How to Bathe a Big Dog Afraid of Water
Is Your Dog Afraid of Water?
In this article, you'll learn:
- The making of a water-phobic dog
- How water was perceived in the wild
- Why domestic puppies and dogs are scared of water
- A step-by-step process for helping your dog learn to love the water (including how to bathe a scared dog)
- Tips for making the water fun
The Making of a Water-Phobic Puppy
A puppy is adopted at 8 weeks old—the puppy is nourished, vaccinated and kept for the most part safely indoors, in a warm, comfy environment. He is taken outdoors to potty several times a day and during the night. When it rains, the puppy owner does as much as he can to keep the puppy dry. Very likely, he waits for the clouds to disappear or for the rain to fade into a drizzle. If it still rains, the puppy owner brings out an umbrella and quickly takes the puppy outdoors to potty. If the puppy is reluctant to go potty under the rain, very likely the puppy owner may try to rush him up and gets frustrated in the process.
Water is Bad!
What does the puppy learn from all of this? The puppy ultimately learns that rain is something to avoid; indeed, he detects the owner's negative energy about the rain and discovers the goal is to get out of the rain as soon as possible. He ultimately starts associating the rain with something unpleasant.
When it stops raining, the puppy is taken out and does its business right away and the owner is happy. This further confirms in the puppy's mind that rain is bad and lack of rain is good.
Then the big day comes and the the puppy owner tries to give the puppy a bath. The puppy is frightened but the puppy owner ignores the fear and continues to bathe the puppy. The puppy gets shampoo in its eyes,he is scared of all the water poured over him and tries to squirm his way out of the bathtub. Because the bath tub is slippery, this unsure footing makes the puppy insecure and causes him to panic. The puppy owner quickly dries the puppy at this point and lets him free.
Fast Forward a Few Months...
Months later, the puppy is much older. He is never taken out when it rains and is kept safely indoors. If there are puddles, the puppy owner guides the puppy away from them. Then one day, the puppy owner decides it is time again for another bath, but the puppy has grown quite big now and is reluctant to move near the water.
The puppy owner tries to force the puppy into the bath tub again, but the puppy freezes. He tries to lift the puppy but the puppy growls and shows its teeth. The puppy owner gives up and decides to perhaps try another day.
All the ingredients for a dog afraid of water have been laid out and now the result is a dog terrified of anything related to water including puddles, rain, baths and wet surfaces. What's next? The dog may even start refusing to go potty in the rain.
A Look Back in the Past
In the wild, mother dog most likely raised the puppies in a maternity den, a hole built underground before whelping. Once the puppy's eyes were open, they explored their enticing surroundings. The pups and nature became one element.
The puppies learned all about the wind, thunder, lightening, rain and the feeling of wet grass under their paws. The puppies played in the puddles, got mud all over their coats and learned to accept the many intriguing variances Mother Nature featured each day.
For obvious survival reasons, the wild dogs hunted regardless if it is was raining, snowing or if there was a thunderstorm under way. Rain, snow, wind, thunder were all accepted as normal events of life.
Mother dog was obviously not there to accompany the puppies with an umbrella or a hair dryer if they got wet! It is quite obvious why puppies in the wild cared less about getting wet while puppies raised in a domestic setting become water-phobic. Following are some causes of puppies and dogs becoming scared of water:
Why Puppies and Dogs Are Scared of Water
Breeders, trainers and books very likely recommend to heavily socialize puppies to people, dogs and other animals during a brief window of opportunity which closes once the puppy is 12 to 16 weeks old. Puppy classes, puppy play dates, and puppy parties are organized to ensure your puppy learns that people, dogs and other animals are non-threatening. But what about rain?
Not many dog owners dedicate much time in making rain and the sensation of getting wet something fun and enjoyable! While some puppy owners may give the puppy a bath, often they overwhelm the puppy without paying attention to subtle signs of discomfort.
Because puppies during the socialization period tend to store good experiences but also the bad ones, should the puppy have an unpleasant experience with rain or water, it may be have quite an effect on the puppy's future feelings about water. Following are common reasons why dogs may be scared of water.
- Fear of the unknown. Puppies and dogs raised in areas with dry climates or not exposed to rain during puppy hood become fearful of water simply because it is unfamiliar.
- Overwhelming experiences. Puppies forced to be bathed without much gradual exposure tend to be overwhelmed and frightened, a process known as "flooding".
- Negative experiences. Dog owners getting frustrated when it rains or getting mad when puppies are scared of water often may lead to negative experiences.
- Water used as punishment. Dog owners squirting dogs with squirt guns only teach dogs to hate water.
Is your puppy or dog scared of water? Not all is lost; some remedial work may help puppies and dogs fearful of water. My dogs were raised in the Arizona desert where rain was quite rare for most of the year. When monsoon season approached, they were scared of rain and the sensation of getting wet.
Thanks to a good desensitization and counter-conditioning program they now love the water, as you can see in the picture depicting my Rottweiler enjoying the waves in the Mediterranean Sea last summer!
How to Help Your Dog to Love Water
As mentioned, two behavior modification techniques will come handy to help your dog overcome its fear of water.
Desensitization involves getting the dog gradually used to water and the sensation of getting wet. A good desensitization program requires owners capable of working the dog under the threshold. This means you would have to work under the imaginary line that makes your dog react and get panicky.
If you are good in reading your dog when it manifests signs of fear, you know you want to avoid getting at that point. For instance, if the sight of the water hose makes your dog squirm, you are overwhelming him. This is too much for him and this experience will make the fear of water worse.
You therefore, need to work on keeping him at a distance from the water hose where he appears calm and work from there, sub-threshold. We will go over some easy steps for a a gradual desensitization program.
To make a good desensitization program work, you can make it even more powerful by adding counterconditioning. This means changing your dog's emotional response to water. From getting panicky, you want your dog to shift to looking forward to a bath. Sounds unrealistic? Not at all, you can do wonderful things about your dog's emotional state if you put in the effort.
How to Get Your Dog Used to Getting Wet
Follow are some examples on how to desensitize a dog to water, but keep an eye on your dog for signs of getting uncomfortable. Go too fast and you put up your dog for failure. If you are going too fast, take a step back and find a more gradual approach. The secret is not to overwhelm your dog in the process. Dry your dog after each exercise. Avoid using hair dryers; most dogs are terrorized of them if not introduced properly. Use a towel instead.
- Get a sponge, wet it with water and pass it lightly on your dog's back casually one day right before putting his food bowl down. Repeat for three days. Dry your dog with a cloth right after finishing the meal.
- Get the same sponge and pass it lightly on your dog's chest casually one day right before putting his food bowl down. Repeat for three days. Dry your dog with a cloth right after finishing the meal
- In the next three days pass the sponge on your dog's back and chest before putting his food bowl down. Repeat for three days. Dry your dog with a cloth right after finishing the meal. As he gets good at this increase the areas sponged.
- When it rains lightly, get the ball or your favorite fetch toy and get your dog really engaged in a game of fetch. Dry your dog with a cloth upon coming back in and become boring.
- When it rains lightly, put the food bowl out and have your dog eat his meal under the rain.
- Get a water hose and start squirting the water in different directions away from the dog. Sing silly songs as you squirt the water and make it look like a fun game. If your dog comes close try to get him to chase the water squirts.
- As you squirt the water, toss a handful of tasty treats from the sky and make them rain on the ground. Make it look as if the water hose is shooting treats out along with water.
- Slightly spritz your dog with some water making it look like a game. Give a treat right after the water spritz. It should be like this: spritz, treat, spritz, treat, spritz, treat.
- At some point, if you get your dog really engaged, your dog will be drenched. This is a good time to rub in some tear-less shampoo and work it in. Sing a song as you massage your dog happily. Continue the spritz-treat game until your dog is shampoo-free. Then have fun rubbing and drying your dog. Water was never so fun!
- Make sure your dog associates the water with good things. Play and treats must abruptly end the moment you shut off the water. Water ends, fun ends! Make it clear!
Tips to Make Bath-Time Fun
These tips will aid you in ensuring water becomes a fun and rewarding experience. Never force your dog to be bathed if he is not ready. Go slowly and gradually and you may end up with a pal that will likely be pleading you to open that water hose! Many dogs have a blast trying to catch that water getting out of the hose!
- Use a tear-less shampoo, all you need is a bad experience of burning shampoo in your dog's eyes to ruin all the progress you made!
- Invest in non-slip mats. If you are using a bath tub, many dogs are scared of slippery surfaces. A non-slip mat may do wonders.
- Start outdoors with a great game with a hose and then as your dog starts liking the water, gradually work your way inside.
- If you dog is scared of the bath tub, try outdoors with a hose instead or a light shower. Some dogs have a hard time getting over negative experiences happening in the bath tub.
- Some dog owners take showers with their dogs to keep it fun and rewarding.
- Sing silly songs as you play with the water.
- Start desensitizing your dog to get wet by walking in a puddle. Reward lavishly for getting near the puddle, looking at the puddle and then putting a paw in the puddle. Clicker training with a puddle as a target area works great for those enamored with the training technique.
- Encourage your puppy or dog to follow you in a small stream of water. Don't force it if your puppy panics. Most puppies and dogs are so eager to be near their owners they will walk in the stream,with a bit of hesitance at first, but once in, make sure you make a big deal of it and praise.
- Start with low water pressure in the hose. Same with puddles, start with shallow puddles or streams.
- Many dogs dislike being lifted into the bath tub. Portable steps may be helpful.
- If your dog does not take treats, try to increase the value by experimenting with some yummier ones. All dogs have a hierarchy of treats. If your dog still does not take treats, you may be asking too much at once, take a step back and work with your dog under the threshold.
- Have a helper deliver treats as you give your dog a bath to keep it fun.
- Invest in some great water games for dogs.
- Do some troubleshooting. When we think of giving our dogs a bath we think of it as just one single action, while in reality it consists of several units of behaviors that dogs may perceive as unpleasant/scary. For example, we might have to lift the puppy up, place the puppy in an unfamiliar place, restrain him, touch him (which can be a problem if a puppy isn't used to being handled), then exposing him to water that is often poured over, exposing him to shampoo having a strong scent, then placing him down again, and sometimes even drying with a loud dryer. So we sure have a lot of things going on!
- How does your puppy do with being handled? Some pups get nippy or tense when touched. It can be helpful as well getting him used to that in case that may be part of the problem. So when your puppy is in the living room and relaxed, just mimic what you would do during a bath. Massage him briefly-treat, belly rub-treat, touch paw-treat etc, gradually building up the time it takes to give a bath.
- If you don't give up and your puppy start enjoying baths, something great will happen: the bath itself will become a big reward and you will no longer need to give treats!
Disclaimer: Please consult with a dog behaviorist if your dog is displaying aggressive behaviors. Only a dog behaviorist may see and assess behaviors and offer the most appropriate behavior modification program tailored for your dog. Use extreme caution and make safety your top priority. By reading this article you accept this disclaimer and assume full responsibility for any of your actions.
The story of my Rotties scared of water in the dry Arizona desert.
- Dog refusing to go potty in the rain
Dog won't go potty in the rain It all started when monsoon season arrived. I live in dry Arizona where there are dust storms, scorpions and cactuses and rain is a pretty rare occurrence... until monsoon season arrives. I really did not have a clue...
My dogs playing with my hubby and the hose!
Does your dog love water?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
My dog loves swimming but hates a hose bath. He is seven years old and big. How do I wash him?
You should approach the process gradually and make it an enjoyable activity. Add treats, lots of praise and play in the mix as discussed in the article. Do not force your dog to have the bath by restraining him; he must voluntarily join in on the fun.Helpful 3