It’s unfortunate, but many things dogs don’t like are a necessary part of the grooming process; nails, brushing, clipper and dryer noise. Dogs often have a natural fear of falling and spend most of their time in the salon on a table or in a tub rather than firmly on the floor. They have an affinity for order and dislike change and, since we groomers only see dogs intermittently, we are not a familiar part of their routine.
All of these things cause stress for the animal, and their responses can create stress for the groomer. While the easiest way to reduce stress for pets is to simply avoid doing what’s making them upset, that’s often not possible while they’re being groomed. But, there may be some things that we as groomers can do to reduce that stress.
The more we try to think of things from the dog’s perspective, the more creative we can be in finding ways to reduce their stress level. Dogs under less stress cooperate more, which leads to quicker and quieter grooms (with less barking).
So, what is causing the dog’s upset? Think about what it might be, and change something. The dog that is fearful and pulling away when you pick up a foot may be afraid of falling – push the table against a wall, or put a divider on the table for him to lean on.
One dog I groomed became more relaxed if I put rolled towels all around the table as that seemed to mark the boundaries for him and he felt safer. Or maybe he’s got sensitive feet. Can you scissor his pads instead of clip between them?
Try a different approach or change the location where it occurs. In some cases, dogs may be overwhelmed in a busy salon, and a separate space will do wonders for their stress levels.
Daryl Conner, co-author of Holistic Pet Grooming: The Art of Helping Pets Feel as Great as They Look and owner/stylist at Fairwinds Grooming Studio in Appleton, Maine, suggests housing stressed dogs in a kennel or crate where they are sheltered from seeing a lot of action.
“Sometimes this means simply placing a towel over the door to reduce visual stimulation,” he explains. “I also make sure they have something comfortable to lie on, such as a crate pad or towel. If I know a dog is anxious, I try to get it bathed, dried and groomed as soon as possible to reduce the time it spends fretting.”
Every dog is different, though, and making adjustments to your grooming process may ease their anxiety.
“I used to warm up towels in the dryer for after the bath in winter and it calms nervous ones right down, they softly collapse into the warmth,” says Holly Buffinton, stylist/owner at Hollywoofs Mobile in Newport RI. “It’s a cool thing to see and makes our life as groomers easier.”
Sometimes, something as simple as trimming toenails in the tub or after the bath might be enough to make it less upsetting if you usually do it first. (Plus, nails are softer and easier to trim once wetted). Or if you always do the hind first, start with the front feet. At times, a small change can work wonders in reducing stress.
Training in the Salon
A game changing aspect when it comes to grooming is if a dog is trained or not. As the groomer, learn as much as you can about training. Most dogs can indeed be trained to accept grooming calmly. Much of it is counter intuitive for us – for instance, if you are trying to brush a front leg and the dog is squirming and biting, when it stops for an instant, YOU STOP for a moment while praising.
That’s their reward for stopping—you stop doing what they don’t like. Yes, it’s only for a moment, but the association will be made. Eventually they will go longer and longer without biting/squirming. Our instinct as groomers is to power on quickly during the moments they are cooperating, but that’s not how to gain long-term improvement.
Bonnie Peregoy has been the owner/stylist at Bonnie’s Dog & Cat Grooming in Washington D.C since 1997 and producer of a series of training videos, which feature positive reinforcement behavior shaping. Through her company, Healthy Dog Productions, there's a link to a PDF full of information on training as relating to grooming on her website, bonniesdogandcatgrooming.com.
Aside from learning about training as a groomer, one of the biggest keys to reducing stress for the dogs you take care of is to get the owner onboard as a partner in this endeavor. Having them train at home and desensitize their pet to normal grooming events like brushing, having feet handled for nail trimming, standing quietly on the table and more is vital to the success of any training program.
Try videotaping the parts of grooming that the dog doesn’t like and suggest options like associating treats with those activities, and certainly suggest local trainers that you know work with motivational, force-free methods.
More frequent grooming normalizes the experience for the dog, even if they only come in for part of the grooming whether it’s nails, a quick brushout, or a bath. If the owner is not interested in complying, you can either charge what the time it takes is worth to you, or simply decline to groom the dog unless it is trained. Training can prevent injury to both the groomer and the pet and the owner refusing to take part is simply poor animal care and not in your control.
Accounting for Heightened Senses
Naturally, a dog’s senses are much more acute than ours, so remain aware of noise levels and scents in the salon and do what you can to minimize them. Cleaning and disinfecting must take place, but if you can select cleaners with little scent or one that fades quickly, dogs will be less stressed as they take in a lot of information through those noses. Dogs need to be able to identify people and other dogs through their sense of smell.
Some equipment manufacturers endeavor to reduce noise levels as much as possible. Greg Crisp, president of Double K Industries uses non-metal polycarbonate dryer housings that are thicker than usual, providing sound deadening. Their air intakes have a sound dampening system, an acoustical cloaking system that changes the frequency of the noise to something that dogs don’t seem to mind as much. In addition, Double K also has a new nozzle system that will reduce noise as well as increase efficiency on high velocity dryers.
“Our Airgonomic Nozzle System has features that don’t allow the amplitude of the acoustical insult to escape as fully as it might otherwise,” says Crisp. “They are architecturally configured to reduce the noise of moving air exiting in each tip.”
Mike Forcelli of Poly Pet Tubs points out that his tubs are made of polyethylene, which, in addition to being incredibly tough, does not make a resounding noise as metal tubs can. According to Forcelli, “Young dogs or rescues especially may not be able to tolerate noise readily and the poly is so much quieter.”
Quieter clippers usually with adjustable blades, such as Andis’ cordless Vida, can also be a big help for dogs afraid of loud noises.
“We design our tools to be quiet for those pets that are more sensitive to sound,” says Nicole Kallish, manager for Andis Education.
Keeping Age in Mind
Noises and scents in a salon may impact pets differently as they age. Sometimes geriatric pets begin to experience more stress as they age, and other than perhaps booking them for the quieter times and working one on one so they spend less time being groomed, there may not be much we can do for them. For its part, Evolution Dog Wash makes a self serve dog wash machine that, when added to a salon, allows owners to provide their pets with the reassurance they need by doing their own grooming.
“Our American-made, high quality machines have an easy-access door for dogs of all ages and sizes,” says Matt Ogden, owner of Evolution Dog Wash. “In just 10 minutes, users can bathe and wash a dog with all the products needed (shampoo, conditioner, flea and tick treatment if needed and a blow dryer). Water is kept at a perfect 77 degrees. Many of Evolution’s customers are groomers looking for a supplemental option for their own clients whose dogs may be aging and a day at the dog spa just isn’t doable anymore.”
Of course, there are many useful tools to alleviate anxiety and stress for our four legged clients, too. From using a distraction such as AquaPaw’s Slow Treater or a LickiMat, in which the dog licks peanut butter or cheese while being groomed, to Happy Hoodies which provide both hearing protection and a distraction, there are a lot of products groomers can use to calm pets.
Additionally, asking the owner to administer Rescue Remedy or other supplements meant to gently calm dogs without drugging them may help as well.
While it is true that our job as groomers is to bathe, brush, dry and style dogs, it’s not something that needs to be done at any cost. Between educating owners about brushing, sharing resources about training, or convincing owners to bring pets in more often, sometimes the only solution to a pet’s stress is: “Your dog is not comfortable with that part of the grooming process, so we will not be able to complete it today.” Sometimes dogs need us to be their champions. PB