I get about three similar calls a week. Sometimes, callers are a bit coy. “My groomer said my dog was … er, um … well, we could use some help training him to behave.” Other times, they’re up front, “My groomer gave me your number. She said my dog tried to bite her when she did his nails and that he needs training or he can’t come back.” Are these terrible dogs? Not at all. Their pet parents were just unaware they had homework to do before taking their dogs to the grooming salon.
Some dogs can go to a groomer and not have any issues, without any prep work. These are easygoing dogs that don’t mind strangers touching them, moving them, or holding them still. They could care less about loud blow dryers or scissors chopping away right next to their eyes. If you’re lucky enough to have one of these dogs, rejoice! Because most dogs need some training to get acclimated before they will be comfortable enough for a groomer to handle them.
A groomer needs to be able to hold your dog still, manipulate all parts of the body, and perform a job that takes education and skill, all at close range of canine teeth. Fear Free certified groomers typically have a plan for acclimating pets to the salon and grooming and may do some training with new clients, but sometimes groomers start their days with a full line-up of dogs ready for their turns in the tubs and on the tables. When the groomer can’t help with training, you’ll need to take a hand and prepare your pet.
Let’s see what we’re working with first. Does your dog like to be handled?
When you try to touch your dog’s paws, ears, or tail, or look at his teeth, does he:
- Calmly let you do so.
- Whip his head around to see the body part you’re touching.
- Mouth you.
- Snarl, snap, or try to get away.
If a stranger were to try to touch your dog’s paws, ears, or tail, or look at his teeth, would he:
- Calmly let them do so.
- Whip his head around to see the body part they’re touching.
- Mouth them.
- Snarl, snap, or try to get away.
When you try to put on your dog’s collar or harness, does he:
- Act happy, but stays still long enough for you to get them on your first try.
- Play keepaway, staying just out of reach.
- Run away.
- Growl or snap at you.
If you got all As, your dog will likely not have any issues at the groomer’s. If you got any Bs through Ds, you have work to do!
Most times, dogs avoid touch, or snap or bite, out of fear or pain. First, rule out any underlying pain, such as an ear infection, or arthritis with your veterinarian. It is also important to teach your dog that handling is a positive experience. If your dog growls or snaps when touched, seek assistance from a qualified animal behavior professional rather than attempting these exercises yourself. That can help you avoid a bite.
Get your dog’s favorite treats. Have them close by, but not in your hands. If they are in your hands, your dog will pay attention only to the treat and not to what you’re doing. Place treats out of reach so he can’t gobble them all up, but close by so you can reach them easily; for instance, in a treat bag attached to your waist or on a table next to you.
Start with what’s called a touch gradient. Place your hands in a neutral area such as the chest or neck and slide your hand toward an ear. As you do, assess your dog’s body language and pause or adjust accordingly. Utilize treats periodically through the process of moving toward your dog’s ear to reinforce desired behavior of choosing to stay and allowing touch and creating a positive experience.
Work up to gently and briefly touching your dog’s ear. He should remain relaxed and not show any avoidance such as shifting away. As you touch the ear, click once or say “Yes,” let go of the ear, and immediately deliver a treat. If your dog ducks to avoid you touching him, you have progressed too quickly. Take a few steps back and try touching the neck and gliding your hands toward the ear. Always go at the pace where your dog is comfortable. Use this approach to touch both ears, all four paws, the tail, and to look at teeth.
As he improves, touch him for longer periods, and more thoroughly. For example, you may have to start by touching the side of his muzzle with one finger, to using two fingers to lift his lip, to finally holding his chin and gently opening his mouth to inspect his teeth. Keep sessions short and don’t push your dog past his comfort level. The goal is not to force your dog into handling, but to teach him that handling is the best game ever.
Tools of the Trade
What tool does your groomer use to cut nails? What brushes are best for your dog’s coat? Find out and get a set. Don’t forget a blow dryer! Don’t worry, you won’t have to cut your dog’s nails if you don’t want to. You do need to get your dog used to the equipment, however. It will not help your dog’s fear if he’s introduced to potentially scary equipment during his grooming session.
To introduce a tool, show it to your dog first. When he looks at it, click or say “Yes” and treat. Repeat until he is comfortable looking at the item. Place it in a neutral location near the dog. With your hand on it, glide it toward your dog’s nail. Then lightly touch him with the item in the way it will be used. For example, touch the clippers to your dog’s nail, or touch the brush to his shoulder. Mark “Yes” and treat for each touch. Gradually increase the duration of the touch. With a blow dryer, start by turning it on at a distance and face it away from your dog. Gradually work to where he doesn’t mind the breeze on his body or the noise. Go at a pace at which your dog is relaxed, comfortable, and able to take treats.
Your gentle handling homework will bring straight As at the grooming salon. It will also help with veterinary visits and help you in caring for your dog’s health as well. Be sure to follow up all this work by using a Fear Free certified groomer, who will help continue your dog’s positive experience. Remember that some dogs find handling uncomfortable, and don’t hesitate to seek professional advice from a qualified animal behavior specialist or your Fear Free veterinarian.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Teoti Anderson, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, is the vice president of A Dog’s Best Friend, located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A professional dog trainer for more than 23 years, she is the author of The Dog Behavior Problem Solver, Dog Fancy Ultimate Guide to Dog Training, Animal Planet Dogs 101 Dog Training, Puppy Care and Training, The Super Simple Guide to Housetraining, Quick & Easy Crate Training, and Your Outta Control Puppy. A popular conference speaker, she has given presentations to pet owners, humane organizations, and fellow trainers across the United States and internationally.
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Published May 29, 2023