Grooming the Companion Dog

by Jo Ann White

Every time a novice owner looks at a beautiful Shih Tzu in the show ring with coat dragging on the ground, his first question is, "What product do you use to get such a beautiful coat?" To a great extent, a profuse coat is inherited; even more important, it is cared for carefully. Furthermore, no coat care product is the magic answer for every Shih Tzu coat. Different textured coats require different products, as do different climates. different tap waters, and your own life-style.

Do not be surprised if you get ten different product recommendations from ten different breeders or exhibitors, and don't be surprised, either, if none of them is exactly right for you. Most exhibitors have tried and discarded many products before finding what works best for them, and they often use different products on different dogs. Your best bet is to query someone whose dog has a coat texture similar to yours, but you will still probably have to experiment to see what works best on your particular dog. Use the recommendation as a guideline, not as gospel, and solicit several opinions.

Whatever grooming products you ultimately decide to use, there are certain basic techniques that remain the same. The most important thing is to brush your dog often enough so that large mats never have a chance to form. Many Shih Tzu "change coat" at about ten to twelve months of age. It seems, during this stage, that they mat faster than you can brush. Be patient, however, and keep brushing; this is a temporary stage that usually lasts for about three weeks, and once the dog has changed from his puppy coat to his adult coat, you will generally find him easier to care for. The amount of brushing required by an older dog depends on the texture of the coat--it can range anywhere from every day to once a week. Softer coats tend to tangle more quickly, particularly if they are very thick. Dirty coats also mat more easily, so be sure to bathe your dog as often as necessary (generally every three to four weeks). Never bathe a matted dog. Water tends to "set in" mats, making them almost impossible to remove.

Using a good quality wire brush with flexible pins, brush the coat in layers. Begin with the feet, legs, and belly and work upward to the center of the back. Mats are generally looser at the bottom, and you'll lose less coat this way. Be gentle, but be sure to brush all the way down to the skin, using your fingers to break up any tangles the brush will not go through easily. Do not rip at the coat, and lift the top of the brush away as you reach the ends of the hair instead of turning it into the coat and twisting it downward, which will break off the ends of the coat. Pay special attention to the areas inside the legs and around the neck and ears, where mats are most likely to form and most likely to be overlooked. Use a comb on the face and feet and under the ears, if necessary.

If you're new to all this, it's not a bad idea to use a wide-toothed comb or one of those combs with rotating teeth when you think you're through brushing to double-check that you've really gotten out all the mats. If you find any you've missed, revert to fingers and brush to remove them,. Never brush a totally dry coat, as static electricity increases breakage. Dampen the hair lightly first, using a spray bottle filled with water and a capful of cream rinse or coat conditioner. Mats will break up more easily if you saturate them with a conditioner/moisturizer first.
Pay special attention to the face and eyes. Comb the mustache and topknot daily, and clean the inside corners of the eyes with a damp washcloth or a piece of cotton soaked in warm water. Once your puppy has enough hair ( usually at about five months), tie up the topknot with a latex band (available at dog shows or from your dentist) to keep the hair out of his eyes, mouth, and food dish. In the beginning, you will have to put each band fairly low on the forehead to catch all the loose ends; do not pull the hair too tightly or the dog will rub at it.

As in any short-faced, large-eyed breed, the Shih Tzu has eyes that can easily be injured. Check them daily, and any time you see the dog squinting or rubbing at his eye. If your dog's eye is bloodshot, cloudy, or partially closed or has what appears to be a white dot in the pupil, take the animal to the veterinarian at once. Eye injuries can be very serious if they do not receive prompt attention; the sooner treatment begins, the more likely healing will be rapid and uneventful. A neglected eye ulcer can require surgery and even removal of the eye.

Keep a sharp lookout for external parasites, such as fleas and ticks. Almost overnight, one flea can make a dog scratch out a coat that took months to grow. And ticks are much less likely to transmit Lyme disease if they are removed promptly. If you have a parasite problem, remember that you must treat the house as well as the dog and that more, in terms of insecticides, is not only not better, but can make your dog very ill.

If your dog keeps sitting down or rubbing his rear end along the floor, his anal area may have become caked with fecal matter. Hold the affected area under warm running water, wash out the softened matter, wipe with paper toweling, and blow dry. It is not necessary to cut the hair.. As it grows longer, it will tend to fall naturally to either side rather than across the anal opening.

Suppose you went on vacation and the family neglected your coat care regimen and your dog's coat becomes full of mats. Such mats can be removed with a great deal of time and patience. The more time you are willing to spend, the less hair you will lose. If this happens very often, you may want to consider having your dog clipped. A skilled groomer can make him look quite attractive with an all-over short puppy clip or a more sophisticated trim that will make him look a bit like a Cocker Spaniel or a Schnauzer. However, much of the beauty of our dogs is in their long and flowing coats. If you have only one or two pets, why not spend some time to have them looking their very best?

In my next column, I'll give some pointers on caring for your dog's ears and feet, dealing with facial stains, training your dog to be groomed, and procedures for bathing. Until then, enjoy your furry friends.

A dog that is not being shown will probably need a bath every three weeks or so--more often if he decides to roll in a mud puddle or encounters a skunk! A dirty coat tends to tangle more than a clean one, so it behooves you to bathe your dog as often as needed.

Before you actually put your dog into the sink or laundry tub, brush him out thoroughly. Water tends to "set in" mats, making them almost impossible to remove. Be sure to check the hair between the pads of the feet, which can mat and give your dog sore feet. Trim this hair level with the pads, then stand the dog in show pose and trim the hair on the top of the paws level with the table to give the feet a neater appearance. Pull any excess hair out of the ear canal with your fingers to prevent matted hair in the canal from cutting off air circulation, which can lead to ear infections. Your dog may not like to have you do this, but don't think you're really hurting him when you do: There are no nerves inside the ear canal. If you want to clean visible excess wax and dirt out of the ear with a Q-tip, fine, but be sure not to poke down deep into the ear canal, as you can injure the eardrum.

Ask your vet to show you how to express your dog's anal glands. When full, they will feel like two hard peas on either side of the anus just below the root of the tail. To clean them--a foul-smelling job definitely to be done just before a bath--cover the anus with a tissue and squeeze gently upward and outward until any fluid is extracted. This will prevent an anal abscess from forming.

If you place a rubber shower mat in the bottom of the sink or tub, you dog will have firm footing and will be less likely to struggle. Use lukewarm water and two soapings with a quality shampoo designed for your dog's coat, particularly on the legs, to get all the dirt out, and use your fingernails or a toothbrush to thoroughly clean any encrusted matter out of the hair beneath the eyes and around the mouth. Try not to get any soapy water into the eyes or ears, and use a tearless shampoo on the face to lessen the possibility of irritation. Wash the head last as this is what dogs generally object to the most.

Keep a sharp eye out for external parasites, such as fleas or ticks, as one flea can make a dog scratch out a coat that took months to grow. I find that special pyrethrin shampoos available from your veterinarian seem to be less harsh on the coat than most over-the-counter varieties. Any shampoo residue, which can cause the dog to scratch, can be removed by pouring a quart of warm water with a capful of cider vinegar over the dog, then rinsing thoroughly.

After you have rinsed the soap out, put a capful or two of conditioner into a quart of warm water and pour it over the dog, avoiding the face. Allow the conditioner to remain in the coat for a few minutes, then rinse. Some people use special oil treatments or other hair care products at this stage.

Squeeze any excess moisture out of the coat, then wrap the dog in a couple of thick bath towels for ten to fifteen minutes to lessen the amount of time he will have to spend under the dryer. Use a corner of the towel to wipe the face and blot the ears. This is a good time to cut toenails--your dog is more or less captive while swaddled in towels, and his nails are softer when wet. Cut the nails to where they hook over being careful not to cut into the red streak (quick) that can be seen in any translucent nails. If you do accidentally cut too deep and the nail bleeds, use styptic powder to stop the bleeding. Pay special attention to any dewclaws. As they do not touch the ground, they will not wear down naturally like the other nails.

A Shih Tzu should be dried with a blow dryer; one with a stand will free both your hands to work on the dog, Brush the dog gently while his coat dries to separate the hair and speed up the drying process. Once he is thoroughly dry, give him a part and put in his topknot. Then put him down on the floor and watch him prance around. They seem to know how good they look at this stage!

Between baths, if you notice your dog sitting down or rubbing his rear along the floor, check his rear. If his stool has been soft, the anal opening (particularly on a puppy) may be caked with fecal matter. Watch also that his eyes and ears do not appear irritated, and have his teeth cleaned periodically to avoid dental problems later on. Any "hot spots" caused by excessive scratching should be medicated at once to keep them from getting worse.

NOTE TO BREEDERS: The information in this and the preceding column is included on sheets I give to puppy buyers. These sheets also contain information on feeding and inoculation schedules. If you do not already provide such material, consider making copies of these columns and adding in food/health notes. It will save you many phone calls--and we all know the people who hesitate to call until the problems have gotten much worse than they should. It also helps to give a brief grooming demonstration the day a buyer picks up his puppy.