Dog Teeth Cleaning 101 - Brushing Dogs' Teeth featured image

My vet cleaned my dogs’ teeth for free earlier this year. At almost $300 each, it was a very nice gift. Since I have seven dogs, this is the most expensive gift I’ve ever received. He wanted to show me the importance of proper canine dental hygiene, and I certainly saw a difference.

Although I’ve had dogs most of my life, only once have I tried to brush their teeth. I started with what I think was a spitz-pom mix, which was my first mistake. “Fang” was not just a cute name he got for being small and fluffy. He had teeth and a temper, and he wasn’t afraid to use them. He bit me, and that was it. No more attempts at dental hygiene for me.

After Dr. Bob went to the time and trouble to take care of all seven of my dogs' teeth, I felt obligated to try again. Over the years, I’ve saved sample toothbrushes and toothpaste for dogs, so I had everything I needed.

Dog Teeth Cleaning 101
Photo: torbakhopper

All I had to do was read up on Dog Teeth Cleaning 101 and figure out how to go about brushing their teeth properly so we didn't have an experience like last time.

You can ease your dog into it, too, and before you know it, he'll let you brush his teeth whenever you want. I know you're probably thinking, “Yeah right!,” but it's really true. If my pack lets me do it, yours will, too. However, if your dog is aggressive or becomes aggressive when you try, do not continue to try. For your safety and your dog's, it is best to leave aggressive canines to the professionals.

Dog Teeth Cleaning 101: Brushing Dogs' Teeth

The first thing that you need to know is that you should never use human toothpaste to brush your dog’s teeth. He probably won’t like the taste, and there are ingredients in human toothpaste that aren't good for canines. Even if he lets you use it, it will upset his stomach and discourage him from the whole tooth-brushing experience.

All of the directions I found said to take it very slowly and get your dog used to one thing at a time. Each step should be repeated several times over a period of days until your dog is comfortable with it before continuing to the next step. It will take patience and determination, but once you get past the first week or so, it will all be worth it.

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Desensitize your dog

Your dog is sensitive about his mouth, and his entire face, for that matter. The first step in Dog Teeth Cleaning 101 is to get him used to the idea of you touching his muzzle and rubbing his teeth and gums. Some experts suggest playing with your dog’s muzzle and proceeding to his mouth, lifting his lip, and, after several sessions of looking into his mouth, gently rubbing your finger over his teeth and gums to get him used to that feeling.

Others advise getting your dog used to the toothpaste first by putting some of it on your finger and letting him lick it off. Doggy toothpaste comes in different flavors, so it might take some experimenting to figure out which flavor your dog likes.

Dog Teeth Cleaning 101
Photo: Danielle G.

With my pack, as long as it’s food-flavored, it doesn’t matter. If I call it a dog treat, they’re convinced it’s something they have to have, especially if I won’t give all of it to them at once. We started with chicken.

Along the same lines, another set of instructions advised letting him get used to the toothbrush first. If your dog absolutely won’t go near it, try a soft washcloth. I use a baby washcloth to wash my dogs' faces, and that would work to clean their teeth as well.

After your dog is familiar with everything — the toothbrush, the toothpaste, and the feel of you manipulating his mouth and teeth, it’s time to put it all together.

The art of brushing

Begin by brushing just a few of your dog's teeth at a time. You can start with his canine teeth since they’re the biggest and the easiest to reach. Unlike brushing our teeth, only the outside of your dog’s teeth needs to be brushed. His tongue takes care of the inside of his mouth.

Once he’s familiar with having a few of his teeth brushed, you can extend the brushing to all of his teeth. If the plaque on his teeth is severe, you may actually be able to see it flake off his teeth as you brush. The first few times you brush his teeth, you may want to do it for 3-5 minutes just to get some of that extra buildup off.

After that, you can brush his teeth for about 2 minutes each time. It would be ideal to brush his teeth every day, but if you can't, at least try to do it a few times a week. Brachycephalic breeds (dogs with flat or squished snouts) and small breeds may need more frequent brushing. Their teeth are closer together, which allows more plaque to accumulate and increases their risk of developing periodontal disease.

RELATED: Dog Nutrition 101 – What Do Dogs Eat

All of the instructions that I read (and I checked out a lot of different sources) had one thing in common – taking things one step at a time, performing the first step several times over a period of a week or more, and then adding the second step and repeating that several times. Eventually, your dog should become used to the whole process, and regular brushing will become something your dog may actually look forward to.

Simple. But simple isn’t always… well, simple. Not for everyone.

Dog Teeth Cleaning 101 - Brushing Dogs' Teeth

The way I brush my dogs' teeth

I suppose you could say that I failed Dog Teeth Cleaning 101. I’m not able to follow a set of instructions requiring that you repeat a step several times over a period of days until you’ve accomplished it. If I don’t lose the instructions right off the bat, I can’t remember to do it regularly, much less remember to escalate the procedure after a certain point.

I’ll forget which step that dog has accomplished. I’ll forget which step is next. I’ll just plain forget to do it at all. My dogs aren’t any better. They wake up in a new world every day. If you're like me, then you may need to take a bit of a different approach as well.

I had to figure something out, though, so with all the instructions in mind and with the determination to do it, I began trying to follow the directions for getting my dogs accustomed to having their teeth brushed.

I squeezed some of the toothpaste onto my finger and let each of them smell it. As they tried to lick it, I pulled my finger away. This created a “gotta have it” reaction. I ignored them for a few minutes, keeping my toothpaste-covered finger visible but not where they could reach it. Then, I let each of them have a taste. Since I gave them only a second to taste it, they all wanted more.

After they had a taste for the product, I put some toothpaste on the toothbrush and let them smell and taste that. That was okay with them also. Actually, putting the toothbrush anywhere close to their mouths was something else entirely. None of them would tolerate it, and I saw imminent complete oral hygiene failure.

You’re probably thinking that I tried to do it too fast. Maybe. But I know my dogs. If I had let them spend a week or two getting used to the toothpaste and toothbrush and to having their teeth touched, that’s where we would stay. I would never be able to get the toothbrush close to their mouths. They were excited and interested, so now was the time to start. Sometimes, surprise is the only thing that works with them.

Dog Teeth Cleaning 101
Photo: Dan Harrelson

RELATED: Is Peanut Butter Healthy for Dogs?

It didn’t work this time, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I didn’t want to force them, of course, but I was determined to brush their teeth. I had at least seven sample toothbrushes, so I put toothpaste on them and gave one to each dog. They happily chewed on them. It looked to me like it was accomplishing the same thing as brushing does. Before they could begin to tire of them, I collected the toothbrushes, rinsed them, and put them away.

A dog should be closely supervised — as in, don’t take your eyes off him for a minute — while chewing on a toothbrush. He should only be allowed to do it for a very, very short time. Toothbrushes are not designed to be chewed on and can be dangerous if a piece breaks off and is swallowed.

My dogs love the edible dental treats, which have been shown to be much less effective than first thought, but I don’t give them those because of calories and what they might contain. They won’t touch the nylon or plastic scent- or flavor-enhanced dental chews, but it doesn't really matter because neither is as effective as brushing.

I know they need regular dental hygiene — more than treats — and I’m determined that they get it. “Simple” directions don‘t work in every situation. Sometimes we have to get creative. My plan now is to let them chew on their toothbrushes one or two more times while trying to convince them that a smart (or lazy) dog would let a human do it for them. I’m convinced I’ll be brushing their teeth soon.

Now it's your turn

Hopefully, you're better at following directions than I am. I would highly recommend easing your dog(s) into the idea of having his teeth brushed. It would be easier for you, and it would make him a lot more comfortable. Whether you follow what the experts say or take your own path, as I did, DO NOT force brushing on your dog.

Forcing your dog to do something he isn't comfortable with could end up with you getting bit, or it could scare your dog and turn him off from dental hygiene forever. If you've tried multiple times and you just can't seem to get your dog to allow you to brush his teeth, it is time to think about a yearly cleaning at your veterinarian's office. It's not the best option, and it should really be done multiple times a year, but it could prevent a lot of larger health issues in the future.

Catherine is a writer and editor living in Memphis, TN. After working for a state supreme court justice, she retired to write and work with her dogs, six papillons and a rescue. She has been a foster parent for abused children, using her love of dogs to teach them the benefits and responsibilities of loving something dependent on them.