By Steven Appelbaum
The following scenario is common. A customer drops off his dog at your facility in the morning for a groom. He agrees to pick the dog up later that afternoon so you’ll have to keep her in a kennel for a few hours after her grooming.
The service is performed without incident and while the dog doesn’t appear to love the experience, she does not seem unduly affected by it either. When the owner returns, the dog is very subdued; so much so that the owner asks if she is OK. You answer affirmatively and the owner departs with an air of concern.
A few days later, you contact the owner to check on his dog. He is slightly aloof as he informs you that it took his dog two days to start acting normal again. Concerned, you inquire as to what she was doing that was abnormal. The owner says the dog’s appetite decreased, she threw up and seemed lethargic. He then asks you again if anything happened to her at your salon. You answer honestly that nothing unusual occurred. The call ends in a cordial but strained fashion. You do not see this client again.
So what happened? Any number of things might have caused the dog’s reactions. It’s possible the dog ingested something prior to visiting your salon or that something in the home caused a delayed reaction. It is also very possible that what this dog was responding to was stress.
Let’s face it; many dogs don’t enjoy being groomed. Some don’t like the water or being restrained or the smell of shampoo. Others don’t like strangers or even family members brushing or de–matting them. Some won’t like the heat from the dryer or the temperature of your salon. Others can’t stand being put in a kennel or the sound of other dogs barking. All of these reasons can stress a dog.
Stress affects dogs both physically and psychologically. Depending on
the amount of stress, the reactions can be so mild as to be almost undetectable or severe enough to be obvious and concerning.
Typical reactions to mild stress include panting, dilated pupils, whale eye, frequent yawning, excess drooling, teeth chattering, whining, barking, howling, wrinkled muzzle, and/or slight, low growling. Dogs experiencing mild stress might appear more energetic or “hyper” or conversely might be lethargic. Some of these behaviors are hard to gauge without a baseline. For example, it is difficult for a groomer to know if a dog is lethargic if she has never observed the dog’s normal behavior outside the grooming environment.
Reactions to more severe stress can include all of the above plus trembling or shaking, rigid posture, barking, snapping, submissive urination, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and an inability to focus.
In some cases, a dog will stop exhibiting stress soon after the stimulus causing it is removed. In others, the dog could continue showing some reactions for several hours or days after the cause of the stress has been removed.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help alleviate a dog’s stress. First, actively observe a dog’s reactions to the grooming process. If a dog exhibits any stress response, note when and where it occurs. Does it happen when the dog is first dropped off? When she is placed in a kennel? During the grooming process? If yes, when? Was it during bathing, brushing, or scissoring? Does the dog only show stress when other dogs are barking or when certain dogs are in the shop? The more you can identify the possible causes of a dog’s stress, the better position you will be in to help alleviate it.
If you notice a dog is stressing out when first brought into the shop, let the owner know. Communicate that you care and want the dog’s experience to be the best possible. Ask the owner if he would be willing to bring his dog to your salon a few times a month for a visit. It doesn’t have to be a long visit. 3 to 5 minutes is fine. During the visit, have the owner bring special dog treats and feed his dog while in the shop. You may come out and greet them both. After the requisite time has passed, the owner simply leaves with his dog.
The reason for this exercise is simple: You are attempting to teach the dog to associate positive things with your grooming salon. Short visits that don’t end in grooming but instead involve praise, petting, and food could go far in changing a dog’s connection to your facility. While not all owners will have the time or interest in doing this, most will appreciate your concern and candor. Another thing to watch out for is emotion–filled departures by the owner. Owners who make a big deal of leaving their dogs might be causing them undue stress. It is better if they simply drop the dog off and leave with little fanfare.
If a dog shows signs of stress in the kennel, ask the owner to bring the dog’s favorite toy or blanket for the next appointment. Just giving a dog something loved and familiar can often help alleviate stress. Skip the blanket if a dog urinates or defecates in the kennel.
Some dogs can be quite the handful when groomed. They bark and carry on in a fashion that not only stresses you, but some of the other dogs in your care as well. If some of the more sensitive dogs are responding badly to boisterous ones, consider scheduling changes that prevent these two types from being around each other.
Exercise can help, too, especially if you plan to keep a dog for more than 2 to 3 hours in a kennel. Taking that dog out for a short walk so that she can stretch, go to the bathroom, and breathe some fresher air outside the cacophony of the typical salon could do wonders. Note: you should get written permission from an owner to do this and make sure any dog taken for a walk has a proper fitting collar and sturdy leash. The last thing you want is to lose a dog in your care.
Consider your salon’s environment. You try sitting in a small, cramped metal box in 80 to 90 degree heat with a ton of noise. You can’t go to the bathroom; you are slightly afraid and have no ability to escape. How would you react? Some of this is unavoidable. However, anything you can do to make the experience easier for the dogs is worth consideration. Too hot? Add a fan to make it a little cooler for them and don’t forget access to water. You get the idea. Just be safe and as proactive as you reasonably can.
Finally, not all grooming–related reactions are caused by stress, some might be a result of allergies. This is especially true if you or one of your groomers changes shampoo or conditioner formulas.
If you notice stress responses in a recently groomed dog, you should let the owner know. Explain what you noticed and what you tried to do to help alleviate it. Be tactful and honest. The objective is not to alarm the owner but to let them know you care. It also gives you the chance to proactively warn the owner that her dog might continue to exhibit some stress responses for a few hours or days and that this is normal. This prevents owners from being surprised when their dogs “aren’t acting normally.”
Some dogs aren’t groomed all that often and it will take them a little time to get used to their new haircut. This reminds me of what happened when I went into the military. As a child of the 1970s, when I reported to boot camp my hair was 2 inches below my shoulders. Soon afterwards, I was sporting stubble. It took me three weeks to stop scratching and feeling my head. Dogs are not that much different and their reactions to a new haircut might not be obvious to their owners unless you point them out. ✂
Steven Appelbaum is the President of Animal Behavior College, the nation’s largest animal career vocational school that offers certified dog training, veterinary assistant, and dog grooming courses. Steven is a dog trainer, lecturer, writer, and educator with more than 35 years in the pet industry. He is currently being trained by his Basset Hound, Truffles.