Preparing a Puppy for a Lifetime of Grooming

Through Behavioral Training

By Teena Patel

Welcoming puppies into the grooming salon is a fun time for new pet parents. It’s exciting for you as a groomer, too, but it can also be a challenge and a headache. That’s why you need to prepare new puppy clients (and their owners) for a lifetime of grooming success from the very beginning.

If you want to take an active role in teaching your puppy clients how to be groomed, you’ll need to understand some behavior basics. Everything that young puppies are exposed to at the salon is entirely new, and as a groomer you’re in a great position to help teach the skills and shape the behaviors that will make grooming visits a joy for everyone.

 Identify the Skills, then Teach the Behavior

First things first, you need to identify the skills that you want
all puppies to learn. These skills should include:

  • Climbing on and off a ramp
  • Getting in & out of the bath tub
  • Getting on & off the table
  • Standing for the entire duration of the groom, including  during environmental distractions
  • Standing still while being dried
  • Turning
  • Lifting the paws on signal or upon contact.

Before you dive into teaching these and other skills, you’ll need to master the basics of facilitating behavior—because desirable behaviors are facilitated by you as the groomer. Understanding these behavior basics is so important, especially since you may end up teaching these concepts to puppy parents (but more on that later!)

Why is Behavioral Wellness in Puppies So Important for Groomers?

Think of training puppies and their owners as an investment in your business, and also as an important part of helping companion dogs thrive in the various situations modern life demands. Even if you’re able to complete the grooming job, doing so without paying attention
to the long-term consequences will cost you time and stress—and that puppy is only going to get faster
and stronger.

What is Behavior?

Behavior is anything an animal does that can be observed and measured. Thinking is behavior. Emotions are behavior, too. “Observable” is our unit of measure because behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum (even with emotions, there’s still behavior to observe.) All behavior has a function for the animal to continue behaving in that particular way, so it’s important we understand how to attain desired behaviors.

But first, let’s go over some common terminology:

Antecedent: Any event that takes place just before the behavior to trigger or elicit the behavior.

Stimulus: Any event that can effect behavior.

Consequences: Behaviors are maintained through consequences, which occur after the behavior has happened and play a big role in influencing future behaviors.

Remember that all canine behaviors can be influenced quickly, even in a single interaction. Behaviors that work are repeated and behaviors that don’t are modified or suppressed. Learning, or behavior change, is a direct result of an animal’s contact with its environment. When a behavior has been reinforced it will maintain itself, but it can also increase in strength, duration, intensity, and frequency.

When working with any animal, but specifically with puppies, remember that the primary intervention goals are:

(1) Modify our own actions to be less intrusive, and;

(2) Redesign the environment to be less stressful, which reduces behaviors that are risky or difficult to work with. When the puppy does the right behavior we want to make reinforcers plentiful.

Behavior Examples that Impact the Groomer

With puppies, opportunities for learning are everywhere, especially since they aren’t nearly as inhibited as some adult dogs. Consider this next example:

You hold the puppy under its chin—this is the antecedent. Then, the puppy tries to bite—the behavior. You then let go (the consequence.) Eventually, the puppy learns that if it bites, you’ll immediately release its chin. But is it that simple? Not necessarily—we also need to be very specific when identifying the target behavior, because we’ll need to isolate that target behavior from all other behaviors.

In this example, biting is certainly a problem behavior. But, we may notice that other behaviors are leading to the bite (growling, snarling, etc.) and these behaviors demand our attention first. In this scenario we can predict that when the groomer holds the puppy’s face it will continue growling or snarling, which could increase and strengthen into a bite.

How do you teach the puppy to allow you to hold its chin? By conditioning your contact with positive reinforcement and then building other sensory stimulations (like scissoring around the face) into the environment along with increased duration. The ideal outcome is enabling and empowering the animal (through positive reinforcement) to remain still and calm throughout the groom. Over time, the dog will tolerate its environment with more fluency and the amount of time it takes to complete the trim becomes shorter and shorter. In this case, everyone wins!

How to Reinforce for the Desired Behaviors

Reinforcers are different for every dog. A dog with itchy skin may enjoy being brushed, but a matted dog might hate the experience. For that dog, we can build on previous experiences of being touched and brushed, structuring those experiences over time through positive reinforcement.

Behavior modification can be a complex process, but we can make things easier when working with puppies if we take the time to “build” them through empowerment and learning. You just have to teach the skills that you need and build a reinforcement history for those skills to do so. It’s not all that time consuming, either—you’d spend far more time fighting or restraining
a full-grown dog who was never taught properly.

I’m going to share an example of using positive reinforcement to facilitate behavior, but groomers absolutely must remember that using positive reinforcement to attain the target behavior is a process, and the process will be slightly different for each and every dog they groom.

Think about this scenario: An overweight, adult Golden Retriever who was never taught how to get into the bathing tub on its own comes to your shop. Physically picking up such a large dog is difficult, but what if you’d had this dog as a puppy? The dog could have easily been taught how to get into the tub on its own. You could have started with a food lure, having the puppy follow it onto the ramp. Once the puppy follows the lure by lifting their head, you might notice that the head lift correlates with the front paws coming onto the ramp. You could then reinforce the contact of the paws with the ramp by giving the puppy a treat. Then, you could repeat these steps, extending the lure a bit further each time, and only offering the reinforcer (a.k.a. the treat) when the puppy demonstrates more behavior. With only a few repetitions, you could elicit the puppy to go onto the ramp, soon delivering the reinforcer when all four paws are on the ramp.

This exercise would continue until the puppy completes the desired sequence of behaviors: getting on the ramp, climbing up the ramp into the bath tub, and remaining in the tub until released.

We shouldn’t take for granted what’s “in it” for the dog, either. Your actions should yield to a pleasant experience that leads to a desired outcome for the dog. Then, through repetition and practice the reinforcer can be delayed over time. Eventually, you can deliver it at the end of the entire groom.

Of course, promoting learning in any dog is difficult to do when you only see a client every so often. So, what else can groomers do to set puppies up for success as lifetime clients? It all starts with education and a bit of creative thinking.

Teach the Dog and the Owner

You may be thinking, “I’m a groomer, not a trainer.” However, these are not isolated skills. You may not have knowledge on how to train a dog to detect odor or complete an agility course—but you absolutely must know how to teach dogs the behaviors necessary for grooming, because learning will happen anyway.

The easiest way to help a new puppy become an enjoyable lifelong client is to teach the dog and its owner. You can hold clinics, or even a more regular puppy grooming school. These classes would be similar to obedience training courses, and new pet owners are always looking for ways to socialize their puppies. Classes are a great way to teach the behaviors you want to see while giving owners peace of mind. And your job will be much easier if puppies have been exposed to the stimuli of the salon before their first appointment.

Other options include live demonstrations, video tutorials, an email newsletter, and competitions for pet owners. The key is to market your programs, especially to breeders, rescues, and even pet shops. Because when you prepare a puppy for a lifetime of grooming, you can get even more joy out of being a stylist. And remember the “golden rule”: behavior is simply a function of consequences!✂

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