Puppy’s First Bath

With puppies, everything in their life is a new experience.  Everyday puppies explore and learn valuable information about their world using their mouth and sense of smell primarily.  Among the many new life experiences a puppy will have, a bath is one of the most unique.  A first time bath can be overwhelming for the puppy and the human.  A typical bath could go as follows. Everything connected to the bath is new for your puppy.  Puppy gets lowered into a bath as if by a human crane.  All four paws hit soapy water that is warm enough for a human to bathe in.  Puppy squirms, grunts, thrashes.  The human makes puppy stay in the water using physical force, maybe the human is grinding teeth with a little frustration during puppy’s perceived protests.  Puppy sees the human’s reaction   [dogs are master interpreters of body language]   and is overwhelmed with new sensations.  Puppy is now scared, not protesting or being “bad”.  In the tub the puppy starts to thrash more.  The human responds with more physical pressure and maybe verbally expresses frustration and maybe things escalate further until the bath is over, maybe a little early with neither pup or human in the best of moods.  The bath was adversarial.  Post bath the floor is a mess.  The human and dog are at least relieved the bath is over, so that is a positive.  How will the next bath go?  Much the same I suspect or worse.  Will bath time be a repeated exercise in pandemonium?  Will this be the routine that the human accepts as normal bath time?  In about 12-16 months your pup will, for all intents, be full grown.  Recall the struggle with a 10 week old pup.  Now imagine the struggle when that pup is forty, sixty maybe seventy pounds plus and is that much stronger?  If bath time is a source of stress for you and your dog, your dog’s frustration could build a little more after each bath.  Frustration levels could build until, out of fear and frustration, a bite.  The human response is usually something like: where the hell did that come from?  The dog would say: Dude…I’ve been telling you for two years now how I fear of bath, it has made me appear to be snarly.  I want this bath thing to stop and I thought maybe a bite would help you understand how scary this is for me.  Will the human resolve that the dog henceforth will not have baths?  This is changing human behavior instead of changing unwanted dog behaviour.  Alternatively, will the dog pay the price of being removed from the home? We want to avoid all of that and make the bath at least a tolerable exercise for your dog. 

First Bath: the Puppy’s Perspective

Let’s examine the first bath experience from the puppy’s perspective.  The dog’s nose plays a vital role in their lives, starting at birth.  The brain is wired for scent detection.  A keen sense of smell is a survival tool.  Experiencing a full on bath for the first time can be overwhelm a puppy.  What does the pup think of the surrounding stimuli like the smell of the soap? Is the shampoo scented?  [Please use only shampoo designated for puppies.]  Is the water running in the tub? How loud is the running water? Is it a big or small bathroom? Is the bath a laundry sink?  What colors are the bathroom walls?  Dogs have a different color spectrum than humans.  They do not see shades of red or orange very well.  Those colors appear as black fading to grey.  A bathroom with dark walls might be confusing and or scary for the pup.  The floor of the tub is super smooth and maybe difficult to stand on.  How bright are the lights? Is the floor tiled, shiny or smooth? Is there a bath mat? Is this something the puppy could grab and add to the fun?  All of these factors, and likely more if you ask the pup, could add up and contribute to a negative experience for both of you.  Because we are aware of the pup’s perspective and potential panic level, we are able to take steps to minimize the perceived trauma of a bath for the pup.  Introduce your pup gradually to a bath, and gradually to every new experience for that matter.  A bath is a great way to build a relationship with your dog. There are is no one right or a wrong way to bathe your dog.  The way that works for you and your dog is the best way.  The objective is to have a calm dog in the bath.  We, as responsible pet owners, owe it to our dogs to teach them to be calm and confident in every situation.  Bath time is hopefully a pleasant, or becomes a pleasant experience for both of you.  At its worst a bath is something to be tolerated.  At the time of this writing we are a few weeks away from the arrival a black Labrador puppy.  I have been giving the first bath and many other firsts a copious amount of reflection.  In no particular order, when do we bathe the pup?  What are the intervals between baths? Is bath time once a month or once a week as as needed?  What about training? Puppy activities?  Food? Unwanted behaviours?  As one thinks about these things, more questions arise.  This is a good thing.

Prepping the Pup: Make it Fun

When we see professional athletes ply their trade we are often amazed they are able to what they do with such proficiency.  NBA players can make dunking a basketball or draining a three-pointer look easy or how some baseball players can hit a sphere moving 90mph (150km/hr) not in a straight line coming from fifty-five feet away and hit that sphere with a wooden stick that is tapered.  World Cup skiers tear down the side of mountains at speeds exceeding 170km/hr.  Tennis players can server a tennis ball in excess of 150/kmh and can hit a dime from the far side of the court with speed, power and consistency.  They all make it look so easy.  And for them it is.  Professional athletes are at the top of their respective sports.  They got there by using their patience and perseverance, relentless commitment, drive, excellent coaching and were always prepared come game time.  We need to be prepared to be successful in making bath time as pleasant as possible for a pup.  Life is a game for a dog, life is meant to be fun Why not make the bath a fun and positive thing from the get-go?   

Preparation Setting Up For Success

A few days before the first bath I will start the process of desensitizing her by introducing her to elements of the bath gradually and individually.  The more items that are familiar to her when she is in the tub for the first bath, the better chance we have of creating a pleasant experience.  This desensitizing (read preparation) will help minimize puppy fear levels and enhance chances of having a fun.  To do this I will plant the scent of the shampoo we will be using on her on some of her toys, a few spots around the yard maybe half a drop around where she sleeps, put a hint of a smear on my wrist.  Remember, dogs have a world-class sense of smell.  If you could run as well as a dog is able to sniff, you would be an Olympian.  Just because you do not smell something does not mean your pup doesn’t smell it.  The scent of the soap will become familiar to her.  Next I will put down a large container, maybe a small kids pool, put an inch of water in it, next day 2 inches then maybe to four inches.  A bit of shampoo will be dropped in the water and swished around to make some bubbles.  We do not want to overwhelm her in any way in introducing her to the bathroom, or wherever it is puppy is having that first bath.  Our bathroom is on the small side, all white and no windows, sound doesn’t travel, it has an echo.  The tub is white.  To make the bathroom a fun place I will give a few meals in there, throw a toy down the hall, maybe a few 2-min drills of obedience practice.  When bath time comes we will have a dog that is not completely new to the idea of a bath.  She knows the smell of the soap, she has been in a big container of water, she has been splashed, she has been in the bathroom for fun stuff and she should be good to go.  The water will be room temperature and soapy. Remember the pup has no idea what a bath is.  It is likely that everytime the reader has had a bath the water was warm, soothing and comfortable.  This is a dog.  The Labrador was created to help fishermen in the North Atlantic by pulling nets and retrieving any fish that might fall overboard.  They perfectly OK in the cold water of the North Atlantic.  Room temperature bath water is fine.  The water temp for a Chinese Crested or a Greyhound would likely be warmer.  We need to make the bath a pleasant experience for the dog as best we can.   The bath for the dog should not the same experience we humans have had all our lives.  The water our Lab pup was splashing about in while outside and prepping for the big day was cold and from the hose.  Room temperature bathwater is much warmer than hose water, she will be fine.  There will be some toys thrown in the tub with her, and of course the standard smear of peanut butter on the wall of the tub.  I am a firm believer there are no “tricks” or “tips” in dog training.  Peanut butter on the wall of the tub is just that.  She gets a gentle soap-up and rinse, then wrapped in a towel and we are done. When you soap your pup up and dry her off, some people, I am one, will recite to the pup body parts of the pup.  This is another example of relationship building between dog and human and education of the pup.  The additional benefit of this sort of education will reveal itself when you visit the vet.  Your vet will most likely be able to regale you with tales of dogs that refused to be touched or handled and exams could only take place by sedating the dog.  A dog that is familiar with human fingers around the face and head is a huge benefit.  During the soap-up and rinse the humans involved are all smiling, telling puppy how smart she is, how good she is, how clean she will be, how good she is (say this over and over) how smart she is, all positive all the time.  After the bath puppy your pup might get a case of the zoomies, run and snort and play.  Stay calm and enjoy.

The Human Perspective

The human equivalent of such a negative yet mandatory experience could be a trip to the dentist or an eye exam, or something more invasive.  Back when my daughter was going to the dentist for the first time, my objective was to make the dentist a pleasant experience, but how?  I am not a fan of dental exams or dental work.  I do not know anyone who is.  This feeling, in my opinion, is normal for many people.  Where did we learn to fear the dentist?   Maybe this started at home by hearing horror stories from parents, maybe older siblings.  Because this is what was taught to us and this is what we saw, the dentist, we understandably conclude, must be evil.  This mind set is easily passed from one generation to the next.  We must break that cycle of making a routine event fun, not a trauma.  Let us start by not making it scary.  This is a daunting task given the many depictions in pop culture of the dentist as a purveyor of pain and agony – a boogeyman!  My daughter had never been to a dentist office before.  Dental offices have their own smell.  They are full of things a four year old has never seen before, like a pup having their first bath.  Out in the open are the tools of the trade.  Let’s be honest, they look like something Hannibal Lecter put out for someone he is having for diner.  What is running through a child’s mind when they realize not only are those sharp shiny objects going to be put in my mouth, they will be put there by a perfect stranger wearing a mask and rubber gloves. What?  It is reasonable to conclude that a child would not easily warm to this experience. My strategy was to make cool what is commonly perceived as scary.

Gradual Introductions…..for humans too

I did not want to overwhelm my daughter with a completely new experience.  She was introduced to the dentist gradually.  First there was lots of talk at home about how important our teeth are.  A four year old can easily grasp the concept that without your teeth, you will not be able to eat your favorite foods.  What is the favorite food of many four year olds?  Remind them of that slightly less than constantly.  What is one of the biggest features of the dentist’s office? That chair.  I framed the chair as the coolest thing ever.  I asked the dentist if my child could experience the chair and how it moves moving into various positions.  The bright light that shines in your mouth – let’s take a look at that, turn it on, touch it, move it around. Now the perceived instruments of torture on the tray next to the chair: what they are for? It is explained to her that this one cleans between your teeth and gums; the mirror is used for this etc.  Now the exam itself commences, but before that introductions are made.  Now that masked stranger is much less intimidating after an introduction and lots of smiles from the dentist prodding around your mouth wearing rubber gloves.   At the time I was not thinking about anything other than making this a pleasant experience for my child, so far so good on this objective.  The coup-de-gras was something I kept secret. At the end of the appointment you get to pick a prize!! Yes. Seriously, that happens. When we left the dental office that day my daughter was smiling.  She was likely thinking that between all the cool toys and books in the waiting room, the fish tank, the multi position chair and the spot-light she touched and moved around, what a cool experience.  On top of all that, I got a cool toy when leaving!!  The dentist rocks, I am good with going back.  This is the same strategy I took with the first bath.  Make it fun!

Undoing All My Hard Work

The first dentist visit is a milestone in the lives of most kids.  Now I need to manage the aftermath feedback to my daughter of how “brave” she was to go to the dentist.  This comment is one of commissary letting the little one know “We share the bond of a common fear.  You are right to be afraid of the dentist”.  The dentist can easily become the boogeyman.  People do this with dogs too.  We create boogeymen for the dog by inadvertently rewarding unwanted and or fearful behaviours.  For example, the bath experience being a bad thing; it is something to be feared instead of a fun and positive event.  Every day in places where mail is delivered by a human, there is a dog freaking out as the carrier approaches the house, leaves the mail and walks away.  Every day the dog gets told to calm down, be quiet, shush, hush etc.  The same routine-song-and-dance or ritual or sequence of events happens every Monday to Friday, except long weekends and statutory holidays.  None of those commands happen nor does the dog calm down.  The term habituate means to become used to a result, or accustomed to an occurrence after it has been experienced or repeated many times.  When we give our dog a command repeatedly and the dog ignores, and the human fails to follow through, the word, for dogs, that word has no meaning.  There is nothing attached to it, no meaning, no significance no impact.  It is just a noise my human makes.  The dog is not in any way clam then gets a pet and maybe a treat – a reward for the unwanted behaviour.  In many of these situations, the human believes that by repeating this routine, the dog will learn to calm down eventually.  This is not true.  In reality, the humans are rewarding the very behaviour they wish to stop!  It will not be long before the dog is convinced the human that approaches the house everyday leaves because of my show of force from the top of the sofa. Bad news for the dog: none of what the dog believes to be true is true.  The daily thwarted threat is no threat at all, it’s the mail.  That is all.  The mail is nothing to get upset about.  The human leaders of dogs that behave in such a way, in many cases have inadvertently created this belief in the dog’s mind by failing to help the dog understand from day one he is not security.  He is not in charge of anything.  The humans are in charge of security and they protect you, not the other way around.  This is a concept many humans do not grasp.  This creation of a specific belief or creation of an entire belief system happens with humans too.  We need to break such cycles. 


My work must not be undone. I cannot let my daughter start believing the dentist is a scary place given how important dental health is to the well-being of humans.  This is like training your dog to “sit” and someone comes along and asks your dog to “sit-down”, which is not a command.  This can create puppy confusion.  Other un-doers of training can be telling the dog it’s OK if you jump on humans and its OK to come up on the furniture.  The post dentist comments of comfort and accolades for being brave did not match with my message that the dentist being a cool thing to do and nothing to fear. It’s fun.  I could see a look of confusion come over her, she had scrabbleface!  I did not want my daughter think about the perceived requirement of needing to be brave to go to the dentist.” No one told me that” she thinks.  What is my father not telling me she asks to herself?  What is he hiding?   Then she starts to re-evaluate the dentist experience and suddenly she revises her perspective from positive to negative.  I do not want her thinking: what was I thinking? That was so scary, my dad fooled me, the post dentist visit comments are correct.  I was brave and damn well needed to be!  I don’t want to ever go there again.  Now we have a lifetime problem of fear of going to the dentist.  I didn’t think of protecting my work as I started the process of desensitizing and preparing my daughter for her first dental visit, I reacted when it happened, and it was going to happen.  My reaction to the “you are so brave” comment was a little rude in that I interrupted the sympathizer and blurted out: “We don’t need to be brave to go to the dentist.  There is nothing to fear at the dentist.  Remember (to my daughter) the dentist, has a cool chair, a bright light that you moved around, a big fish tank, lots of neat toys and books, and you got to pick a cool little toy upon departure”.  The dentist was a good experience for me, thinks my child.  Today, several years later, when we tell her there is a dentist visit coming up, she’s cool with it because the dentist has been a positive experience from day one.  Preparing your dog for the bath early will pay off many times over the years by making the event less stressful, even enjoyable for both human and dog.

Our First Puppy Bath was a Disaster

I tried to bathe my puppy.  He is an 8 week old German Shepard. It was a total fiasco, I stopped the bath.  It scared him and he was too hard to control physically.  How can I make bath-time more enjoyable for me and my pup?

If puppy’s first bath was a less than bearable, fear not.  Let me share with you how I would re-introduce bath time to a client who has a previous negative experience(s).  If your puppy has it in their head a bath is a bad thing, your training objective is to convince your pup otherwise.  If puppy cannot be convinced bath time is fun, then convince puppy that bath time must be tolerated. If a bath is not tolerable then teach puppy learn to grin-and-bear-it, sit quietly and without protest.  The message to puppy is: Hey puppy, whatever you think about a bath, a bath is happening.  Sorry, not sorry.  This needs to be the human’s mind set.  This happening and we are all going to enjoy it.

Say this to yourself with a smile. Say it over and over again.  Make it your mantra.   Have a positive mind-set and of course remain calm.  Your puppy will come to understand he will be fine and settle. The time this takes varies from dog to dog, please be patient.  Recall the negative bath experiences.  Be like a dog.  Do not live in the past.  Take a deep breath, forget the misgivings of past, move forward and let the previous experiences go. Don’t hold a grudge against your dog or yourself or the experience.  Recalibrate your mindset.  Help your pup change their mind about baths by building your relationship before the next bath happens.  Prepare for the next bath much like preparing for puppy’s first bath.  Obedience basics are an excellent way of helping the pup to understand who the leader is.  Sit, down, stay, take it and leave it gives the human an opportunity to lavish praise, physical rewards and treats on the pup.  This is fun for both parties, right? Trust and relationship building is happening here.  Having a calm, level-headed fun leader gives a dog confidence.   Make the next bath fun.  In the worse-case scenario, convince your dog they will not die from a bath.  The bath is an excellent relationship building opportunity between you and your dog.  Help calm your pup down.  Soothing words and a calming tone of voice helps relax dogs, its how we calm crying babies as well..  Constantly reassuring her that she is OK, and she is OK, will help build a positive relationship with your pup.  With this comes trust.


Positive physical contact increases our connection with our dogs.  I like having physical contact with my dogs.  Handling your pup during the ramp-up to the second bath will make the second bath more pleasant than the last.  I cannot stress enough the value of speaking softly with lots of positive feedback to help get a calm dog.  During a course in scent detection a few years ago a guest speaker brought his Yellow Lab in for a demo.  The Lab’s human used every opportunity to lavish verbal praise on his dog when the dog did what was asked of him.  In the tub, soaping her up, rinsing her off and drying her, you are connecting with her on a level different from obedience.  You are building trust.  This is a good thing for your relationship. 

For the humans of puppies protesting a bath, please understand why such a reaction occurs.  One needs to be in a positive and calm state of mind when dealing with a fearful puppy and all dogs for that matter.  Smile, stay strong, stay calm, breath, you are the calm leader.  Your pup will see you are calm and in a positive frame of mind.  The pup will follow, be patient.  Make a plan and stick to it by resisting puppy protests regarding a bath, stay strong.  For those with children, you most likely are able to recall similar experiences with a child.  To the child: you might not like this but it needs to happen and this is going to happen.  The “this” that needs to happen no matter what could be changing a diaper, bathing, food consumption, homework, bed time and internet time as examples.  If there is kicking and screaming and gnashing of teeth, stay calm.  Calm causes calm, panic causes panic. 

If All Else Fails: Calm Leadership Will Prevail

Let’s assume the pre-bath work of building confidence in your dog has been done over a two to three week period.  There have also been regular basic training sessions (sit, stay, down) with lots of positive feedback given when she does what you ask, patience when she fails.  You have given meals in the bathroom, thrown in favorite toys for retrieval, had the puppy introduced to water in a kiddie pool maybe with a bit of soap bubbles in it.  This is a fun time for all involved.  Now, the moment of truth: the second bath.  OK. Bath time begins.  Throw a treat or toy into the fun bathroom, play some tug, all is going well.  Now pup is lifted into the tub and it’s just like no prep work was ever done.  Panic and mayhem ensue.   Your efforts have not failed; in fact the contrary is true.  This is where your efforts to be the pup’s leader will come to the fore.  If the bath sets your pup instantly reverts back to state of hysteria and you respond by saying: OK OK…the bath is over early, again.  If you stopped: he won that battle.  It is now getting reinforced in puppy’s head: if I do this, then that will happen.  This bath protest is an opportunity to build your relationship with your pup.  Smile, say it’s OK, you’re fine, this is no big deal, you’re such a good puppy and the like, give treats, peanut butter on the wall of the tub.  To help lessen you struggle I suggest a leash with a soft collar or even a harness in the bath.  Stand on the leash with puppy between your feet.  The sensation of being anchored will mitigate his struggling in short order. He will eventually realize no matter what he does, matter what noise he makes, he’s not going anywhere: stay strong. When he protests, stay quiet.  Standing on the leash will also give you 2 free hands and 2 wet feet.  By standing on the leash your hands are free to massage ears, give back scratch etc. Positive hands on your pup also helps build a positive relationship between you two.  A nice ear massage and soothing soft positive voice are music to puppy’s ears.  If the human becomes negatively vocal out of frustration when puppy protests it is likely puppy confusion will ensue. Please do not give in to protests and be calm. Another point to consider by having two free hands is your decreased stress levels wrestling with a wired up squiggly pup. The splashing, thrashing, and squealing in the tub no fun for either of you.  If your hands are not wrestling a puppy and you are standing on the leash, you will be more relaxed, stress for you is now reduced, you’re breathing is normal, puppy is not seeing any human stress or panic.  Puppy only sees a calm leader that is smiling.  A leader who after I’m exhausted from all that stress-thrashing tells me it is fine. And I am.  If the again the bath is stopped because of human frustration due to puppy fear we are reinforcing the pup’s belief and resolve that he can end the bath.  The mind-set we are creating is to help the pup believe that if I do a repeat performance for each bath, my human will take me out of the bath.  That’s what I want. The pup in this case is using his will to get the human to do what they want: end this horrible experience, not physical might.  That thought-process in your dog’s mind must be changed, but gently.  It’s your job to let him know last time was an exception.  You made a mistake in first bath prep and execution by ending the bath early due to an unruly pup and an unpleasant experience.  This time will be different.  Your communication to the pup: I have given it some thought and moving forward, I will be in charge of all canine bathing.  If the human feels comfortable following through on having a calm dog for a bath, with preparation, positive results will follow.  This is a key stone now in place in the building of your relationship with your pup.  The pup now knows, or after the 2nd or 3rd or 4th or 5th or 6th bath that this bath is happening, no matter what.  I might as well enjoy the soapy water and my human’s calming voice and massages and treats.  This peanut butter on the wall of the bathtub is awesome, thinks pup.  This is relationship building.  This is making another life experience fun for your pup.  If you do this for me when I ask you little dog, this good thing happens.  We will become great friends. In my opinion, you want your dog to think: when my human says I am OK, it means I’m not gonna die. This helps to create for your pup the belief you are the leader and a calm one.  Ideally it will come to pass that in a stressful situation for your pup, or dog, they look to you and they will become calm because you are calm.  Because you say it’s OK.  This is preparation for new and unfamiliar situations outside the home you and your pup will experience over the course of time.  So one day when you go somewhere and something unplanned and happens, that could be anything, pup looks to you for leadership.  Dog looks to you for your leadership and guidance.  They are expecting you calmly say it’s OK.  Your pup says: if you say it’s OK, like when I flipped out in the tub those first times, and I calmed down, then it’s OK. I’m cool with that.  Having this sort of relationship with your pup will expedite basic obedience commands of sit, stay and so on.  How much easier is learning new stuff for a pup when he knows everything will be OK?

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