Anything from retrieving game to biting a decoy, our working and performance dogs use their mouths a lot! We have a lot invested in their chompers, so it makes sense to keep them in as good as shape as possible. A very small amount of prevention is worth a considerable amount of money later on. I recommend brushing a dog's teeth every day (or every other day at the least), particularly for working and performance breeds since their teeth are so critical to their function. I like using a veterinary specific tooth paste. These come in a variety of flavors from beef and poultry to the rather pleasant vanilla mint (which my dogs happen to really like) and are safe to be swallowed in small amounts, unlike human tooth pastes. I also prefer using an inexpensive electric toothbrush such as a Crest Spinbrush instead of a manual brush. It seems dogs are often more tolerant of the electric toothbrushes than the manual brushes once they get used to the vibrations because they can be moved slowly back and forth across the teeth instead of lots of small motions. Finger brushes don't tend to work as effectively, but they can be used to introduce dogs to the sensation. It's always best to start poking around a dog's mouth when they are pups so they get used to it. Using a finger brush or plain finger, put a small amount of the dog toothpaste on the end of your finger and let your pup lick it off to get used to the taste. Gradually let the dog get used to the feeling of touching their lips, gums, and teeth and always keep it positive with treats.
So what do you do when good teeth go bad? Veterinarians use very similar tools as in human dentistry to work on teeth, so dental care for animals has really advanced considerably. Particularly if a dog uses their mouth for their job, I aggressively recommend they see the vet and a specialist if possible. A board certified member of the American College of Veterinary Dentistry has done extensive post graduate training on animal dentistry and particularly with high performing police or bite sport dogs, these are who I recommend to see. A listing of the members of the ACVD is found here:
Let's also consider some nutritional links. There is a long standing myth that kibble helps clean or scrub the teeth better than canned food. This is absolutely not true. Studies have shown approximately 85% of dogs over the age of 3 years old have periodontal disease and most dogs eat dry kibble. It would be like brushing your teeth with toast. Not very helpful! It can pick up slowly and insidiously, but many dogs are likely in a good bit of pain and discomfort from unhealthy mouths on a lifetime of kibble. So please brush those teeth!
You may say, "but my dog is on a raw diet and their teeth look great! Why do I need to brush?" This is an excellent question. Though many dogs have very nice clean teeth on a predominantly raw diet, they also are at risk for fractures from the bones in the diet if it is not ground. Larger weight bearing bones or "recreational" bones (or antlers and hooves!) are common culprits. Some dogs also like to chew on sticks, rocks, their kennels, and crates, which can also fracture teeth. Fractures to the canines and the fourth (largest) premolar are not at all uncommon. Brushing your dog's teeth regularly allows you to check for inflamed gums (gingivitis) and any masses in the mouth (which often can be malignant tumors) as well as fractured teeth. Fractured teeth are a problem because not only can they be extremely painful with the pulp cavity and nerves exposed, but infections can move up into the area and cause abscesses. These are painful and may even erode the bone of the jaws, making them more likely to fracture.
A fractured tooth needs to be evaluated as soon as possible as there are ways to save the tooth, including a root canal (which keeps the tooth's place, even if it is no longer viable) or a crown amputation/vital pulpotomy (which reduces the height of the crown, or visible part of the tooth, so it can't break off further, and saves the pulp of the tooth). A vital pulpotomy is a dental emergency and must be performed within 3 days to save the tooth. In most pet dogs, the fractured or diseased tooth is often best left extracted so it will not cause further discomfort. But in dogs that use their mouths, particularly bite work dogs, extracting large teeth like a canine or fourth premolar with big roots is much more risky since the tooth (both crown and root) must be pulled out. On a large tooth, this means the root will no longer have as much support to the bones in the jaw, making a fractured jaw more likely. A vital pulpotomy or root canal is a better choice for working dogs. Because a fractured tooth must be addressed right away, if you are brushing and inspecting your dog's teeth each day, you can head off major problems before it starts interfering with the dog's work and health.
Lastly we can discuss routine cleaning of the teeth. This must happen under general anesthesia for several reasons (and this is why an "anesthesia free dental" is a very poor substitute for a full cleaning). First, the process involves a good bit of poking and prodding that many dogs just don't tolerate. A hand scaler can lacerate the gums and the dog can subsequently bite the person trying to do the "cleaning." The ultrasonic scaler uses a lot of water and a high pitched noise, which most all dogs would find very annoying and would not likely hold still for. To have a complete cleaning, we inspect and clean above and below the gum line, which we are not able to do with an awake dog. We can only access the easily visible parts during a hand scaling and not above the gum line, so the result is cosmetic at best. The ultrasonic or hand scaler also leaves microscopic scratches in the enamel of the tooth that must be polished off when completed, otherwise the calculus simply builds back up even faster. This is a similar process with how your teeth are polished after your dentist is done with their cleaning. For these reasons, the ACVD has a position statement why "anesthesia free dentals" are nothing more than "tooth grooming."
In other words, if your dog's teeth need attention, consult your veterinarian or a board certified veterinary dentist on how to best keep their teeth looking and feeling their best.