One of the blessings of dog behavior is that you can change it. One of the curses of dog behavior is that it can change.
For instance, I was working with a dog yesterday who gets violent if you try to groom his rear end. He is remarkably like Bear, the Mini Schnauzer I recalled in a previous column. If you try to touch this dog’s rear end, he’ll bite you. We have made great progress with this little guy and decided it was time to go to the groomer to test our progress.
I have known the groomer, Tammy Wilson-Teeter, for a long time and she is a very good handler and a very good trainer. All started well. We were able to bathe him and dry him – things that formerly triggered aggression. Then we got to the clippers. He was standing in a loop and did beautifully for his rear end.
Like Bear, when Paco whipped around to bite, I corrected him with a thump from a rolled up towel. He stopped trying to bite… for a while. About 15 minutes in, he became more and more likely to ignore the thump and continue to respond aggressively. Meaning he was becoming more and more aroused and less sensitive to the corrections. We called it quits.
One of the valuable qualities of a wise groomer is the ability to see the whole picture. This dog came from a rescue group with his resistance to grooming pre-loaded. The knee-jerk assumption is that someone cranked on him earlier in life and he developed a natural defensiveness about being handled. I don’t take that for granted, but in this case, I’ll accept that as an explanation of the origin of his aggression. Pain does that.
A typical dog motto is, “Hurt me once, shame on you; hurt me twice, I’ll hurt you back; hurt me three times and you aren’t getting me on that table for a million bucks.” When I met him – that was Paco’s behavior in a nut shell. Our work to date included getting him bathed and even at the end of the struggle, he let Tammy pick him up off the floor and put him back on the table without incident.
We have made considerable progress, but we obviously aren’t done yet. If we had used our combined skills to restrain him, we would have lost everything we’ve gained and put ourselves in a deeper hole. At the end, simply brushing a soft towel on his shoulders triggered his attempt to bite us. That’s why we quit.
In the rush of a busy grooming salon, it is easy to “get-r-done” without worrying about the future. Some salons, like the big-box stores, do not handle dogs that offer any form of aggression. Some amateur rescue groups are so focused on getting a dog pretty for an adoption that they are willing to go over the line to chalk up another victory.
It’s very difficult to tell an owner that Buffy isn’t done and looks like a third-grader got creative with a pair of clippers. It’s also a matter of pride. Tammy made her decision to stop the grooming with a huge regret that anyone would think that was an example of her work. It takes a very smart person to do that. Finishing the job might have made money at the moment and lost the client over the long haul. That’s not smart.
What to do about it
One of the best ways to correct knee-jerk aggression is to involve the owner in the solution. In most cases, a dog will let his owner handle him differently than his groomer. If you can identify the specific triggers for the aggression, you can have the owner pair the triggers with food.
For instance, Paco’s owner is going to start brushing his shoulders with the back side of a brush. One or two rubs with the smooth surface and he gets a treat. She is also going to gently tug his hair for a second and shove a treat in his mouth. This can be done while watching television and she can use his regular food.
Over time, she can switch to using the brush as it was meant to be used – first softly and then more firmly. If the dog sparks at any point, it’s time for a break. Many people think that this will “reward” the aggression, but the calming effect of the food association will eventually make the sensations acceptable.
The Bottom Line
Food only goes so far to pacify a dog. You can certainly get a dog comfortable with things that formerly would have triggered aggression, but you can’t fix all of it. At some point the aggression will have to be blocked directly. That is because, unless specifically inhibited, a behavior doesn’t disappear just because you associate food with something else. If that was true, learning to speak French would make you forget English.
Your goal in desensitizing the dog is not to finish the job, it’s to see how far down the road you can go. Paco’s behavior at the groomer was far better than it previously was for two reasons: we’ve been using a lot of rewards for passivity and he’s gotten bonked for attempting to bite. Neither polarity is going to fix this problem by itself. Just using force is what caused this problem in the first place. Just using “positive” methods leaves the behavior intact but submerged.
If you have skills at handling and training, this article isn’t really for you. It’s a cautionary tale for those whose focus on getting the job done, which may create roadblocks for the future. If you see a dog that is violent and undoubtedly reacting to the ghost of groomers-past, consider finding a trainer who has experience fixing these kinds of problems. A collaboration between a fine groomer and a fine trainer is the best solution for dogs with issues.