Groomer’s Guide To Aggressive Dogs

Behavior Clips

By Gary Wilkes

Right now I am working with a miniature Poodle who used to bite if you tried to pick him up. His owners didn’t feel comfortable attaching a leash to his collar for the same reason. At the same time, his groomer had no problems with handling this dog.

That doesn’t surprise me at all. Groomers, as a whole, are at the top of handling skills with vet techs, some shelter workers and more rarely, trainers. It’s not something that is taught formally and requires years to develop the ‘touch’. That being said, this is a small rundown on dealing with aggression that might benefit some of you who are on your path to becoming great handlers.

It is very trendy in modern behavior and training circles to define many different types of aggression. The idea is to classify aggression into sub–types to give you insight about their nature and cure. Some of the sub–groups are: dominance aggression, territorial aggression, food aggression, redirected (sometimes called misdirected) aggression, fear aggression, possessive aggression, predatory aggression and pain aggression.

In the majority of cases, detailed classification of aggression is something you do after the fact. In the world of grooming, I think there are only five major types. These are rarely listed in dog training and behavior circles, but I think you will recognize them.

The Five Types of Aggression Commonly Seen in Grooming:

1) “That hurts, I am going to bite you now.” This is the easiest form of aggression to anticipate. You know which procedures cause pain and discomfort. If you can anticipate when the painful part starts, you can make your grip a little firmer, just before the dog goes ballistic. Sometimes a calming hold will get the dog through the pain.

2) “That hurt the last time I was here, I am going to bite you before you can do it again.” If the dog has prior experience he may decide to initiate a bite well in advance of any actual handling. This process may start when the dog comes into the salon. By the time the dog is in the salon, it may be ready to bite anyone who tries to touch or handle it.

3) “Someone else hurt me once, so I will bite you now.” This is a pretty self–explanatory category. Many groomers wear smocks. If a groomer is wearing a smock and the dog thinks smocks = pain, the dog may bite the wrong person. Be aware that your appearance can trigger a bite, even if you have never had bad relations with a particular animal.

4) “I generally bite people, I don’t need a reason.” Some animals have such a long and broad history of violence that they may bite at any given moment—even after typical provocation has failed to trigger a bite. This type of dog may allow you to finish the groom and then bite you on the way out of the salon.

5) “I’m a Chow Chow (Or fill in the blank with any breed you don’t trust).” Every breed of dog has a published breed profile that claims “friendly with kids, good with old people, loyal, devoted, sweet, wonderful, special, easy to train.” Don’t believe it. Some breeds should be considered dangerous until proven otherwise.

Before you apply my rules for anticipating a bite, here are some simple things you can consider. I have only had one real bite in more than 40 years. I’m not bullet proof—that status could change tomorrow. That being said, these are thoughts I use to keep myself safe.

General Rules for Avoiding a Bite:

1) Never make direct eye–contact with a dog you haven’t slept with. Use your peripheral vision to watch what the dog is doing. If this seems odd, just remember that all dogs perceive eye–contact as a threat. Just because a majority of dogs don’t overtly react to direct eye–contact doesn’t mean they think it’s a friendly gesture. This is most important when greeting a dog new to your salon. Try to always avoid bending over a dog from the front. Never “pat the nice doggie on the head.” Towering over a dog may appear to be threatening. Dogs consider their head, neck and shoulders to be private areas—about as private as we consider our groin. When you approach them from the front and above, it’s like someone you don’t know goosing you. Just like people, some dogs like that and some dogs don’t. Turn sideways and squat down, instead. (See #2)

2) When you pick up a dog lamb-style, (from the side, placing one arm around dog’s chest and the other around the rump) you’re a bit less of a threat than standing right over the top, but this may also be seen as a threat. Since this type of lift is common to your job, a safer way to do it is to squat down to wrap your arms around the critter’s legs, then lift the dog using your legs, rather than your back. Sorry, but OSHA actually has this one right. Unless you want chronic back trouble, never lift anything with your back, even a dog. Be aware that your face is very close to the dog’s face when you do this.

3) If you are going to make a first contact with a dog, place your hand below the dog’s chin—never above the head. Try to gently touch the dog’s chest before you go roaming around the ears, lips and muzzle. If you have to handle a dog’s leg, start high, near the elbow, and work your way down without appearing to pull it forward. Pulling forward with the wrong dog usually causes the dog to pull his leg back, arch his neck and bite your hand.

4) Once you have a dog on the table, you may need help with a first nail trim or dealing with mats on the face. If you have an assistant, let them loosely hold the dog under the chin while draping an arm over the dog’s withers. If the dog starts to jerk backward when you clip a nail, the assistant can block the dog’s elbow and you can get on with the task.

5) Use your lead to pull the dog’s head away from you or anyone else in case of an emergency. Learn to make a very quick muzzle by wrapping the lead around the dog’s mouth. This should be done before the dog has a chance to bite you.

Dogs bite. That is a fact of life. Keeping that thought in your mind is a good strategy. Eventually you will gain the skills necessary to handle just about everything—and remember it’s OK to ask for help if you feel uncomfortable with a particular dog. ✂

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