Dog Teeth Brushing: How To Train Your Dog To Be Okay With It

Your dog’s dental hygiene is an important part of maintaining good health. (I have another helpful blog post where the importance of dental health is discussed. Be sure to check it out!) It’s easy to talk about how to keep your dog’s mouth and teeth healthy, but actually doing it can be more difficult than it sounds.

Tooth brushing is easy in theory, but your dog doesn’t understand why it’s important. Dealing with your pup wiggling, head-turning, and trying to eat the toothbrush can make it all a lesson in frustration. But don’t give up hope, there are ways you can get your dog used to oral care… and maybe even get them to look forward to it. We have some tips and tricks to help make your life easier while making your dog healthier. 

The Idea of Cooperative Care and Opting In

Tooth brushing, and other care, are easiest when you aren’t actively fighting your dog. Struggling with your dog just generates stress for both of you. Getting your dog to cooperate is easiest when you work with your dog’s consent. This can seem strange when we’ve been trained that humans are in control. The truth is, it’s an essential part of gaining your dog’s trust and learning how to communicate across species. 

Getting your dog’s consent and allowing them to “opt-in” to their care doesn’t just go for tooth brushing. It’s an effective strategy for all aspects of training and working with your dog. Other activities like nail trims, ear cleanings, grooming, and even routine veterinary care can all be made less stressful if you use methods that allow your dog to opt in.  dog nail trim cooperative care How do you know when your dog is opting-in? Your dog will show you what I call a consent behavior. With toothbrushing as an example, this most often looks like resting their chin on your hand or leg or the chair. They may even nudge your hand. So how do you get your dog’s consent and allow them to opt in to something they don’t understand? First of all, you need to exhibit patience and be willing to reinforce the behavior when they opt in… and when they opt out. I understand it seems counterintuitive to allow them to opt out and to reinforce it. Giving your dog a feeling of control will actually help you get the behavior you want faster because your dog feels safe. 

Teeth brushing is a great place to start if you haven’t tried cooperative care before. It’s a low-stakes area. You can build slowly to the behavior you want to see, and there is plenty of opportunity for reinforcement. As you work with your dog, remember that this is training for your behavior too. You are learning new ways to communicate with your dog and learning how to regulate your own impulses. 

Making Dog Teeth Brushing Cooperative

It’s much easier to get your dog to at least tolerate tooth brushing if you make it appealing. It can take some time for your dog to allow you to put a brush in their mouth. Of course, dental health is important for your dog, but building up to your dog allowing you to brush their teeth will not negatively impact their health. 

  • Set a schedule for tooth care. It’s best to brush after your dog’s final meal of the day, but if another time works better for you, any brushing is better than none. A schedule also helps your dog know what to expect; most dogs work much better with a set training schedule. 
  • This will be easiest if your dog is already familiar with the “stay” command. Find a position that is the most comfortable for both of you. That could be sitting in front of you, putting their head in your lap, or even with their head resting on the arm of a low chair. Train them to stay there with encouraging words, pets, and of course, treats. 
  • Once you can get your dog to stay in your chosen position, get your dog used to you handling their mouth. Start by slowly sliding your finger around their teeth and gums. If they pull away, give them a treat, and allow them to back away. Work on this until they allow you to lift their lips and look at their teeth without pulling away. 

dog dental care

  • Introduce toothpaste formulated for dogs. Start with your finger and let your dog lick it off like a treat. Try this a few times before introducing the toothpaste on a brush. Don’t try brushing yet, just let them lick it off and get familiar with the toothbrush.
  • If your dog seems comfortable and relaxed, start trying to brush. You can start with toothpaste on a finger to get your dog used to the sensation of brushing. Continue to offer the toothbrush so your dog stays used to it.
  • If your dog is relaxed while you run your finger over their teeth, start trying to introduce the toothbrush. Start slowly and with one area of their mouth. Make sure you continue to offer treats as an incentive. Slowly build to brushing their entire mouth. 

As you work toward the goal of brushing your dog’s teeth, keep in mind the following:

  • Every dog works at a different pace so there is no set time frame.
  • Sometimes you may think your dog is ready for the next step, but they weren’t quite there. It’s okay to move back a step if you have to.
  • If your dog is having a rough day and you feel yourself getting frustrated because they aren’t settling down, it’s okay to take a break and walk away. 
  • Some dogs prefer a finger brush to a regular toothbrush. If this works for both of you, stick with it!

dog finger brush for teeth brushing Overall, it’s important to watch your dog’s body language and demeanor. Ideally, you’d like them to be agreeable to the activity. So they should be interested in staying around and not trying to flee. They should seem to enjoy the taste of the toothpaste. And, at the very least, they should be tolerant of the brushing motion (whether with your finger, a toothbrush, or a finger brush).

A good way to tell how your dog viewing this activity overall is to see how they respond the next time you bring out their tooth brushing gear. Are they excited? Or are they running away? If they’re showing signs of nervousness, that may mean that you need to take a few steps back to reinforce just how positive this activity really is!



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