Grooming the Fearful Dog

Do you have clients who tell you that their dogs hate coming to the groomer? If so, don’t despair; there are solutions to this all-too-common problem.

For example, a neighbor of mine once complained that he could never give his small dog Princess a bath, as she would always run away in fear. I offered to help him out, and he was amazed when I returned Princess happy and clean. "How did you do it?" he asked.

In this case, one of the factors contributing to the difficulty of the grooming process was that Princess’s owner had inadvertently begun to sing out the verbal cue, "Let’s get pretty," whenever he wanted to give her a bath. Since bath time did not have a positive association for Princess up to this point, he had mistakenly conditioned her response to this sentence to be one of worry and trepidation. Making matters even worse, he made the mistake of physically forcing the bathtub experience upon her.

There were three ways in which we worked on Princess’ nervousness about grooming to allow for a more calm and peaceful encounter. The first thing that we did was eliminate the fear-provoking, verbal cue, "Let’s get pretty," in order to begin to change Princess’s conditioned emotional response (CER) to the situation. According to certified professional dog trainer Debbie Jacobs, author of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog, the conditioned emotional response is prompted by "things, objects or actions that we learn to feel a particular way about."

Changing the initial grooming interaction to something low-key and pleasant in the dog’s eyes can be the difference between beginning the session with anxiety or in a more relaxed manner. Note that this must be the perception from the dog’s point of view. Princess’s owner did not knowingly sing out, "Let’s get pretty," to intimidate her. However, her reaction indicated that this was not a phrase that made her feel comfortable. So, it is important to watch for the dog’s response in order to determine if our efforts at relaxed engagement are successful.

Next, we adjusted the interaction by recognizing what a powerful tool choice can be. Personal choice is considered a primary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers—most of which are biological, including food, water or the ability to make choices—are things that do not need to be explained or conditioned in order to elicit a positive response. In other words, the freedom to choose is a naturally occurring primary reinforcer and does not need to be paired with something else in order to have value.

If we do need to pair something or condition it in order to give it value, it is called a secondary reinforcer. An example is currency. Money is not inherently valuable; however, it has worth when we connect it with the ability to obtain things that we want.

Of course, primary reinforcers are the most powerful. So, by using choice in our interactions with dogs that may be fearful of the grooming process, we are able to reinforce the experience in a positive way. With that said, groomers have some easy opportunities to insert choices into a dog’s experience in the salon.

First, bend down and allow the dog to advance toward you, as opposed to the other way around. Standing sideways and not looking straight at the dog may make you more approachable. Allowing the dog to come to you means letting it choose where to move in the situation. Ultimately, the goal is the same: be near the dog. However, allowing the dog to choose to come to you enables a primary reinforcer to make the experience more pleasant.

Choice can also be used in touch. Touch the dog lightly to start. If that is tolerated, take it as an agreement to touch with a bit more pressure or duration. If, on the other hand, the dog moves away, respect this choice, wait a moment, and then try again more slowly or lightly. This allows for the choice of the dog.

Lastly, using minimal restraint whenever possible allows the dog to feel more in control of the situation. Allowing choice in body position when it makes sense to do so, versus manually manipulating the dog into place, is another example of using choice as a primary reinforcer.

The final part of the interaction with Princess that we modified dealt with exposure. Exposure to an experience for a shorter time at the start and building gradually to longer durations, as is demonstrated comfortable for the dog, will help to improve the overall experience.

The opposite of this approach would be a term known as "flooding." Flooding is when the dog is confined, cannot escape and must endure the experience. Flooding is a tactic that will not help the dog change its response to the situation. In fact, it will most likely create more anxiety and trepidation about the situation.

According to celebrity dog trainer and author Victoria Stillwell, star of Animal Planet’s It’s Me or the Dog, in an article on her website, "In the majority of cases flooding only makes a dog more anxious and forces the dog to adopt different coping mechanisms such as fighting, or shutting down—where the dog becomes almost numb to the environment and behaves in a way that is truly out of character—an instinct that keeps him safe and ensures survival. This shut down lasts as long as the dog is in the flooding environment, and once back in his comfort zone, the dog is free to be able to show his true feelings again."

Oftentimes, people may presume that the best approach is to just charge ahead and get it over with. However, this is an example of "flooding," and it will most likely result in fear, apathy, aggression, and/or escape/avoidance behaviors. For example, let’s say that you do not like snakes. If you were forced into a room filled with snakes, this would not eventually make you feel better about snakes.

Instead of flooding, groomers want to move slowly, and stop and allow the dog to settle back down if the dog is getting tense or agitated. Moving forward in this way may initially necessitate additional time; however, instead of creating an adverse experience, the groomer will teach the dog that it can feel comfortable in these surroundings.

One way to go about building up the interaction between dog and groomer would be to suggest that the owner bring the pet to the salon, but not to get groomed. Basically, the dog is just taking a pleasant ride in the car. The destination happens to be the groomers, but nothing scary happens.

Perhaps the first time, they just drive to the shop and then leave. Then, the next time, they may come inside, take a stroll around and leave.

By doing this, the dog learns that going in the car does not always mean that it is being brought to some fright-provoking destination. This way, the dog doesn’t begin to get anxious before even getting to the groomer. Dogs that can and do view car rides as part of the fun are relaxed and happy. That will result in a much better introduction to the salon.

By adjusting initial interactions, using choice as a primary reinforcer, and working slowly and at the dog’s pace instead of employing flooding techniques, groomers can help dogs to enjoy and appreciate the grooming experience. And that, in turn, will make for less stressful handling for the groomer and the pet owner as well.

Terrie Hayward holds a MEd, is a Karen Pryor Academy-Certified Training Partner and is a CPDT-KA (Council for Professional Dog Trainers) certified professional animal trainer. She works primarily with dogs, using the science of applied behavioral analysis to effect positive change in the learning patterns of animals and their caregivers. Her business, PAW-Positive Animal Wellness can be found on Facebook and online at