We groomers have an obligation to keep the pets in our care as safe as possible. The subject of safety encompasses a lot of territory, including how safe our physical plant is, what policies are in place and what plans we have to address the inevitable occasion when a pet is injured on our watch. Because, really, we’re working with live, unpredictable animals—if an accident hasn’t happened to you already, it will.
In order to do our best work, we need to reach all of a dog’s body, which often involves a lot of pulling/pushing and bending/twisting of the dog (and us, too!) to get our tools where we need them. You need to be aware of what you are asking a dog’s body to do and be sure it’s within their comfort level. Keep in mind that many dogs may not vocalize or seem to be injured, but incorrect handling can have a negative effect that appears later. If lifting a hind leg to get to the inside involves pulling it out to the side while lifting to the level of the back, it’s probably best to look for another way.
The second part is to be able to anticipate what a dog is likely to do, especially on the table and in the tub. All staff should be familiar with dog behaviors and be aware of the "iffy" areas, such as feet, face/ears and under the tail. If you know how a dog’s body works, you are less likely to inadvertently strain a muscle, ligament or tendon while trying to clip or scissor to perfection.
In addition to being aware of the dog, it’s vital to be aware of your tools and equipment. Scissors are everyday tools to us but we should always maintain a healthy respect for the fact that they can cut things other than the hair we intend to use them for.
Daryl Conner, writer and owner of FairWinds Grooming Studio, tells a story of a groomer that was scissoring a dog’s side when it stepped off the edge of the table for a second and stood right back up with a deep puncture wound in its side from the upright, closed shears in the groomer’s hand. The groomer hadn’t even felt it happen.
As awful as that story is, I can see how it happened and feel fortunate it’s never happened to me. It’s easy to concentrate just on the bit you are cutting and not "see" that the tips are a little close to something you don’t want to be cutting. If you ever scissor front legs holding them up parallel to the table, just picture the wrong long-eared dog putting his head down to inspect your work just as you close those shears—oops.
Michael Mailman, president of Economy Supply Company, suggests always keeping part of your focus on the dog’s movement and being aware of where the shear is and the length of its blades. Modify the tool you’re using to best accommodate not only styling, but safety.
"Most groomers prefer a shear of 8 or 8 1/2 inch total length, as the longer the shear the less times you have to open and close your hand, which means less stress on [pets] and less chances for unevenness in your cut," says Mailman. "But for some tasks, a smaller shear may be the better choice. Smaller shears enable maneuverability to perform more intricate tasks."
To prevent a dog from accidentally stepping on the shears, make sure they’re closed before they’re set down. Open shears also leave the edges exposed to nicks or damage, especially if it’s dropped when open. If you feel or see any damage or nicks, stop using the shear and send it to be fixed.
A Step Ahead
Prevention is a huge aspect of safety. Know what’s possible and don’t be afraid to say no to a customer who doesn’t. They may not understand how harmful extensive dematting on the wrong dog can be or how at risk some frightened dogs can be when faced with a force dryer. A "smoothie" trim or a dog dried less straight may be the best option for safety.
"Groomers should plan for accidents—they’re inevitable," explains Mary Oquendo, an industry consultant and expert on safety. "We work on live animals. They zig, we zag. The best thing you can do is to plan for them."
To ensure a safer salon, create checklists on what to do and keep them handy, as they could be used for both prevention and first-aid in situations ranging from heat exhaustion, cuts, seizures or ear hematomas to getting an animal to the veterinarian quickly or evacuating in an emergency. To stay on top of pet first-aid, take a hands-on a class every two years to help commit the process to muscle memory. When an accident does happen, debrief everyone afterward and ask questions about what could have been done differently and what slowed people down.
Use whatever equipment you deem useful in increasing safety. The Groomers Helper is a piece of equipment that can prevent a lot of issues from occurring and help dogs calm down in the process. It’s been around for about 20 years and I’m always surprised when groomers don’t know about it.
When restrained, pets quickly learn their limitations and settle into their restricted footprint. Most realize that they are not fighting you but are simply fighting against themselves and stop, yet they aren’t in that "giving up" stage of stress—they seem to just accept it and remain calm.
No matter how prepared you are, there will always be dogs that you can’t easily control safely. You still may be able to groom them, though, if you think of different ways to accommodate the dog. I groom a little Shih Tzu-cross that can’t handle spray in her face. In the beginning of my career, I probably would have held her chin hair firmly, been as kind as I could and forced her to have her face washed and rinsed anyway.
These days, I tend to think more from the dog’s perspective and try as many solutions as possible to get the job done while not stressing the dog. I tried a fine mist of a spray, a different setting, the hose on lower pressure with no sprayer on—nope, Gracie doesn’t like water on her face. We ended up agreeing that a facecloth was OK, so I use well-diluted shampoo, leave it on while I wash everything else so it has a chance to work, add a bit more and finger scrub and rinse by squeezing a washcloth repeatedly on her face. It takes a little longer but she is less stressed and so am I. More importantly, she is not at risk for hurting her neck/back by thrashing and fighting, getting soap suds in her eye or bashing her face into a hard metal sprayer.
As much as you can, accommodate the dog or work to teach them that it isn’t as bad as they think. The same dog used to be horrific for her nails, but after much time taken with accepting less perfect nails on my part and more frequent trims with lots of high-value treats and calm, soothing speeches coupled with thinking of alternative ways to accomplish the same end, she tolerates it well.
If you have a dog that is determined to dance around enough to step off the table, move the table against a wall for just that dog to limit the risk. Apply shampoo to faces last so the risk of suds getting in the eyes is reduced. If the dog is freaked out by force dryers, use good faux chamois towels extensively to cut down the time it’s on or use another means to dry them. Use all of the tools and equipment available to you, which may include supplements like CBD, preferably administered by the owner.
"It’s an alternative to using a tranquilizer, which can actually make a dog a little more dangerous for the groomer as they react much differently when they are loopy," explains Berger.
CBD works with the receptors in the central nervous system to reduce anxiety and inflammation and relieve pain. It doesn’t sedate or medicate; it simply increases the pets’ ambient CBD level by reducing its mental and muscular tension. CBD takes anxiety and pain down a couple notches to create a more docile, amiable mood. Choosing a CBD brand that is full-spectrum, double lab tested and of a pharmaceutical grade is critical.
One of the highest risk segments of the pet population is geriatrics. They are slowing down, their hearing and vision may be reduced, and they suffer from confusion and dementia as often as humans do. They may be suffering from undiagnosed ailments that can be triggered or exacerbated by stress. How can groomers ensure the safety of the older pet set?
Well, we can’t. Risk assessment is part of keeping the dogs in our care safe, and it’s foolish to assume that risk whether it’s a dog with a heart condition or a geriatric. While our compassion may take over and we’ll continue to groom a pet that’s grown old while in our care, it’s probably not a good idea to accept a similar pet as a new client.
If an elderly pet is seeking new care, chances are they’ve been told by another groomer that they are too high a risk to continue grooming unless in a facility with immediate veterinary care available. Many groomers have even adopted an age limit past which they will not accept new clients. Don’t end up as the bad guy on social media because you took on a dog that was too high a risk.
Listening to the dogs is a large part of the process, as they will let you know what their comfort level is. If they need to be held by a helper, do that. Sometimes holding them off the ground in someone’s arms or a sling may make bones and joints more comfortable, but it may be too mentally stressful for some.
"If they need the ground under their feet, have someone gently relieve some of the weight off their legs by hands between the back legs or at the brisket, NOT under the belly, as that is often very uncomfortable on old bladders and organs," says Liz Sines, NCMG/ICMG, grooming manager at Spa on State which specializes in grooming geriatrics, puppies and behaviorally/medically-challenged dogs.
She reminds us that looking up may be very uncomfortable for an older dog’s neck. Sit and raise your table to groom the face with the dog looking down at you to avoid stress. Sometimes the "burping a baby over a helper’s shoulder" position will do the trick, other times it’s a rolled up towel that the pet can rest its head on.
Sines asks the owners of her oldsters to stay and witness the grooming process and makes sure they know she can’t guarantee any part of the process. She’s honest and open about the risks. If they are there they can see the difficulty, and their presence may calm the dog to some extent.
Grooming is necessary for quality of life for just about all dogs. It’s on us to make sure that we keep them as safe as we possibly can during the process, and a lot of that is just thinking and caring. 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.