Double Coated Dogs: Which Comes First the Brush or the Bath?

Grooming Matters

By Daryl Conner

Over the weekend a groomer friend in another state sent me a message, “I am grooming a huge Shetland Sheepdog that has not seen a brush in years. My hands hurt. Are there any tricks to get this dog groomed faster?”

I asked if she was brushing the dog before bathing it, and she was. I reminded her that brushing out a clean, conditioned coat was far easier than working on a dirty one, and recommended she get the dog in the tub. I suggested that after he was nice and clean, she saturate his coat with conditioner and try brushing out the tangles in the tub, removing dead coat with the help of the conditioner, then rinsing and drying. An hour later she messaged, “He’s done. He looks fabulous. Thanks!”

I see this topic come up often on internet grooming forums. “Do you pre–groom the dog before the bath? Where I work we clip and brush them first.” When I was taught to groom 35 years ago, that is exactly what we did. Dogs were brushed and clipped, then bathed and dried before the finish work was done. It was a total shock to me to learn about 10 years into my career that many groomers wash the dogs before doing anything else.

Change can be hard, and it can even feel threatening to have someone point out that there might be a better way to work than what you have been doing all along. But change can also be wonderful, and if you are in the camp that pre–grooms dirty dogs, I hope you will keep an open mind and try something new. Here are some reasons why this method is helpful:

  • Using your clipper blades and scissors on a dirty coat causes them to become dull much faster. You will save money on having your tools sharpened and maintained if you use them on clean fur.
  • Working on dirty coats may be bad for your health. That might sound strange, but when you are brushing unwashed fur, you are inhaling dust, dander, allergens, and sometimes urine and feces trapped in the coat. By washing first, you are being kinder to your body.
  • A clean, conditioned coat is far easier to brush out than a dirty coat. Dirt, dander and sebum, along with dust and sometimes even plant matter, all work together to keep hair clumped and tangled. Once the debris is washed away and a conditioner is applied to help smooth the cuticles on the hair shafts, you will find the pet is easier to brush.
  • Brushing dirty, dry hair can damage the coat. Working on clean, conditioned fur and using detangling products will cause less harm to the hair. Damaged coat will be more susceptible to tangling in the future, so preventing damage as you work will have dividends that will pay off when you groom that pet next.

The general rule of thumb for me, and many other groomers, is that almost all dogs get bathed before anything else. Exceptions may be if you are grooming a dog that you plan to clip down very short due to coat condition (extreme matting) or owner request. Another exception to the rule might be if you are working on a dog that has issues being dried.

Out of the hundreds of dogs I groom, there are two that are impossible to use a dryer of any kind on. One is a Standard Poodle that will viciously attack any dryer and/or the person using it, and the other is a Lhasa Apso that has hated the dryer his entire life and hates it extra now that he is a very old man. Both dogs are pre–clipped, then bathed and finished damp. Their owners understand that the haircuts won’t be perfect and are grateful that I am willing to work with their pets’ personality issues to get the job done as best as I can.

When you pre–bathe a dog such as the Sheltie I mentioned earlier, you set yourself up for a much easier groom. Here is how:

  1. Get the dog as clean as you possibly can, washing multiple times if necessary. Bathing systems are particularly useful when working with double coated breeds.
  2. Saturate the coat with conditioner, paying special attention to the areas where the matting is severe, trying to get it right down to the skin.
  3. Try a variety of tools to see what will work best. For some coats this will be a slicker style brush, for others a rake type tool may do the trick. Keep in mind that the animal’s skin will be more delicate because it is wet, so use a gentle touch but remove as much dead coat as possible while the conditioner is on to help it glide out.
  4. Rinse well.
  5. After absorbing as much moisture as possible with towels, spray the coat with a leave–in product designed to help remove tangles. Brush this through lightly.
  6. Put your high velocity dryer to work to remove even more dead coat. As the air dries the pet from the skin to the tips of the hair, you will see the webby, dead undercoat begin to lift and slide off the shafts of the remaining top coat. Keep working the dryer over the pet until the coat is completely dry, and you will find there is very little brushing left to do.
  7. Removing the shedding coat in the bathtub and then with the dryer is easier on the dog’s skin, and greatly reduces wear and tear on your hands, arms and shoulders.
  8. Re–apply your detangling spray if necessary, then brush and comb to remove the last of the shedding hair.

If you have been in the group of groomers who “brush first, wash later,” I hope you will give this method a try. I believe you will find that your job was easier and faster, while achieving superior results. ✂