Grooming a Dog Part 3: Conditioners


Yes, finally this post. Believe it or not, I’ve not been neglecting it; I just kept getting sidetracked during my research. Confirming how to get out packed undercoat naturally led to the fluffs post, for example. But here we go, FINALLY.

Again, SO MUCH CREDIT goes to, most particularly Barbara Bird, for this knowledge. I’ve researched a bunch of it on my own as well, but they planted the seeds. And the concepts of SOFT and SLIP are 100% BBird’s; I am blatantly stealing them because I can’t think of any better way to put it. 

Away we go!

Talking about conditioners is a little more complicated than talking about shampoos. That’s because, unlike shampoos that are largely a function of a marketing process and don’t really vary all that much in what they do, conditioners actually DO stuff. 

The most basic function of a conditioner is to replace the skin oil (sebum) that you took off the hair when you washed the dog. This makes each hair a little more shiny, and nice to touch. However, very few conditioners stop there. They add ingredients that encourage various textures, like softness or slipperiness or springiness; they add stuff that fights static; they add proteins and amino acids, which plump up the hair shafts; they add silicones to encourage sheen and fight dirt; they try to influence pH to open or close the cuticle of the hair, etc. 

It gets even more confusing when some shampoos add conditioning ingredients, with widely varying success. A lot of conditioning in shampoos is yet more window-dressing, since the surfactants just wash the conditioners right out, but a few shampoos use ingredients that DO stick to the hair, so adding the wrong conditioner on top of that will not get you the results you want.

That means that choosing the correct conditioner depends on knowing your shampoo, on knowing your dog’s coat type, and on what you want the shampoo to do to your dog. Do you want the hair to just feel nice? Do you want it to stand up more? Lie down more? Do you want to get loose hair out or keep loose hair IN (this is a serious concern for those of us trying to keep every hair on a dog who is trying to blow coat the week before a big show). Do you want to keep the hair feeling “hard” or do you want it feeling very soft? Do you want to repel dirt, or does your dog’s hair already drop dirt pretty well?

Dog coat products have followed human hair products with great predictability. Very definitely GONE are the days when you could easily tell what species a bottle was for by reading the ingredients. And the whole pH thing (dogs need a different pH from humans, so never use a human product on dogs!) was a myth anyway. At this point, you can use a lot of the dog products on your own hair and you can definitely use human products on dogs. I’ll be mentioning the ones I have either tried (and recommend) or am seeing a lot of buzz about on the grooming lists. 

The nuts and bolts:

Basically, the ingredients in conditioners have different “missions.” None of them are bad or good per se; it depends on what you need the conditioner to do. And virtually all conditioners contain ALL these ingredients; what makes them different is the proportion of each type of substance and whether, when the manufacturers are choosing different forms of each ingredient, they choose ones that coat lightly or heavily. 

Oils and waxes: The oils are usually called “whatever butter” or “oil of whatever” and the waxes are moisturizing ingredients like stearic acid, cetyl achohol, and petrolatum. Conditioners called “Remoisturizers” or “Intensive Moisture Repair” and so on are usually heavy in oils and waxes. These are the products you want when you need to weigh down flyaway hair or change the appearance of burnt or fried coat (sunburned, salt burned, chlorine, etc.). They make a coat appreciably softer, so they are not for those of us who have to walk into a ring with a coat that still feels hard and weather-resistant. And oils and waxes tend to hold on to dirt and dust, so these coats will look dulled more quickly. 

Human “Brylcreem” is the ultimate oil-and-wax combo; it’s largely water, mineral oil, and beeswax. 

Panthenol, made famous by Pantene, is a type of oily lubricant that forms a coating over the hair shaft; it’s a very common ingredient in conditioners.

Proteins: Proteins are designed to go inside each hair and make it a little plumper. They’re great for making a thin, limp or sparse coat look more lush, stand-off, and thick. There are all kinds of protein products; anything with “Amino” in its name or “silk protein” or “hydrolized wheat protein” is trying to get in there and make the hairs fat. Protein conditioners are used in just about every breed – those of us with double-coated dogs use protein conditioners to make the longer coat on the ruff stand out, to make the leg hair a little more plush (great to make the dog look like it has more bone), and to get the hair over that danged topline dip to stand at attention. Bichon- and poodle-type coats, and the wire-haired terrier hair, will stand up better if they’re plumped with protein. You can get that round Bichon head and the starburst around the Westie nose if the hairs are standing out properly. Drop-coated breeds look good if you combine a protein and an oil (above), so each hair looks thick and drops straight down. 

Antistatic agents: PEG is one of these, as is cocamidopropyl betaine. These are not just for cutting down on static – the way they work is to absorb moisture from the air, so they work as humectants as well.

Acidifiers: Citric acid is a common one. An acidic conditioner makes the skin and hair firmer and can slow down shedding (at least for a little while).

Glossers and stain repellent ingredients: Virtually all of these are forms of silicone. Silicone is THE revolutionary hair ingredient that virtually every high-end product line is using. The older silicones, still used in products like “The Stuff” for dogs, formed a thicker layer over each hair and could eventually yellow or become brittle. The newer silicones, like dimethicone, form an extremely thin layer over each hair; they basically mimic what the hair would look and feel like if it had a perfect, undamaged cuticle. Silicones are unbelievably useful in dog products – they are very benign to the skin and coat, in terms of gloss and texture they give you results like nothing else, and they stay attached to the hair even when the hair gets wet. This allows them to be used as stain- and mud-fighters.

Name your problem, find a solution:

Improve feel: Most conditioners will improve the texture of the coat, making it more attractive to touch and handle. If you just want the coat to feel good, go for a medium conditioner and don’t spend too much money.

Improve gloss and texture without softening coat: Silicones, acidifiers, and antistatic agents are your friends. Avoid heavy oils and waxes.

Deshedding: When the skin and coat are SOFT, the hair is released from the follicle more easily. When the topcoat has SLIP, the shed undercoat can slide over the topcoat and come to the surface of the coat and be blown away or thrown away. So you want a medium conditioner and a silicone.

Dematting: Here you’re looking for maximum SLIP, so the hairs will slide past each other instead of locking together. Here’s where you use the thicker silicone products and gels. You can also use a thick remoisturizer/intensive repair conditioner, but that will weigh the hair down as well. Not a bad thing if it’s a Shih Tzu; bad if it’s a Bichon.

Hair repair: Thick oils, waxes, proteins, and a shot of silicone at the end to seal the hair shaft. 

Products (these are examples only; there are hundreds of products on the market):

Very light conditioners with silicone ingredients: Show Seasons Results Rinse and Chris Christensen After Bath.  Also use these as a final conditioner after a heavy deshedding session; they’ll tighten up the skin and coat again so the hair doesn’t keep coming out. Both of these products contain acidifiers and clarifiers, so they’ll remove any shampoo residue left on the hair. This is great, unless you are counting on the conditioning agents that are advertised in the shampoo. Results Rinse is the simpler formula; After Bath is the higher-tech. Both work well, but After Bath is practically worshipped by show groomers and Poodle and Bichon specialists. I’ve used the AB; it does indeed rock.

Medium conditioners (VERY VERY useful as deshedders): Cure Care by Sally Beauty, Best Shot Ultra Plenish. 

Heavy conditioner/remoisturizers: Nature’s Specialties Re-Moisturizer (groomers call this one “Remo”), Plush Puppy Coat Rescue

Silicones: Chris Christensen Ice on Ice, The Stuff, Cowboy Magic, Show Sheen, Best Shot Ultra Vitalizing Mist, Nature’s Specialties Quicker Slicker.


OK–next: Tools and Actually USING the products.


2 thoughts on “Grooming a Dog Part 3: Conditioners

  1. And the whole pH thing (dogs need a different pH from humans, so never use a human product on dogs!) was a myth anyway.

    I’d really like to know your basis for saying the above – you make a statement of fact here which is completely at odds with lots of things I have read. I have just started researching this topic, and would appreciate any feedback.

    Thank you

    • Sure!

      First, it’s just common sense. Why are we so scared of of pH in products anyway? Nobody needs to only put products with the same pH as their own bodies or their own skin on their skin or hair. Baking soda is very different in pH from your own skin, but you don’t melt into a pile of goo when you handle it – in fact, it’s good for your skin. Vinegar is way at the opposite end, but it’s actually a great rinse for your hair. Acidic or basic pHs are totally normal in things you touch, rub on yourself, bathe in, and rinse with. As long as the elements that raise or lower the pH are not terribly concentrated, you can handle very high or low pHs without an issue. Lemon juice has a pH somewhere in the 2s, for example.

      Second, even the dog products themselves don’t follow their own marketing. BBird (who once again gets all the credit here) is fond of using pH test strips on products and has found an enormous range of pHs across pet products and human products, with absolutely no clear grouping of pet products into a certain segment and human products into another. Depending on what the shampoo or conditioner is designed to do, you can find pet and human products that are quite acidic or quite basic.

      Third, the trends in pet products have very clearly followed the trends in human products. Many dog shampoos are indistinguishable in ingredients from human shampoos, and vice versa. In fact, some of the higher-end targeted-toward-owners products (as opposed to targeted toward the professional groomer) are formulated identically even down to the different proportions of active ingredients. The professional products are still more concentrated than human shampoos, but the owner products are made so the owner can slather the dog with the same volume of shampoo they would use on their own hair, with the goal of developing the thick, firm lather and pearlized color that we’ve come to associate with luxury human shampoos.

      I’ve used human shampoos on dogs for years now, and used dog shampoos on my own head more than a few times. The only product I’ve ever had burn a dog was a dog-formulated shampoo; because the human products are so comparatively weak, you actually have a lower chance of doing damage with them than with the professional dog products.

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