Introducing daily brushing to your dogs dental routine

guest blog from Caroline Wilkinson

Daily brushing of your dog’s teeth might sound like it could be a huge chore! But you can make any interaction with your dog into one that will help boost your connection together and give them a mental workout at the same time. If time is precious, take 5 mins from a daily walk and focus that time on training and good dental care for dogs. With a good diet, daily brushing and using natural dental sticks, you will help your dog keep healthy gums and teeth. Don’t be daunted by the prospect of brushing your dog’s teeth, it may take some time to get your dog used to a toothbrush but it is so important to keep their teeth clean. 

Set up the environment 

While we usually brush our own teeth in the bathroom, your dog may not be so comfortable or familiar in this room, so using the bathroom space may not set you up for success when it comes to starting your dog’s oral hygiene journey. Choose an environment your dog enjoys spending time in, with as much space as possible and an easy exit route should they start to feel overwhelmed or a little anxious.  

Start them young 

Teaching dogs to enjoy teeth brushing works most effectively when we start it off in puppyhood. Puppies shouldn’t have built any fears of their mouth being looked in – so it’s an ideal time to introduce brushing very slowly when they are young, playful and curious, creating a routine they become relaxed about. 

However that being said there’s no such thing as “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” - any dog, with careful and considerate support, can be taught new tricks or to feel relaxed around being handled. 

Choose your tool 

While a standard dog toothbrush might be easier to use in the long run, starting with a finger toothbrush (or even just your bare finger) can help your dog get used to the brushing sensation or process. Start by having a little of their favourite wet food on your finger and allow your dog to start licking it. As they enjoy the yummy flavour, slide your finger briefly up under their jowel to the gum area and then back into starting position for more licks. Over time, build up to sliding your finger around half of their top or lower gum line before allowing them to resume the treat licking. When they’re comfortable with this, then add in your finger toothbrush, before eventually moving over to a standard brush. 

If you plan to use a sonic toothbrush - start by simply showing the toothbrush without it being turned on, providing a tasty treat at the same time. Once your dog starts to get excited when the toothbrush appears - as they know it means a treat will soon appear too - then you can try turning the brush on and straight back off. Over repetitions you can then build up the time the brush runs for. 

Start slow 

Setting yourself the goal of brushing ALL of your dog’s teeth in one session is setting you both up to fail. Just like we can break down grooming sessions into paws, legs, ears, tummy etc. so can we break down teeth brushing into a few teeth at a time. Initially, it might take you a couple of weeks to have covered the whole mouth area, but as your dog grows in confidence you’ll be able to brush larger areas during each session. 

Get down low 

When it comes to husbandry tasks like teeth brushing, we tend to stand above our dogs - looming over them and potentially risking them feeling threatened. If you can sit down so your head is at a similar height to your dogs that will help them feel more at ease. Or you could ask them to hop up onto a sofa or step so they’re even slightly higher up - so when you start brushing your arms are coming from below instead of above them. 

Make it into a trick 

Teaching your dog a new trick that will help with the brushing process is a great way to get them engaging the “task based” part of their brain, instead of that “emotional” side. Good tricks to work on are either your dog opening its mouth on cue, or coming and resting their chin on your hand or leg. 

You can use a method known as “capturing” to get your dog to open their mouth on cue. For this, you need to watch your dog and every time they naturally perform the desired behaviour you are going to mark with a clicker or a “yes” and then give them a treat. If your dog doesn’t often open their mouth, you can also set up the situation by putting a treat towards their mouth and when they go to open it, you mark the moment and then let them enjoy the treat. 

To start teaching a chin target, begin by stroking your dog’s chest - this is hopefully something they’ll enjoy. Once they’re nice and relaxed, slide your hand up from their chest to rest for a second or two under their chin. As you make contact with that area you can mark your dog with a clicker or a “yes” and give them a treat. Slowly build up the amount of time your dog is comfortable with having your hand being placed under their chin. Remember to keep training sessions short and sweet - always trying to end on a high! 

Add something fun in between 

When you start to build up the length of your tooth brushing sessions, try to mix things up by throwing in a game of tuggy or asking for a favourite trick in between each section of brushing. Tricks or games that allow your dog to move about are great for helping them to relieve any tension they might be feeling during the brushing process.  

Seek help 

If your dog finds it very difficult to let you near their mouth, it might be because they have some pain in their mouth or jaw. It’s always good to get your vet involved at this time just to make sure there’s no underlying health concerns. You might also need to have your dog’s teeth professionally cleaned by the vet while you help them to learn to love having their teeth brushed at home. This means when they’re ready to let you take over the oral care, you won’t be dealing with problematic build-ups or gum disease.  A force-free behaviourist will also be able to assist you in supporting your dog to feel more comfortable about being handled. 

Most importantly is to think positively about the process and try not to be in any rush to get to the desired result immediately. Think of this as a lovely part of your daily routine together, that can be built up slowly, going at a pace that suits you both.  It could be the way you start the day, or a wind down in the evening. Take things slow and you will eventually have a lovely new bonding activity. 

To support your dog’s oral hygiene even further, you can combine tooth brushing with providing regular dental chews. Not only do natural chews allow your dogs to work their jaws and clean their teeth, but chewing can also help reduce stress and boosts happy hormones? Consider adding in a chew following a particularly exciting (or stressful) walk, or when your dog just seems to need a little relaxed down time, using it as a delicious and rewarding treat. 

At Forthglade, we have launched our brand new plant based dental sticks, find out more here.