A lot of dogs don’t mind having their teeth brushed. They like the sensation, they like the flavors of doggie toothpaste (beef, poultry, seafood, and so on), and, most of all, they like the “you” aspect of it. The more time you spend focused on your pet, the happier they are.
All that said, some dogs are not at all comfortable about having a hand near their face and a toothbrush inside their mouth. And it can be hard to get a dog used to that on a daily basis, especially if she is no longer a puppy. It’s for that reason, says veterinary dentist Bonne Shope, that “we talk to people about going slowly and training their dogs to accept toothbrushing over time — not to expect that they’re going to be successful right off the bat. Dogs engage in a lot of behaviors out of fear,” she says, “so if you do something that’s scary for them, they’re not going to want you to do it again. They’re only going to make it harder the next time.”
With that in mind, here are some gradual steps she encourages clients in her own dentistry practice to use on their dogs. She advises that while many dogs can move through the steps quickly, some require up to two weeks on each. Don’t rush, stay calm and loving, and remember that the short amount of time you lose by being patient up front you will gain in your dog’s better dental health for the rest of her life. Remember, too: once you and your dog get the hang of it, you’re talking about a time commitment of only one minute a day.
- Don’t start by brushing. Start by simply bringing your dog to the area of the house where you will be doing the daily toothbrushing. Tell her to sit (easier on you if a small dog sits on a counter top), and then just handle her face for 30 to 60 seconds. Rub her muzzle, lift her lip and simply look at her teeth. Immediately follow up with warm praise and a reward in the form of a treat or toy.
- Continue to do everything you did in step 1 but now, hold the toothbrush in one hand while doing so. This will allow your dog to see the toothbrush coming at her face but also understand that it’s not hurting her. Try putting a dab of paste on a treat that you know your pet likes, and then put it right on the brush so she can get used to the bristles by her mouth. Again, follow up immediately with praise and a treat (even if you already put a treat on the brush).
- Start brushing lightly. Begin to slip the toothbrush in between your dog’s cheek and teeth and move it back and forth, or with a circular motion from back to front. Don’t worry about whether you’re brushing correctly. You and your pet are still in the training stage. And don’t go for a full minute. A few seconds at first is plenty — and should be followed with the usual praise and reward. If all goes well, try the same thing on the other side of your dog’s mouth, including the praise-and-reward part.
- Shoot for no more than 60 seconds altogether — front, sides, and back, both outsides and insides of the teeth, if possible. Eventually, you won’t have to give a treat every single time.
- Keep in mind that you should never use human toothpaste, baking soda, or hydrogen peroxide, as they are all unsafe for dogs to swallow.