How to Handle All Types of Dogs During Grooming

Knowing how to properly handle animals in the salon is imperative to maintaining a successful grooming business.




Groomers spend a lot of time dealing with dogs that just will not behave. And it’s no wonder that many dogs won’t—or can’t. There are a plethora of things that cause fear and anxiety in animals, including strangers, loud or sudden noises, being restrained, new situations and more.


If a stranger picks a dog up and holds it on a table three feet above the ground in order to tug on its coat, poke in its ears and pinch its toenails, in an environment full of strange dogs and loud dryers that it can’t get away from, and its owner has left it, what is it supposed to think? These are all things dogs fear, and we expect them to accept it all with equanimity.


Although most groomers are pet-loving, compassionate people, it’s also true that we need to complete the grooming process that we are being paid to do. And it’s cost effective to do it quickly, so balancing compassion for the animal against the task at hand is sometimes hard. There are three aspects to handling animals in the salon that can make it easier on everyone involved.


First, we can do as much as possible to prevent stress to the dogs, as that can cause difficult behavior. Second, we can manage the behavior and the environment to the best of our ability to speed up the process and ensure everyone’s safety using the tools and techniques available. Third, in some cases, the dogs can be trained to react differently to the grooming process, saving upset and time for all.


How can we help prevent stress? Looking from the dog’s perspective helps. I recently saw a relevant quote on social media that originated from The Educated Dog Learning Center in Manhattan Beach, Calif.: “Thinking of your dog as behaving badly predisposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your dog as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.”


It’s easy for us to become frustrated with a dog that is wriggling, pulling away, snarling and even biting. However, it helps to remember that the dogs are probably nice when not being asked to do things they don’t understand. Groomers can help the dogs feel comfortable instead of coercing them into compliance—although sometimes that is all that works.


Evaluate the environment from the dogs’ viewpoint and see what can be done to alleviate their anxiety.  Noise abatement is huge. Is there a way to separate the bathing and drying area, where most of the unpleasant noise occurs? Can noise reducing insulation be added or acoustic panels hung on the walls? If you have an unstoppable barker, can they be separated or scheduled to move in and out quickly?


Dogs that cannot see each other are often less stressed, so look for ways to keep four-legged clients visually away from each other. Dogs walking past crated dogs can cause a lot of ruckus. If the dogs can’t see each other, that’s reduced by a lot. Give crated dogs something to do besides bark at passersby. Radio or television noise masking sounds can be a great distraction for many dogs, and a stuffed Kong or bully stick—with the owner’s permission, of course—can make them ignore the rest of the world for a while. Lowering the lighting levels in areas away from workstations can help reduce stress, too.


Preventing or reducing stress can also come in the form of supplements. While I do not recommend working on a sedated or tranquilized animal except under the direct supervision of a veterinarian, there are mild items that can do just a bit to help animals keep their self-control. Many groomers use flower essences or essential oils to alleviate stress for everyone in the salon. Rescue Remedy, a Bach Flower Essence, is very popular with both humans and pets. Earth Animal’s Calm Down is another remedy that can keep a pet’s anxiety level down with just a few drops.


Multiple essential oils are available from groomers that started using them in their salons and now sell them to other groomers. Some sites are full of information on which of these are safe for pets and how best to diffuse them in the environment. Barbara Bird, popular author and grooming educator for many years, has compiled information at Show Season’s K9&You Essential oil blends were developed by Bird, who advises that “essential oil users need to learn about safety profiles, as well as favorable talking points of the oils they use. ‘Natural’ does not always equate with ‘safe.’” Mellow Pet is a good one to try for salons.


Remedy+Recovery from Cardinal Pet Care offers a Calming Lavender Mist, a gentle spray that can be spritzed onto the pet’s bed or area before or during a visit to the groomer. King Kanine has CBD oil, which has become popular for many uses, including alleviating anxiety.


Remember that any remedy—no matter how natural or benign—is still affecting a pet, whether by inhalation, orally or another method. Make sure you have permission from the owner or sell it to them to administer at home. Many of these work best before the stress begins, so a retail sale to the customer may be best in any case.


If an animal has reached a point of utter frustration to a point where it isn’t able to listen or respond to what you are asking, a 15-minute break may be all they need to regroup and handle it. Honestly, if the dog is that upset, I’m willing to bet that the groomer will benefit from a break as well.


Managing difficult behavior often depends upon tools and equipment, and groomers are fortunate to have a lot of options at their disposal. Grooming shows, trade magazines, and online groups and forums for professional groomers can help us keep up to date with what’s available and how well it’s working.


The folks at Happy Hoodie created a soft, expandable, terrycloth type fabric band with gentle compression that relieves anxiety and calms dogs. It muffles the noise of a force dryer, provides a distraction and helps the ears dry much more quickly on most breeds. When I realized how much it quieted dogs, I started using it while trimming nails with a fair amount of success. No sit supports that encourage dogs to stand without being uncomfortable (a pool noodle with a slit cut in it to pop over the bar helps), quieter dryers, table mats for secure footing, slings and muzzles can all help manage difficult behavior.


Muzzles can be very comforting for some dogs, as they are stressed by the conflict of knowing biting is unacceptable versus wanting to object to what groomers must do. The muzzle can reduce that conflict by taking the biting option away. Sprayers for the bathtub that are less noisy can help as well. Aqua Comb’s sprayer also washes from the skin out, saving time and washing thoroughly, as well as providing a massage that helps fearful dogs relax.


Cream of the Crop

Probably one of the most useful tools I’ve found is the Groomers Helper. Although I don’t use it as recommended on every dog, it’s proven invaluable when I do need it. It’s a restraint system that works like cross ties on a horse. The dog wears a grooming loop around the neck as usual, but it has a metal ring attached at the bottom that allows it to be tethered to a clamp on the grooming arm by a system with a quick release.


Ask any groomer what their two fears are and they will tell you it is getting bitten or hurting the pet they are working with,” says Chuck Simons, developer of the Groomers Helper from the namesake company located in Margate, N.J. “The Groomers Helper puts both of these to rest, and makes every individual job on the table safer and easier for the stylist and the pet.”


Restraining the dog using two points removes the pressure from its trachea, which is a high-risk area for injury if a dog is struggling against the noose. It restricts the dog’s movement without holding it tightly, and the dog’s head isn’t in an uncomfortable position, so most dogs accept it pretty well. The dog can’t move around enough to reach the groomer as easily, spin in circles or drop its head. Some versions include the invaluable Panic Snap, a quick release for grooming loops that can’t be released by sudden jerks by the dog or anything except a person’s fingers. Dogs quickly learn that they are only fighting against themselves and it isn’t working so most stop, which allows the groomer to gently teach them that grooming isn’t really hurting them.


Training Temperament

Some training can be accomplished in the salon depending upon the dog, its comfort level and temperament, but more can be done with owner participation. Find trainers in your area that use positive motivational training and have experience in helping dogs overcome any dislike of grooming, and be ready to recommend them. If you work with a dog in the salon, make sure you are educated on training and theory, and charge for it. Most of us will charge a “difficult dog” fee for extra time taken; make sure you charge for taking the time to work to change behavior as well. Explaining to the owner that a “handling fee” will likely be every time, but a “training fee” will hopefully reduce over time as the dog’s behavior improves will help to get them onboard with both paying the fee and helping at home.


Shannon Finch, owner of AnimalKind Training in Stanwood, Wash., is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, has a master’s degree in humane education and is a certified TTouch practitioner. Finch believes a grooming appointment should be separate from a training appointment.


“Training takes time and repetitions, with breaks for the dog to process what he’s learned, and a dog may only be able to work for 10 minutes before she is done for that session,” says Finch. “There will always be that temptation to push the dog just to get the job done, and that won’t make for a good training session. A groomer could learn how to do this kind of training and offer it as another service, or team up with a trainer.”


However, not all groomers are interested in becoming trainers, even part time, so they can refer their clients to trainers. “A groomer could do a real service for clients by educating them on what their dog should know,” adds Finch. “Most people really have no idea what is involved.”


Finch notes that there are many skills that a dog should have before being groomed. “Be able to pick up a paw and have it held, toes touched and spread, pads touched, both the pad itself and in between the pads, nails touched and clipped or dremeled, ears handled, mouth handled, tail handled, be able to be brushed.” That list alone could be invaluable to dog owners.


A groomer embarking on training should start with puppies when possible. Many of us have “puppy packages” to encourage owners to bring them in early and often to become accustomed to the process, but it’s important that we know the signs of stress and not push beyond a young dog’s tolerance—or any dog, for that matter.


If a dog is biting and snarling when it enters the salon, or giving a hard, still stare, it’s probably best not to try and handle it. For others, if you’ve tried everything at your disposal to prevent stress, manage poor behaviors and re-train good ones, and the dog is not responding, it may be time to suggest another groomer. Perhaps one working at a veterinary facility to allow safe sedation is the best answer, or perhaps another facility with a different staff would allow the animal to feel more calm.


It’s important for us to know that not every groomer can work with every dog. Everyone’s safety dictates knowing when it’s time to stop trying. However, usually combining prevention, management and training can lead to less stress for both pet and groomers as well as reduced time spend handling difficult dogs. PB


Carol Visser has been involved in the pet industry since 1982 in various capacities, including grooming in and owning a busy suburban shop, working as a product expert for PetEdge, teaching seminars and training dogs. She certified as a Master Groomer with NDGAA in 1990 and as a Certified Pet Dog Trainer in 2007, and she continues to enjoy learning about dogs and grooming at her small salon in rural Maine.


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