising your dog will tire them and reduce the likelihood of harsh resistance. We recommend a long walk or run, or perhaps a lengthened game of fetch.

  1. Place a waterproof mat in the bath

If there’s one sure-fire way of reducing your dog’s anxiety, it is to use a rubber mat in the bathtub. This prevents them from slipping and provides grip, giving the dog a higher sense of control and reducing fear. If you don’t have a rubber mat to hand, try using a towel instead.

  1. Fill the tub with warm water

Fill the tub with between 3-4 inches of warm water, the exact amount that you should use will depend on the size/height of your animal. Do not run the tap once your animal is in the tub.
Note: Filling the bath too high will increase your dog’s fear. Be sure that the water is warm, cold water is more likely to make your dog panic.

  1. Prepare your cleaning tools/toiletries

Ensure that you have your shampoo, conditioner, dog bath brush, and drying towels ready and prepared at the washing station. If your dog is climbing into the tub, lay towels over the side to prevent slipping. Place your dog’s favourite waterproof toys in the tub. If you are able to use treats, have them ready to reward good behaviour.

  1. Groom your dog

If you used brushing as part of your preparation training, give your dog a quick groom over.

During the Bath

If you have successfully completed your preparation training, you should really see the fruits of your labour at this stage. Be sure to have completed the 'Immediately Before the Bath' steps before you begin.
  1. Lead your dog to the bath

Put your pup’s lead on and lead him to the bath, commanding “bath” or the same term that you used during your preparation training.

Note: Maintain a positive approach throughout this part, even if you are first met with refusal.

  1. Remind your canine that the bath is a safe, fun place

Once your pet is beside the prepared bath, show them that their toys are already in the bath and splash a little water with your hand. Reassure your dog in calm tones. Rub your wet hand over your dog’s paws to demonstrate that bath water isn’t dangerous or painful.

  1. Help your dog to get in the tub

This step really depends on the height of your dog and the height of your bathtub.

Small Dogs:

  • If you have a small dog, use your “up” or “bath” command to get them mentally prepared for the task. If you can get them to place their paws on the side of the bath, that’s a fantastic achievement.
  • Pick them up and gently place them in the tub. If they are very nervous, place their back two legs in first, reassure them with your calm, firm voice, then gently lower in the front two legs.
  • Reward them with fuss and/or treats and allow a minute or so of exploration before you begin cleaning.

Large Dogs:

  • With a larger dog, use your “up” or “bath” command to get them to rest their front two paws on to the side of the bath.
  • Repeat the command, some dogs may hop in themselves, but it’s likely that you need to help them finish the job, especially if they’re nervous.
  • Gently help your dog into the bath and once they’re in, reward them with fuss and/or treats. Allow a minute or so of exploration / playing with toys before you begin cleaning.
  1. Wash your dog’s body

Use a plastic jug or pitcher to gently pour water over the dog’s back. Start lower on the body and work your way up, until the dog’s fur is thoroughly wet. 

Work through the dog’s coat with shampoo, rinse, and condition if required.

You can massage your dog with a rubber dog bath brush whilst the conditioner is on. Some dogs absolutely love this and it can be a bath time game changer!

 Continue to praise your dog and reward with treats (if possible) throughout the process.

  1. Wash your dog’s face

Once all shampoo and conditioner are rinsed off the body, tilt your pup’s head back so that the tip of the nose is pointing towards the ceiling.

Use a washcloth to gently clean the face area, ensuring that no water drips into the dog’s eyes or nose.

If your dog has large fluffy ears (e.g. spaniels), these often need to be shampooed. Be very careful not to pour water into the ear holes, but to gently rinse through the ears and massage shampoo on the outer ear and lower tips of the ears. Use your jug to rinse off the shampoo, keeping your dog’s head tilted back as you do so.

After the Bath

Help your dog out of the bath and drape the prepared towel over them. Gently dry their body whilst providing huge praise.

Give your dog a special treat (if possible), so that they associate bath time with positive experiences.

Questions and Answers:

What should I use for training and rewards if I can’t give my dog treats?

If your dog is on a diet, you may not be able to reward with treats. The next best alternative is to give them lots of praise and attention and give them their favourite toys.

My dog panics if he even hears water, how can I get to the bathing stage?

Use the preparation training steps to slowly get your dog used to the sound of running water. For example, you could begin to feed him in closer proximity to a running bath, and gradually decrease the distance from the running water each dinner time.

Alternatively, if you have anyone who can assist you, ask them to run the bath while you walk your dog.