Caitlin UltimoHealth / Wellness

How to Brush Your Dog’s Teeth and Live to Tell the Tale

Do you put off brushing your dog’s teeth because it turns into a wrestling match? This important grooming process is more than just cosmetic—dental disease is the most common preventable disease in dogs. The good news is that maintaining your dog’s dental health doesn’t have to be a chore. The secret to tooth brushing success is addressing all of the handling that goes along with the brushing process, and helping your dog learn to accept it with ease.

There’s a lot more to brushing your dog’s teeth than just inserting the brush and swirling it around. In order to do it the right way, your dog needs to be comfortable having his muzzle held, his lips lifted and his mouth opened before you even begin the brushing process. To make it less stressful for your dog you should first acquaint him with this unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable handling.

Brushing Your Dog’s Teeth: Getting Started

The goal is to pair the handling with something your dog loves, and for most dogs, that’s dog treats. To begin, cup your hand under your dog’s chin, hold it there for a few seconds and then give him a treat from the other hand. This will probably feel like normal petting so it shouldn’t stress your dog out. Repeat the process several times so that your dog begins to associate your hands briefly under his muzzle with getting a treat.

Next, try placing one hand under your dog’s muzzle and the other hand over the top for a few seconds, and then give him a treat. Continue the process by putting your hand in various positions on and around your dog’s mouth, trying to mimic what you’ll be doing when you actually start brushing (this will be more challenging on dogs with short muzzles, like Pugs and Bulldogs). Vary the length of time that you manipulate your dog’s muzzle and mouth, sometimes holding it for just a few seconds and others for a slightly longer period of time, and always follow each attempt with a treat. Work up to gently opening your dog’s mouth for a few moments.

Your dog should remain calm and accepting as you work with him—don’t push him if he reacts to any of the handling. If your dog jerks his head away when you attempt a specific type of mouth handling it’s likely that you’ve moved through the process too quickly. Go back to the last type of handling that your dog accepted, and slowly work towards the next step.

Envision how you will need to hold your dog’s muzzle as you brush his teeth and work towards pairing that type of mouth manipulation with a treat. Try cupping your dog’s muzzle in your hand while you lift his lip and examine his mouth with your fingers. Then give him a treat. You can also dip your finger in peanut butter once you begin inserting your fingers in his mouth. Practice running your finger along his gum line from the front all the way to the back where his molars are. Again, vary how long you do the mouth exam before you hand over the goody. This process might feel odd for your dog at first, but with enough pairings of the handling and the treat, your dog should begin to get comfortable with it.

What You Need to Brush Your Dog’s Teeth

Once your dog can hold still while you do a variety of mouth manipulations (this can take anywhere from a week to several weeks) it’s time to introduce the toothbrush and toothpaste. Whether you use a regular dog toothbrush or a fingertip toothbrush is up to you, but keep in mind that a large dog might accidentally bite down on the fingertip type of brush. Make sure to purchase dog toothpaste (they come in dog-friendly flavors like chicken and beef), as toothpaste for humans contains ingredients that are dangerous for dogs.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when using grooming tools is immediately jumping into the work without allowing the dog to examine the item first. Allow your dog to sniff and taste the toothbrush before you try to use it. Adding the toothpaste will make it even more interesting, which will work in your favor.

How to Brush Your Dog’s Teeth

Begin by brushing your dog’s front teeth in a circular motion for a few seconds, then stop and give your dog a treat. Though you’ve done your prep work and your dog can tolerate the mouth handling, the addition of the toothbrush will make the process seem brand new again. You’ll want to continue pairing the process with goodies to reassure your dog that good things happen when he allows you to work on his mouth. Don’t worry about “undoing” the brushing by using treats. Dog toothpaste is formulated to dissolve long-term plaque buildup, so a few treats during the brushing won’t have any impact. Don’t expect to complete your dog’s entire mouth the first time you brush. Introduce the brush for about ten seconds on your dog’s front teeth and then wrap it up for the day.

Continue these brief brushing sessions on the front and sides of your dog’s mouth over the course of a week. Your dog should accept the handling without complaint, and if you’ve done a good job with pairing the handling with treats, you dog might actually get excited when he sees the toothbrush!

The process can be more challenging as you work towards the back of your dog’s mouth. If you have a short-nosed breed you might have to do some digging through lip and gums to find your dog’s molars.  Rather than try to completely clean the rear teeth in one attempt—keep in mind that this step requires holding your dog’s mouth open—try a several quick brushes so that the process remains comfortable for your dog. Some breeds have unique tooth growth patterns that cause the teeth to crowd together, so pay extra attention to those areas as they’re likely harbors for buildup.

Tooth brushing can feel like a chore if you need to battle with your dog for access to his mouth. However, if you take your time getting your dog comfortable with mouth handling you might find that you have a willing, if not eager, dental hygiene participant.

Victoria Schade is a dog trainer, author & speaker who has contributed to The Washington Post, Martha Stewart, and other publications.