Picture perfect: Keeping up on your dog's appearance has benefits beyond good looks

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Jill Showalter

You can usually tell when a dog owner begins taking his pet for granted: The dog's hair is matted and overgrown, her nails are long and broken and her teeth—well, let's just say they're not going to be able to handle chewing on bones much longer.

We've all seen these dogs. Maybe we've owned them, too. Unless it's time for the annual Christmas card photo, grooming becomes an afterthought. Something as simple as a bath or regular haircut gets pushed down the line, usually going undone until we can either no longer handle our dog's unfavorable scent or after our fellow book club members conveniently absolve us of our monthly meeting duties. "We know you're busy," they'll say.

But busy or not, your dog's appearance shouldn't be an afterthought. In fact, it's one of your responsibilities as a dog owner. You wouldn't let your child or your parent go weeks without bathing. You wouldn't send him to school with ratty hair and stained clothes. That's not responsible parenting.

As your dog ages, so will his grooming requirements. Here's a quick look at what you can do to make sure your dog's appearance stays on point and why it's essential to maintain a regular grooming schedule.

Hair today

Your dog's fur isn't there just to make her look good. A dog's coat serves as protection from the cold and the heat and should be appropriately cared for year-round. Letting your dog's fur grow extra long during the winter and shaving it off in the summer may seem to make sense but it works against the natural benefits of your dog's outermost layer. It's a good idea to consult with a groomer on your dog's appropriate hair length. They'll be able to help you understand why your dog's fur is essential and help you determine the best way to handle it.
One of the most overlooked elements of caring for a dog is regular brushing and bathing. Brushing your dog on a regular schedule helps remove dirt, prevents matting and keeps their coat shiny and healthy.

Paws for concern

Consider your dog's paws. They're much more important than you think. Since they're highly sensitive to cold and heat, it's especially important to keep them clean and protected. Removing debris in between the paw pads and keep their nails at a proper length. Does the thought of trimming your dog's nails make you a little squeamish? Again, your groomer can help. Most dogs get a little nervous when their owners break out the nail clippers, especially if they've been clipped too closely in the past.

Tooth or dare?

You may have built up a tolerance to your dog's breath but that doesn't mean those offensive odors coming from his mouth should be ignored. Brushing your dog's teeth may offer some temporary relief from his breath but that breath can be the result of an abscessed tooth, excessive plaque or other problems if an infection spreads to the dog's bloodstream. In some cases, plaque can ultimately cause damage to your dog's liver and heart. And if you notice your dog is losing weight, check his mouth. Your dog may find it too painful to eat with broken teeth and sore gums.

Also, it's important to remember that those tasty snacks that promise they'll keep your dog's teeth clean aren't all that effective. If you really want to clean your dog's teeth—unless your dog is on the older end of the age spectrum—you'll have to break out the toothbrush.

Buy an enzymatic toothpaste that contains glucose oxidase, an antibacterial agent which will fight tartar and plaque and find a toothbrush specifically for dogs, which have longer handles and smaller, softer bristle. If you're new to the brushing process, begin with your fingers instead of a toothbrush, if necessary, and after applying toothpaste, gently work your way toward the back of your dog's mouth, brushing or rubbing each tooth. You'll be finished in less than 30 seconds so it shouldn't be difficult to brush your dog's teeth every day.

While your dog doesn't have to be portrait-ready at all times, she'll appreciate the occasional pampering that comes with a bath and haircut. You'll help her look better, feel better and perhaps more importantly, serve as the tail-wagging, welcoming friend to your judgemental bookclub members when they attend your next monthly meeting.

Jill Showalter owns Yuppie Puppy and Doggie Day Play in Oak Park. She has personally tended to more than 100,000 dogs since 2007 and has shared stories and advice with numerous dog owners.

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