A Vet-Approved Guide to Brushing Your Dog’s Teeth

red toothbrush with blue background - brushing your dogs teeth

A Vet-Approved Guide to Brushing Your Dog’s Teeth

Toothbrushing is the gold standard in veterinary dentistry for keeping a pet’s teeth happy, healthy, and disease-free. As a veterinary dentist, I am continuously teaching dog owners how to effectively brush a dog’s teeth at home and how to have their pup cooperate with this sixty-second event. Done effectively, that’s really all it takes. But sixty seconds can feel like quite a long time when you’re negotiating the scenario with your dog. And the truth is, I fail miserably most of the time.  

I fail for two reasons in my opinion.  First, I see very few of the total number of puppies that come through a clinic in a day.  I only see the puppies with dental/oral issues, a minority to be sure.  So, my ability to get face-to-face time with puppies and their owners is limited to those patients. Second, I am usually teaching toothbrushing to the owner of an adult or geriatric dog that has already experienced dental pain and perhaps is even still healing from a procedure that required tooth extraction. I got to them “too late” in many ways. 

How to Create a Habit of Brushing Your Dogs Teeth

If you want to see incredible training with positive reinforcement techniques look no further than a zookeeper.  YouTube is a great source of free videos about animal training of all types.  Why does that matter?  It matters because if they can train a bear to open its mouth for dental inspections, then you can train a puppy for toothbrushing. And puppyhood is the perfect time to start. 

Tips from a Veterinary Dentist

  1. Positive reinforcement training (reward-based) is the way to go. It should go without saying that we do not ‘punish’ a dog for wiggling or resisting when we try to brush its teeth. If they aren’t holding still for it, then the appeal of what is offered (xylitol-free peanut butter, fluoride-free pet toothpastes, flavorless pet dental hygiene gels) is not outweighing the negative experience of being asked to sit still and allow a finger or brush into the mouth. 

  2. Have your dog sit. We walk before we run, so we must first have a dog that can ‘sit’.  For this blog, assume your dog knows ‘sit’.

  3. Start immediately upon acquiring a puppy (or older dog if you are adopting). This means you will also be teaching ‘sit’. With a toothpaste of your choosing—we always recommend you use a VOHC-approved product—allow the puppy to lick the dentifrice off the finger.  Find the flavor they like the most and then stick with it. Do this every day, multiple times per day with a very small amount, similar to the amount of paste you would put on ½ a toothbrush.  Show them the package and get them familiar with where it is kept (but not accessible). You want the puppy excited for the next opportunity to lick the dentifrice off the fingertip. This phase could last a week or less and each session will likely last less than 30 seconds.

  4. Start introducing your fingertip just inside the cheek during these training sessions for 5 seconds. You can hold the fingertip still inside the cheek, you do not need to make a brushing motion and you do NOT need the puppy to open the mouth to accommodate your fingertip. Take some of these opportunities to lift up the lip on either side as well. Just peek at the maxillary canine tooth and then put the lip back down.  There should be no resistance to this step before you progress to the next step. This phase may last several weeks.

  5. Place the dentifrice onto a very small and soft-bristled toothbrush (I prefer children’s toothbrushes) and allow the puppy to lick it off. The fingertip phase is now over. Do not try to introduce the brush into the mouth or try to brush with it. This phase may only last a week, as it is just to get the puppy used to the brush, not the act of brushing.

  6. Start introducing the toothbrush with the dentifrice on it inside the cheek and let the puppy gently lick/chew the bristles.  You’re now toothbrushing!  

  7. Add time as you go. As the puppy gets more used to the toothbrush/dentifrice, extend the time spent and number and location of teeth brushed on each side until you feel you are spending a full 60 seconds on as many teeth as possible and on both sides, with some lifting of the lip to accomplish the goal. You still are not asking the puppy to ‘yawn’ or open wide. This likely means that you will not be effectively brushing the tongue-side of the lower teeth or the roof-of-the-mouth side of the upper teeth (we call this lingual and palatal), and THAT’S OK!

A Few Other Notes on Brushing

Very few dogs will allow the lingual and palatal sides of the teeth to be brushed and we usually concede that those surfaces won’t get done (feel free to try though). Some dogs will be difficult to brush either in the back or on the bottom teeth due to their anatomy. Never force the brush into areas that are clearly uncomfortable or you may lose momentum with your training. A veterinary dentist is still going to clean the teeth professionally under anesthesia and we will get those problem spots addressed at those visits.

Veterinary Dentist in Nebraska

You have now set yourself up to be successful as your puppy finds toothbrushing enjoyable and they have not even completed the eruption of their adult teeth yet in most cases.  The second and ‘adult’ or ‘permanent’ set of teeth will be fully in the mouth by about the 6th-9th month of life and those are the teeth you will want to keep as healthy as possible.  

The best thing you can do is to train on the primary or ‘baby’ teeth so that you are ready to go for the permanent teeth!

A few final pointers & reminders:

  • Toothbrushing should be a daily routine. There is benefit in brushing every other day as well.  Less frequently than that, and the benefits really start to wane.
  • Never leave your dog unattended with the toothbrush (or really any chewy, treat or toy)
  • If you ever run out of toothpaste KEEP BRUSHING with water as the bristles do most of the good.
  • Some dogs may do better if asked to hold a toy in their mouth WHILE you are brushing. A rubber toy such as KONG works well for this.
  • You CAN teach an older dog to accept toothbrushing, but it is admittedly more difficult. Try anyway!

It is hard to put into writing a guide for something that is commonly shown, live, in-person, to pet owners but it is important and worthwhile, and I hope it has been helpful. If you’re looking for a veterinary dentist in Nebraska, the certified veterinary dentists at Nebraska Dentistry & Oral Surgery for Animals would love to care for your pet!


Photo by Alex Padurariu on Unsplash (7/21/2022)