dog in a bathtub being bathed by a couple of professional dog groomers

When I first learned to groom in 1982, there was a contradiction in the process. I was taught to take care in how I handled the animal and was cautioned about potential harm from mishandling, but I was also encouraged to restrain the dogs and hold/move them any way I could in order to get the job done. The bottom line was that we were getting paid to complete the groom; if it meant one person holding a dog forcibly down as another trimmed its nails, then so be it.

As I found out more about the learning process that takes place for dogs during grooming, I started to rethink those methods. Don’t get me wrong, not every dog can be taught to accept the grooming process with equanimity, but there are ways to get the job done that are much kinder and less traumatic for the animal—it just takes a bit more time and often requires the cooperation of the owner to continue the training at home. 

Most groomers have an up-charge for the extra time it takes to handle difficult behavior, so why not charge instead for the time training a dog takes? We often discuss brushing tools and techniques with the owners, so why not translate that into training exercises? It can result in a dog that handles grooming better with less stress to both the pet and groomer, whereas just forcing a dog to comply will only teach it that it can’t win. 

Every dog is different—some are fearful and timid while others are outgoing extroverts; some are calm by nature while others have little or no impulse control—and the right type of training can help them all become comfortable with the grooming process (as long as the source of discomfort doesn’t stem from an illness or injury). 


Body Language

Some groomers have become experts in reading non-verbal communication through experience and education, but many simply do not “see” what they animal is trying to say. Most dogs signal their emotions and intent long before a bite occurs, and learning to read a dog’s body language is one of the most overlooked skills in handling animals. Every employee in a salon should know basic body language and calming signals, and how to respond to them. Non-verbal communication includes:

  Body posture—Stiff, up-on-toes means the animal is alert; spine rounded, body down shows apprehension.

  Ears—For hanging ears, relaxed and loose at the head means the dog’s comfortable, while top of ears lifted means concern; for prick ears, those that are relaxed, forward or to the side means all is well, while erect and swiveled forward indicates interest or aggression and out to the side means fear.

  Eyes—White showing around them, pupils dilated means the dog is upset/stressed.

  Forehead—A furrowed brow means anxiety.

  Mouth—Closed especially tight means anxiety, while open mouth, “smiling” and panting are signs of relaxation, though fast panting can indicate anxiety.

  Feet—One paw lifted means high anxiety, while evenly-distributed weight on all fours means all is well.

  Tail—Don’t look at wagging to determine an animal’s state; instead, check the tail carriage. Close to the body shows fear or stress, level means all’s well and high can signal dominance. However, you have to take the natural tail carriage into account as Huskies, for instance, always have their tails on high, and Whippets’ normally are curved into their leg.

  Hair—Hackles raised only means excitement, which can be good or bad. Hackles raised from neck to tail, all the way down the body means watch out.

  Rigidity and stillness—Freezing means danger and the dog’s ready to bite.

When dogs are upset in a social situation, they use signals to calm other dogs, such as yawning, licking the lips, looking away (by not making eye contact or physically turning their head/body), sniffing the ground and wagging their tail. It can help to return the signals that are within our ability, as it reassures them that we aren’t looking for trouble, either.

Keep in mind that the dog giving off calming signals may think he has something to worry about. If you push, he may change from trying to calm you down to warning you off with a bite or nip. Don’t give pets unnecessary opportunities, either; keep your face away from theirs and don’t lean over them as both are an invasion of personal space and may be seen as a threat.


Training in the Salon

When it comes to actually training the animals, larger salons might want to consider contacting a local trainer to see if they’d do a short class on body language and stress de-escalation techniques, while smaller salons might have to turn to independent research. There’s a lot of information available on the internet and YouTube, just seek it out and make sure the person offering it has genuine credentials. 

If you’ve found a good trainer that uses motivation instead of coercion but they don’t know what’s involved in grooming, explain that you’d like to refer clients to them and invite them to the salon to see what you need a dog to be able to tolerate comfortably. It could become a mutually-beneficial referral partnership. 

Any training method should be coupled with establishing positive associations and fear-free concepts. Offering a dog treats, putting a toy in the crate or even speaking to them in a calm, happy voice when they cooperate can make a difference. Playing soft music and using anti-fatigue mats on the table can all help reduce stress and make the salon a better environment for the pet. 

“I use fear-free concepts to evaluate the fur-client’s stress level from the moment the client takes the animal out of the car,” explains Elsabeth DeBiase, owner/stylist at Coastal Creations Salon in Bucksport, Maine. “Depending on the behaviors the animal is exhibiting, I may slow the introduction and incorporate fear-free meet and greet strategies, modify the complexity of services for this appointment and manage the client’s expectations. I want my clients to know what we are doing will be in the best interest for [their dog] to ensure [they] has a positive lifelong experience with grooming.” 

As much as possible, ignore behavior you don’t want and praise and reward for behavior you do want. It keeps battles to a minimum and pets respond much better to that approach than to being corrected. 

Once you’ve educated yourself and your staff, pass it on to the dog’s owner. Ask them to handle the dog’s feet, treat the animal for good behavior and recommend basic obedience classes for owners. Almost all dogs can be trained, with the exception of possibly senile seniors. Patience is key here, as dogs can’t be retrained in one or two appointments.


Understanding the Dog’s Perspective

Clients can be invited to bring their dogs by for a quick treat when they do not have a grooming appointment to create a positive association and lessen anticipation of things that they don’t like. If there is any way that your business model allows it even one day a week, working on one dog at a time is ideal for stressed pets; they don’t have to spend time in a crate building anxiety and most can be in and out in an hour or so. When dogs arrive, put them right in the tub to reduce the stress buildup.

Stop and think about what the dog wants and how you can use that. He wants you to stop the tugging/brushing, right? So, if he stops struggling, even for an instant, stop brushing and offer a treat. Even if you’ve only stopped for a second, he’s gotten what he wanted and learned that the consequence of being still and behaving well is getting what he wants and possibly a tasty treat. Slowly increase the time he must be polite in order to get a treat or praise. Repeated many times, it sinks in. It may take multiple visits or it may take only one, but once you’ve trained them you are both safer, it’s much quicker.

Anytime you add a new tool, such as one that makes noise, you need to lower the bar again to keep the dog calm and in learning mode. If they become agitated again, go back to a point where they were able to handle it. 

Learning works best in very small increments. For dogs afraid of clippers, you can start by putting a clipper or any similar small appliance at the end of the table, treating the dog and removing it. Then turn it on for a second and reward if the dog ignores it. Once it’s ignored consistently, put it closer to the dog and reward when it’s no big deal again. 

Carry treats that are soft, appealing to dogs and preferably no bigger than 1/4 in., or you can ask the dog’s owner to purchase a specific flavor/brand of treats for you to use during training. Small, soft treats are quickly ingested, which is good as consuming tidbits should not break the flow of grooming. 

Make sure the owner has given permission to give the dog anything you might use, from homeopathics to peanut butter to treats. Dogs or humans in its home may have allergies or just be on special diets.


Think Outside the Box

When training the dogs, it’s important to take a step back and consider what you can do to make it easier for the dog by trying to understand what they’re objecting to and how to work around it. 

Daryl Conner of Fair Winds Grooming Studio works with her daughter, Rachel, and, after a shoulder injury, they changed the way they work on pets. Instead of working on one dog each, they worked on one dog together. Their method worked so well that even though the shoulder is long-healed, they are still working on either side of the same table most of the time.

“The dogs seem to respond to having extra hands, especially dogs with behavioral problems and old dogs that are wobbly,” says Daryl Conner. “Because there are two of us, the groom goes quickly, and most dogs are in/out in an hour.” 

The way you’ve always groomed is necessarily the best way for all the dogs you groom—taking the time to figure out what works best for each dog will usually pay off. Always be willing to try something else. Surprisingly, sometimes changing the way to change the dog’s behavior is to change the way you’re doing things.

If the dog struggles on nails, do them in a different order—back first if you always do front first, or start from the other side. You can try clipping them in the tub, where nails are typically softer and easier to cut when some water has been absorbed, or even after drying instead of after the bath. Try having the dog sit or lay down. It’s amazing how one small change impacts the dog’s feelings toward an action.


Use the Tools Available

Groomers can use tools provided by manufacturers to reinforce their training. Something as simple as Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic anxiety reliever—administered by the owner—can help. Consult your local veterinarian to see if there are any over-the-counter remedies they suggest you stock.

Use muzzles, preferable basket style. A dog thinking of biting is likely to be conflicted about it and a muzzle can calm them by taking away the option to bite. Use Happy Hoodies, a stretchy towel that goes around the head at the ears both reducing dryer noise and speeding the drying process. 

“We take steps to reduce drying time, which I think most pets dislike,” says Daryl Conner, stylist/proprietor of Fair Winds Grooming Studio in Appleton, Maine and co-author of Holistic Pet Grooming. “We use products that help water blow off the coat more quickly, [such as] Best Shot Maxx and/or Show Season Quick Dry, and we have recently started using the Artero absorber towels, a real game changer.” 

Another towel that absorbs more water than most faux chamois types, The Absorber by Clean Tools, is made of PVA and doesn’t collect dog hair. And, of course, no article about training, control and safety would be complete without a mention of the Groomers Helper, a positioning device that helps prevent bites while keeping the dog safe and calm. 

For the dogs who like to wiggle, bite or demonstrate any other undesirable behavior while you groom them, distraction items are helpful. Aquapaw developed the Slow Treater, a rubber mat that will stick any surface and features rubber nibs that hold a spreadable treat. Some groomers will put cream cheese and peanut butter on the Slow Treater, while others will simply put the food products on the grooming arm or wall for dogs to lick.


Create Realistic Expectations

Most owners seem to have a vision of their pet being the next winner at Westminster and will sometimes resist a trim that’s more practical. Help them understand that you are always the dog’s champion and are making suggestions based on what their dog can handle at this point in his life. 

“I think there is an expectation that we must always turn out a perfect completed groom,” says DeBaise. “This is true for most groomers and pet owners, but that perfect groom, although achievable, may not be in the dog’s best interest. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth, including when your recommendation for the dog’s comfort is for comfort trims under veterinary sedation. Unless you are able to brush your dog daily, or bring him here once a week, we will need to keep him about 1/2 in. long to prevent stressful extra brushing.”

Luckily, pet owners are becoming more aware of the holistic approach to grooming, in terms of making sure the dog is happy and stress-free during the grooming process. Training dogs on how to behave at the salon is a big part of making sure they are comfortable with it. 

Use the tools available to you. Learn about training. Take your own dog to a trainer educated in learning theory. Read books. Most of the same techniques can be used on children and spouses, so it may be worthwhile on several fronts. Happy grooming!  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.