Basic Care - Silver Lake Saint Bernards

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Basic Care

Grooming Your Saint

We all know how nice it feels to be clean. It feels wonderful when our hair is squeaky clean right after a shampoo. Just as grooming is important for us, it is important for our dogs. The dictionary says that to groom a dog is to make it neat and tidy. Regular grooming is as important to a dog as it's food and checkup at the vet. Grooming a dog includes brushing and combing the hair, clipping toenails, cleaning ears, brushing teeth and sometimes trimming up the hair. Since I have already discussed trimming nails and cleaning ears in a previous issue of the Fancier, I won't discuss them here. However, they must be included in your grooming routine.


Professional groomers will always tell you, brush, brush, brush. It is essential to learn how to brush your dog correctly, and to always brush before giving your dog a bath. Bathing a coat that is matted will only tightly the tangles, making them harder to comb out.

Brushing a dog's haircoat is the backbone of good grooming. It improves the appearance of the coat and offers health benefits as well. It increases circulation of the skin, helps to distribute oils and to remove dirt and dead flaky skin, resulting in healthier skin and hair for your dogs.

Essential brushing equipment needed to keep a Saint's coat in top condition are: 
>Stiff bristle brush 
>Thinning Shears
>Curved wire slicker brush
>Matting comb
>Wide-toothed comb (1-1/4 to 1-1/2 inches long)

Every dog has several different types of hair on its body. In each hair follicle, there is a primary, or guard hair, which is a part of the dog's outer coat, and several secondary hairs that make up the undercoat.

Brushing and combing correctly can be tricky, especially with a longhaired Saint who has a thick coat. The goal is to brush the coat down to the skin without actually brushing the skin. To do this, push the coat back with one hand and brush the hair down, a little at a time, with your other hand, using your slicker brush. Use quick, deep strokes, brushing one small area at a time. Be very careful not to brush the skin with a slicker brush, which can cause red irritated skin.

You can also "line comb" your dog using this same method of pushing the coat back with one hand and combing the undercoat out one small area at a time, using a metal comb that has teeth that are rounded at the tips and are 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 inches long.

Brush and comb systematically, first by brushing the head and ears, then the chest, legs and so on. Or you can do one side of your dog one day and the other side the next day. Establish a brushing pattern that is comfortable for both you and your dog, and stick with it. This will save time in the long run, and will insure that your dog's coat gets a thorough brushing at least once a week. Be sure to "finish off" your dog with a quick once over with a bristle brush after you have line combed or line brushed him. The bristles should be long enough to reach through the haircoat to the skin. An inadequate bristle brush may cause mats.

Short, densely bristled brushes are fine for short haired dogs, but if your dog has long hair, you will need a brush with longer, wider spaced bristles set in a rubber base.


Using an appropriate shampoo is important. A mild "human" soap is okay, but a special dog shampoo or baby shampoo is best. Or you can easily make up your own dog shampoo, as follows.  1 gallon container fill it half full with water add 22 ounces of Lemon Joy dishwashing soap add 3 ounces of glycerin (this leaves shine and condition to the coat) add 2 ounces white vinegar (this is a drying agent) Very gently mix all the above.  Plug each of your dog's ears with a cotton ball to prevent water getting in, and smear a little Vaseline over the eye area to prevent soap burn in the eyes. The water should be comfortably warm. Try to enlist a helper to hold the dog steady while you shampoo it. Using a pitcher, a shower attachment with a long hose, or a slow running hose, wet the dog's back and work the water into the coat on the entire dog. Apply shampoo to the back and work it in everywhere, including the rear of the dog and down the legs, and the belly. Wash the head last, and be careful to keep the shampoo out of your dog's eyes. After a dog's head gets wet is when it is most likely to try to shake.

Now rinse the dog thoroughly, working from the head end first and continuing back toward the rear. Squeeze out any excess water. Keep rinsing until all soap is gone. Towel dry your dog, and allow him to dry in a warm area. If you want to use a hair dryer, make sure it is a dog dryer. Human hair dryers are too hot for a dog's more sensitive skin. Follow up with a good brushing with your bristle brush after your dog is dry, following the natural flow of the hair. 

This is a good time to trim up around your dog's feet, especially if it is winter. To keep snow from balling up in between the toes, trim the fur around the pads and between the toes with thinning shears so soft wet snow won't pack in around them. Wash the pads regularly and apply petroleum jelly to avoid burns from salted walkways. Petroleum jelly also helps keep the pads from cracking in dry winter weather. Keeping the hair trimmed around pads and between toes helps your dog move more freely and allows better circulation of air all year long.


It is very important to watch your dog for signs of ear disease. Your vigilance can help prevent the spread of infection to the middle and inner ears. All breeds should have their ears cleaned on a regular basis. This is especially true of our Saint Bernards.
You can learn to inspect and clean your dog's ears on a weekly schedule, and thereby protect the dog from damaging ear infections. Carry out a routine inspection of your dog's ears every week, and more frequently if it has had any recent problems with its ears. If you begin when your dog is a puppy, it will not mind and will come to tolerate this inspection and cleaning without a whimper.

Lift the ear flap and look down into the canal with a flashlight. You should see a clean surface, similar to the skin on the hairless part of your dog's belly. A little wax is no problem and should be left alone, but if wax or a hair plug is blocking the ear, it needs to be cleaned out. Smell the ear. A healthy ear has a warm, waxy smell. An unpleasant or strong odor suggests an infection requiring veterinary assistance. When you are finished, reward your dog with a treat and by making a big fuss over it.

The ear flaps on our Saints reduce ventilation in the ears, leading to overheating and excess wax buildup which can cause infections. All dogs have hair in their ears which can cause overheating and infection by forming a plug which blocks the ear canal. You can remove this plug by plucking it out with your fingers. Most of the live hair will remain, but the dead hair will come out when you do this. The ear canal should be clear and clean down the center as far as you can see. If the opening is still obstructed, you should trim hair away carefully with round ended scissors.

After you have checked for ear plugs and debris, remove excess wax with an oily cleanser. Oti-Clens or any non-toxic cleansing solution can be purchased from your vet or supplier. Apply a few drops well down into the ear canal. Massage the base of the ear to spread the solution around. Then clean out the ear with a cotton ball, reaching in with your finger as far down the ear canal as you can safely reach. With a Saint Bernard, this is a long way down the ear canal. Use as many cotton balls as it takes to clean out all the built up wax and cleansing solution in the canal.

Ear cleaning, though, must never be too vigorous or frequent. The ear produces wax partly in response to irritation. Too much cleaning may cause that irritation. Warning: Never poke the tip of a Q tip out of sight into your dog's ear canal. Always make sure that you can see the tip of it. Hold the Q tip as you would a pencil, just above the bulb. Never use ear powders unless given them by your vet. Powders tend to cake up in the ears. Thick ointments "gum up" the ear, reducing ventilation and obscuring visible signs. Use only commercial drops made especially for dogs, or prescribed medicines.


In addition to a daily once over with a bristle brush or comb, a part of your dog's daily grooming should include care of its teeth. To start a puppy out, rub its mouth and gums for a few days. After a few days, add a small amount of doggie toothpaste on your finger when you rub its mouth and gums. The next step is to begin to use a soft doggie toothbrush, brushing the teeth and gums gently. Using a circular motion is more effective, but brushing up and down might be easier. All dogs should have their teeth brushed every day, especially older dogs. Be sure to use toothpaste made for dogs so it won't upset the dog's stomach. Follow up with praise and play so your dog associates teeth cleaning in a positive way.


Generally speaking, your Saint will need a daily brushing or combing, and daily care of it's teeth. Weekly, you should condition it's coat and line comb the hair. Also weekly, you should check your dog all over to see if there are any new or unusual lumps or bumps by running your hands over his entire body. Include a look at it's feet to see how the nails look and to see if the hair around the pads and toes need to be trimmed.

Water and food particles left in a Saints' facial folds and under its chin can cause discoloring and lead to bacterial infections. Skin folds should be cleaned regularly. Some groomers recommend lubricating the folds with a little petroleum jelly or baby oil, and applying medicated baby powder with a soft toothbrush to any discolored places where they can't lick, such as under the chin and between toes, to prevent infection and staining.

Your family dog will probably need a bath once every two or three months. Show dogs, of course, get bathed much more frequently, and their grooming can be much more difficult and detailed. For now, we are only concerned with your family dog. In between baths, you can help keep your dog's coat in top condition by line combing at least once a week.

Before you do the weekly line combing, though, spray the dog down with a coat conditioner. You can make up your own by using a mild human hair conditioner such as Kolestral. Mix one tablespoon of conditioner in warm water in a quart spray bottle until the conditioner is fully dissolved. Spray the dog down with this mixture, especially the back of the hocks, the tail, behind and under the tail, front arms and all the places where hair and skin are dry. Work the conditioner in and massage. Your dog will love it. Work it through all the guard hairs. Then line comb your dog as described above.

We have all seen Saints with gorgeous coats that are shiny, neatly trimmed and clean. As you can see, such a well-groomed coat does not happen overnight. It is the result of a lot of meticulous care, grooming and TLC.


  1. Dog Fancy, "Head to Tail," by V.P. Guidry, Feb. 94 issue.
  2. Dog Fancy, "Grooming Puppy," by B.S. Siino, April 93 issue.
  3. "You and Your Dog," by David Tailor. 1990, Published by A.A. Knopf, Inc., NY. ISBN 0-394-72983-8.
  4. "Grooming Your Dog," by Suzanne Ruiz. 1987, Salamander Books Ltd., N.J. ISBN 3-923880-66-9.
  5. "The AKC Dog Care and Training," 1991, Howell Book House, NY. ISBN 0-87605-405-X.
  6. "The All Breed Dog Grooming Guide," by Sam Kohl, 1987, Prentice Hall Press, NY. ISBN 0-668-05573-1.

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