When I first learned to groom in 1982, I was taught to be kind to the animals and to handle them safely. Simultaneously, I was taught that our job was to get the grooming done; the general attitude was if we weren’t actually hurting the dog, we should expect them to quietly tolerate the grooming.
The longer I’ve groomed, the more I’ve felt that dogs have every right to object at times. I mean, from the dog’s perspective, they go into a strange place with odd smells, strange dogs and strange people. They are stuck up on a great big high table that may even MOVE—and that’s before groomers try to drown them, blast them off the table with noisy air, tug at them and attack them with noisy things, and touch and poke your feet, ears and private places.
Who would put up with that quietly? Of course some dogs object.
It wasn’t until I became certified as a dog trainer with CCPDT in 2007 and learned much more about a dog’s experience, that I realized there are better ways to work with dogs in the grooming salon; it’s usually safer for both dog and salon staff to work with the dog rather than making him hold still.
At times, this isn’t always possible. Ultimately, dogs come into the salon to be groomed, not to be trained, and if the owner isn’t willing to pay for the extra time it takes or to put in the time at home to help train the animal, we may have to just restrain the dog and get the job done.
However, there are ways to teach dogs that grooming isn’t as awful as they might think. Without training, the behaviors we don’t want are likely to escalate sometimes to the point where the dog cannot be groomed without sedation—and being sedated to be shaved down a few times a year isn’t anyone’s idea of healthy, good grooming. With training, these behaviors are likely to decrease; the groom will be smoother and take less time, especially if a second person’s assistance is no longer required.
Whenever a dog misbehaves, the first thing to look at is whether there is a reason for it. A prior hidden injury can make picking legs up painful, skin conditions can cause discomfort, dogs will pull away or flinch when hot or dull blades are used and older dogs can be confused and lash out in fear. Vision or hearing issues and prescription drugs can cause panic or aggression. Perhaps something in the environment can be changed to make it better for the dog to behave. Look at all those possibilities before assuming the dog is just plain misbehaving. Suggesting a visit to a veterinarian to rule that out is never a bad idea.
Can you retrain every dog? No. Some may need to be sedated at a veterinarian that also offers grooming, some may need to be groomed by a house call or mobile groomer, some may just need a different groomer. The idea of “socialization” has come to mean that a dog is expected to behave well with all people and all dogs, but that just isn’t reality. I don’t like or interact well with everyone I meet—why should I expect my dog to?
A Manageable Manicure
When it comes to the actual groom, trimming nails is probably the No. 1 cause of acting out on the part of our four-legged clients. I always suggest that groomers watch Dr. Sophia Yin’s video on YouTube, “Dog Aggressive For Nail Trim.” It shows step-by-step how two people can turn a dedicated fighter into a dog that will calmly accept the nail trim. They use a clicker, but the same results can be obtained by using the word “yes” at exactly the moment the dog is accepts what you want.
There’s a lot that can be done to manage struggling and biting for nails, beginning with making absolutely sure that you are not holding legs in a way that's uncomfortable for the dog. Be flexible—I tend to want to start on the back and move to the front, all from the same side and folding the foot under. Some dogs don’t like that, so learn to trim from all sides and by lifting the leg forward and trimming from the top instead of folding it under. This may be enough for a dog to accept a nail trim, if it’s a matter of discomfort. Try trimming the nails after the bath when they are softer and easier to cut or try trimming them in the bath. This method is sufficiently different for pets and oftentimes they’ll just accept the trim. Remember, being difficult for nails is a learned behavior, so switching things up is a good way to start making improvements.
As shown in Dr. Yin’s video, never praise or treat a dog while it is misbehaving. Timing is important. You want to reward the behavior you want to get. Think of what that is—in the case of nails, we want them not to struggle and not to bite. So, give the dog a treat (of course, treat with the owner’s permission) just to let them know what a good guy you are. If the dog doesn’t accept it, stop and try again in 15 minutes. If he’s too stressed to take a treat, he’s too stressed to learn much. Treats should be small (1/4 in.), soft and high value, and there are lots available as training treats.
Hold that treat in your hand and let the dog take it from your fingers. Slowly feed a few. Have a second person approach with nail trimmers. Praise and/or treat only as long as the dog isn’t showing any lip lifting, tension or avoidance of the trimmers. Next, the second person should touch the dog’s foot without the trimmers, and reward for acceptance. Next, touch the foot with trimmers, reward for acceptance. If he begins to bite, snarl or struggle, you went too fast so back up a step. Next, touch the nail with trimmers and when that is accepted move to actually cutting just a tiny tip on the nail and rewarding. Then cut more at a time and reward. Eventually, the dog will be calm for the procedure and you can begin fading the treats; treat only four out of five times, then less and less until treats are just a random part of grooming at moments when he is behaving.
At any time his behavior reverts, go back to the point in training where he was comfortable and repeat. This whole process can be successful in a single short session–or it can take many visits. We may have to start the training process but then revert to just managing the behavior safely with a muzzle and/or restraint by a helper in order to get the job done that day. That’s where taking the time to show the owner how to help train the dog can come in handy. Make sure they understand small steps, offer high value treats and reward only when the dog is calm. Anything they do at home in getting the dog to accept having their feet handled may help.
If basket type muzzles are used, whether made of plastic, metal or comfortable fabric, training can take place while keeping handlers safe. Choose one that, while preventing biting, has spaces large enough to give a good dog a treat through it. A muzzle that works by closing the mouth while leaving the end of it open is not suitable for training. I’ve never found it to be effective for safety, either. If the dog closes its mouth totally, the muzzle is uncomfortably tight and probably frightening for the dog, but if they are even a tiny bit loose they may allow a dog to open his mouth enough to bite—but not allow him to open it enough to let go. I’ve seen some nasty bites from dogs wearing this type of muzzle.
Muzzles perform another important function: they take away the dog’s choice. A dog is likely to be conflicted about biting, as he both wants to make you stop and knows that biting is frowned upon. Wearing a muzzle takes away the biting option, so many will become less upset as they know they can’t bite.
If you can get owners to muzzle train their dogs, it’s much easier and it’s the same process as any other training; ask for improvement in tiny increments, treat only for the desired behavior. Hold a muzzle up and push a treat in at the nose end—the dog will push his nose in to get it. Repeat a few times. Then hold the muzzle up and treat after the dog has pushed his nose in. Repeat a few times, then only reward if he leaves his muzzle in for a second or two. Gradually increase the time the nose is left in the muzzle and eventually move to fastening it and immediately unfastening, followed by leaving it on for seconds, then minutes. You get the idea. I’ve taught dogs to happily accept the muzzle as normal in a 15 minute session in a shop—and my own Brittany is just now starting to be comfortable with it being fastened after a couple of weeks of training whenever I thought to do it at home. Every dog is different and we must allow for that in our expectations.
Keeping Yourself Safe
During training for any behavior, make sure it’s safe for the groomer as well as the dog. This mean there’s a lot of managing the behavior along with re-training the dog to accept that phase of grooming. There are, luckily, a lot of answers to staying safe with difficult dogs.
Before you begin preventing or training, stop and take a look at why it’s occurring. First, pain or physical disability, but there are other real causes for dogs to dislike parts of grooming. The dog that goes splat into a flat pancake on the table may be afraid of heights or slippery footing. Most dogs are afraid of falling, so if a dog is moving around or stepping a leg off the table, try moving the table against a wall to make him feel more secure. He may lean against it, but he’ll feel better as you begin the process of teaching him that it’s safe. If you can get him in a corner with his head against a wall, too, all the better. Use the same process as with muzzles and nails—treat and/or praise for standing upright and still and ask for improvement in tiny increments. That pancake dog may need little training if he’s given a mat to stand on. Even tables with corrugated surfaces may not be comfortable for small sensitive pads, so try something different, even if it’s a towel.
Of course, whenever we try training dogs while performing whatever task they do not like, it can be slow going. It’s also difficult because a lot is counterintuitive for us. For example, with the dog that doesn’t like brushing (and of course make sure you are using a brush soft enough for that particular dog’s sensitivity level) our inclination when the dog stops struggling for an instant is to gratefully move on with brushing, quickly. It’s hard to retrain ourselves to the fact that what the dog wants is for us to stop brushing so when he accepts it, that’s a good reward, to say “good dog!” or “yes” and stop. Even if it’s only for a few moments, he’s gotten what he wanted and will remember that.
Dogs that dig at your arms can make you crazy, as well as injured. Slow the grooming process and try and figure out what exactly he is frightened of, then use the training techniques to make it more acceptable. In the meantime, try an Elizabethan collar (cone) put on backwards to help prevent his forearms free access to yours. Heavy duty dish gloves can help save your arms and, for some dogs, a Groomer’s Helper provides enough restriction to slow it if not prevent entirely.
Chronic sitters are another frustrating behavior that can be retrained. Have the owners teach the dog how to “stand” at home, and use that cue once he knows it. Train as you would with any other behavior. For managing the behavior while training, try Hanvey’s LIPS system, the Groomers Helper with the No-Sit feature or sticking a paper towel roll or tissue paper box under the dog. Those dogs that just want to spin like tops instead of standing can be handled in a similar way.
In fact, most behaviors can be managed or prevented by a little careful thought and by using the methods already described. Afraid of dryers? Use more towels (Artero’s Ultra Absorbent or The Absorber work well), Happy Hoodies, quieter dryers or fans and quick dry sprays as needed, train and tell the owners how to train at home. Dryer seizures, however, are a different, a more extreme matter and may not be helped with training. For the dog that hangs his head when you want him to bring it up, if necessary use a second loop around the muzzle and use plastic chain on the grooming arm to clip it at the desired height. Avoid eye contact as this behavior is often with more timid dogs—then train and get the owners to help.
Rewarding Good Behavior
Should groomers charge for training dogs to behave better for grooming? Absolutely! Most of us charge extra for matting as well as encourage more frequent visits because it takes more time to handle—it works the same with behavior issues. And it doesn’t have to be that he bites; any behavior that takes more time should cost more money.
Judi Cantu Thacker, industry leader, Wahl extreme team member and former groom team coordinator said it best recently, although in reference to puppy grooming.
“‘What do you charge for a puppy?’ I charge full price, and this is why,” she says. “Grooming is minimal and easy, but puppy grooming isn’t just the actual process of grooming. It’s grooming a puppy for a lifetime of comfortable, pleasant grooming experiences. I charge full price for puppies. I block off a full hour and start building a relationship. I spend the first 15 minutes playing, cuddling and offering parent provided treats. Then it’s bath time. I work slowly and talk to them the whole time in a soft calming voice. I towel dry and continue to coddle and talk to the puppy then offer a few more treats. Next is the blow dry. I use my high velocity dryer on a low setting, holding the puppy in my arms for most of the drying. Afterwards I brush, comb and continue to comfort. Then we play a little before I start clipper work.
“The grooming process takes about 30 minutes,” continues Thacker. “Then I spend the next 15 minutes playing, holding and cuddling. Just before I take them in, another round of treats. All of this is important for building trust and a strong bond. The customer isn’t just paying you for your time with a puppy or dog you are training. They are investing in its future and that’s worth a lot."
Your time is valuable, as is your knowledge and compassion. Feel comfortable charging for it and sound self-assured when telling customers what the price is. If they are paying you for training, there is at least a hope that the behavior will improve and the cost go down. If they are paying for the extra time handling difficult behavior takes, they will always have to pay that.
An important part of training is listening to the dog. Dogs can say no, and dogs should be allowed to say no. Listen when they talk to you. The dog biting when his face is scissored is saying, “I hate that, I’m afraid of that.” Listen, and find a different approach. Tell him you understand. Tell him you can wait until he can handle it. Use baby steps to move forward with training and use rewards and praise frequently. Have the owner bring him in for short sessions of training in between groomings—charge accordingly—as well as having them work with them at home.
Most importantly, find ways to keep both you and the dog safe as you conquer unruly behaviors and help them to accept—and maybe even enjoy—a day at the spa. 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.