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Brushing a Dog’s Teeth: Steps and Tips

Brushing puppy teeth
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You might not give your dog’s pearly whites much thought (other than when they rip up your favorite shoes!), but dental health is an important part of your dog’s overall wellbeing. Maintaining your pup’s teeth and gums ensures good health into senior-hood, as well as high marks from your veterinarian.

Unfortunately, our dogs aren’t always willing participants when it comes to tasks like at-home dental care, which can make pet parents reluctant to attempt brushing a dog’s teeth. But with a slow and steady approach, dogs of all ages can learn to tolerate this important task.

How to Brush  a Dog’s Teeth: Preparation and Training

Before you try to brush your dog’s teeth, it’s important to have the proper tools and spend time getting your dog familiar with the process. Here’s what you should do in advance of at-home cleaning sessions. 

Tools You’ll Need

The tools you choose for brushing a dog’s teeth matter. You’ll need:

  • A toothpaste formulated for dogs
  • A dog-specific toothbrush 

Dog toothpaste is formulated specifically to address canine dental health needs. These canine-specific grooming products do not contain foaming agents, potentially dangerous sweeteners like Xylitol, and minty flavoring found in human toothpaste. 

Look for a toothpaste that can control tartar or plaque build-up, and don’t be put off by the fact that it’ll probably be flavored with something like chicken or beef! 

There are a variety of toothbrush shapes and sizes available for dogs. A traditionally shaped bristle brush might be a great fit for a dog with a long snout and easily accessible teeth, while a silicone finger-tip brush might be a better choice for a jowly dog with crowded teeth. However, dogs with a “hard mouth” aren’t a good fit for fingertip brushes, as they might be more likely to accidentally bite down and injure you.

Getting Your Dog Comfortable

The most important part of learning how to brush a dog’s teeth is the time spent helping your dog get comfortable with the process prior to attempting a real cleaning. Most dogs don’t mind the toothpaste aspect since it tastes good, but the mouth manipulation that goes along with brushing can make it feel uncomfortable and a little scary.

Since you’ll be brushing your dog’s teeth frequently you want it to go as smoothly as possible, which means positive pre-work is essential. The best way to get your dog comfortable with the necessary handling is by doing approximations of it using your finger before introducing the toothbrush. Here’s how to do it:

Begin by putting a dollop of dog toothpaste on your finger and letting your dog lick it off. (This step should be super easy!)

Next, put another bit of toothpaste on your finger and place your other hand under your dog’s chin while using the other hand to gently lift the lip. Run your finger along the gums on one side of the mouth, take a quick break to reward with a treat, then repeat on the other side of your dog’s mouth. Take another treat break, then repeat the same steps on the lower teeth. If your dog struggles, you might be moving too fast, or your grip might be too tight. Remember, the goal is to make tooth brushing stress-free.

Once your dog is comfortable with gentle mouth handling, introduce the toothbrush. Let your dog examine it, then quickly lift the lip and touch it to a tooth. Reward, then repeat the steps in different areas of your dog’s mouth. Once your dog seems comfortable with these introductory steps, you’re ready to move on to brushing!

Steps for Brushing a Dog’s Teeth

Woman brushing Greyhound teeth

Investing plenty of time during the introductory training steps should help your dog feel comfortable with the idea of mouth manipulation and brushing, and will translate into no-fuss cleanings. 

The steps to brushing your dog’s teeth are as follows:

Step 1: Make sure both you and your dog are in comfortable positions during the cleaning. It might help to place smaller dogs on a table so it’s easier to see what you’re doing.

Step 2: Gently lift your dog’s lip and start brushing in small circles on the top rear molar on one side of your dog’s mouth, then work your way around to the front teeth, paying attention to the canines. Since the molars collect the majority of buildup it’s important to focus in that area, just in case you have an impatient canine patient who wants you to finish quickly. Continue around the top teeth and work to the molar on the other side, then take a quick break for lots of praise.

Step 3: Bottom teeth can be a little more challenging to reach, particularly because of how the rear molars sit slightly behind the upper when the mouth is closed. You’ll probably have to gently open your dog’s mouth by clasping over the top of the muzzle and lifting the lips to get to this area of your dog’s mouth. Brush in gentle circles, working towards the front teeth, and finish on the molar on the other side.

Step 4: Once you’re finished, celebrate with a treat and lots of praise! (Don’t worry, the toothpaste is formulated to conquer build-up and a little goody won’t ruin your hard work!)

Note: You only have to brush on the side of the tooth that touches the cheeks – your dog’s tongue does the work on the inside!

Benefits of Brushing a Dog’s Teeth

Dental health is a significant part of your dog’s overall wellness. Brushing can help prevent calculus accumulation along the gumline as well as periodontal disease, which is caused by a build-up of plaque and gingivitis. Periodontal disease can lead to tooth loss, and worse, can allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream and cause secondary illnesses of the heart, liver, lungs or kidneys.

Brushing your dog’s teeth regularly also allows you to keep tabs on the condition of your dog’s teeth. Dogs are good at hiding dental pain, which means you might otherwise miss cracked or broken teeth.

And finally, brushing helps keep your dog’s breath fresh, so those doggy kisses stay sweet!

Tips for Successful Tooth Brushing in Dogs

Dog licking toothbrush

Taking your time during the early training steps is the key to brushing success, and the following tips will help too:

Don’t scrub too hard. No need to go to town when you brush – gentle circles along the teeth and gum line will do the trick.

Don’t force your dog’s mouth open. Wrenching your dog’s mouth open might make them nervous and lead to fearfulness about tooth brushing.

Focus on molars. All of the teeth are important but the molars usually collect the most build-up.

Give rewards for a job well done. It’s okay to give your dog little treats during the process, you won’t negate the work you’re doing!

Get help if you’re worried about reactivity. Feeling overwhelmed because your dog doesn’t want to participate no matter how slowly you go? Talk to your veterinarian or positive reinforcement trainer for support rather than turning this basic task into a battle.