By Michelle Knowles
Who serves the dog that no one wants to groom? The dog that has been turned away from all other shops, and the only alternative is sedation or euthanasia?
The dog that has been through many misunderstandings in his lifetime?
Rarely do I come across a dog that is genetically reactive—these do better in a sedated veterinary environment. But most of these dogs have been mishandled, overstimulated, overtreated and never given space or respect in the handling of their own bodies. Through no fault of their own, groomers of today have very little knowledge of training and handling—other than what they have picked up along the way or have been taught, perhaps by someone who also didn’t have the benefit of education in training dogs.
There are so many restraints, techniques, slings and bindings that have been developed for the veterinary industry where medical procedures are necessary and sometimes mean the difference between life and death. These restraints and techniques have filtered into the grooming environment in order to groom more efficiently, and also to just get the job done. Historically, we may have been taught that it is “for the good of the animal” or “let’s just get it done at all costs”, but these ways of grooming may be causing more harm than good in the long run. To a pet that has to be groomed for a lifetime, this may mean a lifetime of fear, anger and frustration.
I hear a lot of language that begins with how this or that dog is “naughty” or other choice words, which can create an atmosphere of dread, which in turn creates energy that is transmitted to the animal before he even walks in the door. Dogs are not “naughty” when they are letting you know that they are uncomfortable with something you are doing. Unwanted behavior appears when the animal needs more space, more time or more acclimatization to the procedure you are performing. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of how high your own personal energy is when you interact with the dog. Finding your own personal Zen can benefit you and the reactive animal you are working with.
Dogs are just expected to bear the grooming procedure without complaint, with many of them not even allowed to growl. These are the dogs that learn to bite without growling or showing any other sign of distress. Lack of communication and misunderstanding the needs of these pressure–sensitive animals inevitably leads to a badly behaved dog during the grooming process.
Here are some things to think about when handling a difficult dog:
Making a calm space starts when the dog walks in the door. Greet the owner quietly and in soft tones. High–pitched baby talk is overstimulating and ramps up the dog’s energy.
Stand side by side with the owner and have them hand you the leash while you are discussing the groom. This puts you on the same “team” as the dog and makes you less of a target of mistrust. Stay where you are until the owner leaves the building and the pet understands that you are in charge of his safety. Continue to offer calmness; no baby talk and little or no eye contact. Some pets are not capable of being petted right away; touching should stay minimal.
If possible, require that the dog is calm before entering the grooming or bathing area and that you have control of the leash, preferably a slip lead that sits at the highest part of the neck. Walk calmly to the tub and proceed to bathe without talking to the dog and handling him gently but firmly. A slow, measured pace will be more beneficial than a fast scrubbing. After bathing and conditioning, allow the animal some time to drip dry in a kennel on a fluffy towel so he has a break.
When the dog is damp, take him out in the same calm manner and invite him onto the table. This is the perfect time to get the coat brushed out, which will help dry the coat further, and prepare the coat for drying. Remove the nozzle, and using an adjustable dryer, start slowly until you find his comfort zone.
Make sure you work slowly and deliberately; fast movements may trigger a reaction. “Ask” before handling feet by moving your hand from the shoulder or hip to the foot and applying slight pressure until there is agreement. Make all of your actions predictable so the pet has the comfort of a routine. This is the same way large animals, like horses, are handled.
Try to end with a “win”. Give praise when the dog is calm or agrees to the handling that you are asking for.
Do not take it personally if the dog is still reactive, try another groomer at your shop or make recommendations to other shops if necessary. Never let your ego get in the way of a possible love match with another groomer.
With a little time, effort and patience, reactive dogs will begin to trust the process again. This may take several sessions and you must gauge the limits of the dog on every procedure.
Grooming difficult or reactive dogs can be very rewarding for the right person—it is not for everyone. In a world where dogs are expected to be obedient, restrained, quiet, friendly and learn a different set of behaviors for every environment, give them a refuge during their grooming session; give them the gift of respect and understanding. Allow them to communicate with you as a dog. ✂️