Buzz off, dog breath: Why you should brush your dog's teeth

When I started service dog training school (really!), I met a very cool woman, Sally, who came to the school every week to clean dogs’ teeth. These mellow service-dogs-in-training let her scrape and polish without any sedation, but most pet dogs aren’t that laid back. The secret? Besides being naturally calm dogs, they had their teeth brushed every day from the time they even had teeth! This was all a revelation to me, but since then, I have dutifully brushed my dogs’ teeth. It makes a huge difference in their breath, their teeth are lovely and clean, and, best of all, it doesn’t require sedating the dog or paying the vet!

Even if you’ve never brushed your dog’s teeth, it’s not too late to start. I’ve taught older dogs, even feisty dogs who don’t like handling, to enjoy having their teeth brushed. The keys are tasty, dog-friendly toothpaste, and a small treat after as a reward. Our own Oriel got the hang of a battery-operated toothbrush in about two weeks, once she realized that there were cookies involved.

OK, I know you’re thinking Cookies? After brushing their teeth? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

No, it doesn’t, and here’s why. First of all, the second-best way to remove plaque and gunk from dogs’ teeth is feeding them hard, crunchy food and treats. (The best way is, of course, daily brushing.) Canned food, soft treats, rawhide, people-food tidbits, all those non-crunchy things contribute to plaque and tartar buildup on teeth. Bones, dry kibble and hard biscuits help clean teeth. Secondly, even a tiny reward — I am talking about one Charlee Bear or one piece of kibble — serves as strong motivation and gets those dogs to actually line up and wait to have their teeth brushed. And the value of regular brushing far outweighs the small downside of eating a tiny treat, usually not even chewed, afterward. Our dogs gravitate toward the bathroom door when it gets close to bedtime, and they wait there until I brush their teeth. And no, our dogs are not weird dogs with hygiene fetishes. They do normal dog stuff like lick … eat … well, you know, stuff that’s not what you or I would regard as appetizing, and roll in dead things. Even suspicious dogs can be sucked in by the double lure of yummy toothpaste plus a treat.

Start easy. You can get doggy toothpaste, usually beef or chicken flavored (there’s also mint but our dogs don’t like that as well), at the pet store. Sometimes it comes with a little plastic brush that fits over your fingertip. It’s non-foaming toothpaste — human toothpaste is not appropriate for dogs because of the foam and because it’s not meant to be swallowed.

[image-1]Start by putting a tiny bit of toothpaste on the brush and letting the dog lick it off. After a couple days of that, touch the dog’s front teeth gently with the brush, then let the dog lick off the toothpaste. Very gradually, move to touching side teeth, to actually rubbing with the brush, to brushing more of the teeth. Eventually, you’ll work up to brushing all the teeth. Keep the brushing gentle. If the dog resists, back off. Build up slowly, again, from the beginning. Keep it fun, and don’t forget the treat at the end. You can use a soft child-sized toothbrush if you don’t like the fingertip one. We use battery toothbrushes because I think they do a better job, but many dogs might object to the noise and the vibration.

Like us, dogs can get gum disease and worse with poor dental hygiene. Bacteria from gum disease can move into other organs, causing or contributing to serious health problems. If that’s not enough motivation, think about all those doggy kisses — so much nicer when your dog has fresh breath!

National Dog Biscuit Day is coming up on Feb. 23. I only know that because the wonderful, info-packed calendar that The Whole Dog Journal folks sent me tells me so. It also tells me that February is Pet Dental Health Month. I guess, if Dog Biscuit Day is something like a doggy Halloween, those over-indulged pooches need a good cleaning afterward.

Seriously, I brush my dogs’ teeth every day. Don’t you?

I remember the dogs I grew up with having horrible dog breath despite occasionally getting their teeth professionally cleaned. Not only is this terribly expensive, but the dogs need to be sedated (at the very least) or anesthetized for the procedure. Seems like overkill to me. Daily brushing only takes a minute and the dogs love it.

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