Fear Recovery: Learning To Trust The Brush

All Things Paw

By Michelle Knowles

Currently there are many options to choose from when restraining pets during the grooming process. These tools keep the pet safe and preserve our hands and faces so that we can continue grooming in the future.

I am a strong advocate for keeping everyone safe in the salon and grooming area, and it is an undisputed fact that some pets require muzzling—regardless of the calmness of the atmosphere, essential oils being used or music being played.

While bite injuries are a reality in our line of work (I have been bitten before and it was not fun), there are options and techniques that can be used to help a fearful animal recover from a past traumatizing experience and allow groomer and pet to feel more comfortable during the grooming procedure.

Fear recovery has been a passion of mine since the day I picked up clippers. The things we ask animals to do during the groom are not behaviors that they would display naturally. We are asking them to trust us with their delicate parts while standing over them, coming at them with buzzing clippers, clacking scissors and pulling the hair on their tender skin.

There is a client and pet that stands out the most when I was learning to read and give proper body language and behavior while grooming. Cracker, a tiny four pound Maltese, came to me matted and frightened. Her owner walked in sad and despondent, carrying a special muzzle he had purchased so that she wouldn’t attack while being groomed. The last shop she visited had bloodied all four feet and the groomer previous to that had sliced open her abdomen resulting in a costly surgery and a little frightened dog that had lost all faith in groomers.

Many of the problems associated with “difficult dogs” can be found in improper communication. If time after time, the dog associates grooming with pain and rough handling, they are going to be fearful and possibly aggressive. I have embarked on a journey to find another way. I believe in trying to find a way to make a connection with our special charges.

I made arrangements with Cracker’s dad to bring her in once a week for a while in order for her to get to know me and get used to the sounds and smells of the shop. I worked on one thing at a time; one leg, one ear, sometimes just exploring the environment with her. Cracker was too spastic for me to feel safe putting a clipper or shears near her fragile skin so I practiced patience by learning where she was in the process, letting her snuffle and giving her many hugs and strokes and the seemingly endless cheese treats that she loved.

By the fourth week she was totally de–matted. By the fifth week, all her toenails were trimmed and by the seventh week she had her first full haircut! All the work involved was done without a muzzle of any kind and success was achieved with love and proper communication.

With the cooperation of the owner, patience and a willingness to give her the space she needed, this little Maltese taught me so much about the canine mindset and enriched my understanding about the groomer–pet relationship. I believe most every dog can be rehabilitated.

This type of grooming service is not for everyone. It takes a certain kind of madness and a passion to make a connection with a fearful animal. It takes time and dedication but is well worth the effort to the pet that has to be groomed every month for his or her entire life, and also to the owner who has to deal with the traumatized animal they consider a family member.

There is nothing more rewarding to me than seeing the tender heart of a dog shining back at me through their eyes. This is what keeps me grooming, through the uneducated clients who hit their dogs, or the clients that want me to rush through the groom without any thought at all to the actual needs of their pet. I persevere because I know there is another Cracker who will come to me, frightened and abused, ready for someone willing to help them trust the hand holding the brush again. ✂