Ivan Pavlov... Ring a Bell? - Groomer to Groomer

Behavior Clips

Ivan Pavlov… Ring a Bell?

By Gary Wilkes

Pavlov is a name well known in the field of psychology but almost nothing about his work is known. At best, you may know that his most famous experiment was to ring a bell and then give a dog a piece of food. He traced the physiological reflexes associated with food – salivation, reduction in heart rate, etc. Within 20-50 pairings of bell followed by food, the dog would salivate to the sound of the bell exactly as it would to real food. You are about to learn more about this great scientist and you’ll understand the information because you know dogs. Most behavioral scientists only know rats and pigeons.

You may ask why the first real scientific study of behavior was about dogs drooling. You can get that from any St. Bernard or Mastiff, for free. The reason is that Pavlov wanted to know how animals make associations with seemingly unrelated events. For instance, if you have a dog that doesn’t like being bathed, it may eventually hate coming into your salon.  If a client connects those two things, they may figure out that for some reason, Buffy doesn’t like you – and take their business someplace else. If you want a dog to listen and understand your instructions, there are rules that will give you more ‘bang for your buck’ when you tell a squirming dog to ‘settle down’.

Knowing how dogs make connections is the foundation for all training. The fact that you don’t offer training services doesn’t mean you don’t do training or sometimes need to do training to make your job easier and to retain clients.

The Prime Rule: 

“B” follows “A” In nature, an animal has to make connections or it can’t survive. Here’s what Pavlov said about it:

“It is pretty evident that under natural conditions the normal animal must respond not only to stimuli which themselves bring immediate wavers of sound, light and the like – which in themselves only signal the approach of these stimuli; though it is not the sight and sound of the beast of prey which is in itself harmful to the smaller animal, but it’s teeth and claws.”

Imagine what he is describing. A bear is waddling across the prairie coming straight at a wolf-pack’s den. If the wolves cannot connect the waddling fat-thing to the danger of the bear’s claws, they will sit there drinking iced tea until those claws get too close to avoid. That’s not good. You may be wondering how that affects what a dog learns.

The first rule of teaching commands is to realize that the sight of the bear comes first, then the ‘consequence’ appears. If I want to teach a dog that ‘settle down’ means don’t buck the loop while I’m doing your nails, the words ‘settle down’ must precede your firm but gentle grip on the dog’s muzzle. If you had a dog that consistently bucked after several groomings, you could come up with a simple training procedure for the owner. Here is the sequence:

Say “settle down”.

Firmly but gently control the dog’s head by gripping the muzzle.

Offer the dog a treat.


The next time that dog is on a grooming table, the words ‘settle down’ will have meaning and the dog will actually settle down. That makes your job easier, gives the client confidence that you have the dog’s best interest in mind, and creates a deeper bond between groomer and client. That’s a win-win situation, thanks to Ivan Pavlov.

The Wrong Way is the Common Way

This information is usually passed off as common knowledge – it’s not. We humans have a tendency to get it backwards. You can see this in your salon if you just watch for it. Here’s how the sequence goes south:

You grip the dog’s muzzle.

You say ‘settle down’ (the dog doesn’t) so you say ‘settle down’ again.

The dog does eventually settle down but has no idea what the words mean.

You get nothing for the future in terms of control or recognition of the words ‘settle down’.

As smart as we are, our tendency is to control the situation and then say a command, often over and over. That is exactly backward but is the common way we do it. Have someone watch you for a while or use a video camera to watch how you interact with the dogs you groom. If you are fairly caught giving the consequence before you say anything, you can start improving your training skills with a little concentration. Here’s the sequence. It goes best with a helper.


You say ‘settle down’

You grip the muzzle.

You release the tension on the muzzle.

You offer a treat or affection to the dog.


You grip the muzzle.

Your assistant says “wrong”
to remind you that you got the sequence wrong.

You recognize the error and try again.

Discovering ways to improve our handling isn’t a big deal if you have years of experience. Groomers are, in my opinion, the finest handlers in the dog business. Knowing a little bit more than you did yesterday is helpful for new groomers. Sometimes that extra knowledge will take a struggle and create a better grooming solution for you and make your client appreciate you that much more.  ✂

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