By Melissa Viera
Every groomer understands the challenges of having to work quickly and produce beautiful results when your client is a living, breathing animal. Groomers must be prepared to deal with situations of all kinds in order to keep things running smoothly. An uncooperative dog doesn’t have to result in a headache for you and your employees. While some dogs find grooming pleasant others can become very stressed by the experience. Helping dogs adjust to the grooming experience, and even learn to enjoy it is essential in the grooming business. Repeat customers make up for the majority of profits in the typical grooming business, and every customer will appreciate picking up a dog that is free from signs of stress. With some work, a dog that was a challenge could end up being a dog that pulls their owner to the door for their next grooming appointment.
Trade secrets live behind the scenes of every grooming salon. Groomers send home dogs whose natural coat color looks one thousand times more vibrant than it looked when they came in, whose noses seem to be shining, and who smell like fresh fruit. A groomer is responsible for providing every beauty and spa treatment in the book to their four-legged friends, but another required job skill is the ability to understand dog behavior and provide positive experiences. To ensure the safety of both the groomer and the pet, groomers must know how to keep pets calm and under control during their visit.
For some dogs bath time is a breeze and trimming isn’t all that bad either, but what happens in between turns some of the sweetest dogs into complete maniacs. Just when you think you are only a dry and a cut away from sending a certain dog home you turn on your force dryer to find out that this dog is just not having it. It’s a frustrating scenario especially when you pride yourself in being a groomer who only dries dogs by hand. Sending home a damp dog is unspeakable, and many groomers are avoiding using cage drying of any kind. When you come across a dog that is anything but pleasant for drying, what can be done?
A dog grooming force dryer or blower has a lot of strikes against it from a dog’s point of view. The most obvious one is the noise. For a dog that is sensitive to loud noises the sound can be overwhelming. On top of that there is the strong burst of air that might be alarming to a dog that has not been desensitized to the sensation. By taking a few extra steps when it comes to your drying procedures you can help dogs have a fear-free experience resulting in a less stressful work day for you. Putting this protocol in place with every new dog in your salon, and with every dog that has a history of being a challenge for the dryer will have a huge impact on their entire visit. It is a lot easier to prevent a dog from becoming stressed in the first place than it is to calm an already nervous dog. This is also a good way to introduce puppies to drying. Even if a new dog seems perfectly calm and confident, consider making it a regular practice to use this protocol for drying.
To start, follow your usual process for intake and beginning the grooming process. Whether you do pre-work first or begin with a bath right away, make it a goal for you and your staff to become expert observers during this time. Does the dog seem responsive to you? Is the dog comfortable with handling, and are there any particular areas that the dog does not give you the green light to touch? Is the dog showing any signs of stress, or giving any cut off signals? Knowing these things will help you handle the dog in the most accommodating way and give you a glimpse into how they are likely to react to certain aspects of grooming.
After bathing, when it comes time to dry the dog, begin with a good towel dry and use either a towel or a Happy Hoodie compression band to cover the dog’s ears. Even when you use the Happy Hoodie, for some dogs, using a towel over it is also helpful because you can gain additional control. To do this, wrap a towel around the dog’s head and grip the towel underneath to hold it in place. Now you are able to muffle the sound, and if the dog starts to react you can prevent them from straining their neck because you have more control of their heads. This applies to both tub and table drying.
With your face away from the dog’s face and far from pop-up-paws, turn your dryer on the lowest setting. Do not yet put the air on the dog. Before the dog even has a chance to think about reacting, turn the dryer off again. The first time there should be less than five seconds between turning the dryer on and back off again. Now you had a chance to see if the dog showed any signs of being opposed to the dryer, and you showed the dog that the dryer has a chance of going off when they are not acting up. Repeat, leaving the dryer on for a little bit longer the second time; less than 10 seconds will do. Another thing you can do is pair the dryer with something pleasant. If as soon as the dryer turns on the dog gets a nice rub on the chest (assuming they like this), praised, or even a treat you will help create a positive association. If you have permission from the owner to give the dog treats this can be a great tool to create positive associations, and to test out a dog’s stress level. A highly stressed dog won’t eat.
Now you can point the dryer at the dog, allowing them to feel the air for a few seconds on their back. Again turn the dryer off before the dog reacts. If the dog is not reacting at all continue drying using your preferred technique, but every so often remove the air from them (not necessarily turning the dryer off), when they are being calm to reinforce the desired behavior. If on the other hand, the dog is showing signs of stress, do a few more repetitions of the above. This technique will work for other animals including cats, assuming they find the act of the dryer being removed rewarding. Just like you would give your dog a treat as a reward for good behavior you can remove the dryer as a reward for good behavior. You will be able to remove the dryer less frequently as the animal becomes better with the drying process.
Dogs are always communicating with us, and understanding them will help prevent drying from becoming stressful. Watch a dog’s face during drying. If they yawn, lick their lips repeatedly, or show other sings of the drying being too much, remove the dryer even just for a few seconds. It’s amazing what difference this alone can make. Even your well behaved dogs who love drying can benefit from a quick break. Getting the timing down of when to pull a dryer off a dog and when to continue drying is an art. If you keep pulling the dryer away timed with when the dog is already acting up it can teach them that their behavior made the dryer stop and they will be more likely to act up. Try to remove the dryer when the dog is behaving in the most desired way. Your timing will improve with practice. If a dog is very nervous and past their limit, give them a break either way. You shouldn’t continue force drying or any procedures on a dog that is past their threshold. A few minutes to calm down will help.
The typical groomer doesn’t have a whole lot of time to invest in the training of dogs in their salon, but understanding the concepts of marker training can have huge benefits. Using a marker like saying “yes” to mark desired behaviors during the grooming process will help you become very precise in your timing of telling the dog which behaviors are acceptable. The marker is followed by some type of reward every time. If you are drying a dog that is difficult you can say “yes” every time they are being well behaved and take the dryer away from them as a reward. If you wanted to go a step further you can even follow your marker with a treat reward. The dog learns that whatever behavior they were doing when the marker happened is what earned them a reward. These are the behaviors they will repeat.
The goal of using these techniques is to create a low stress drying process. In many dogs you will see a difference before you even complete the dry, but dogs who are very nervous, aggressive, or sound sensitive will be more difficult requiring a more in depth approach. Never force a dog to undergo drying if the above techniques are not working. Instead the dog needs more practice sessions where positive experiences can be created. Consider offering the owner a program option where they pay one monthly fee for a predetermined amount of baths each month. That way the dog will remain your client and you can continue working with them more frequently with less pressure of having to do everything in one session. It’s also essential that you always remain calm even when you are frustrated with a dog. Practice keeping calm and breathing so you do not feed the fire with your own frustration.
Groomers make a difference in the lives of dogs every day. Providing dogs with the best possible care is our mission, and we can give dogs the true spa treatment that their owners dream of for them by eliminating stress wherever possible. A few extra minutes and effort now will save a lot of time and headaches later. Soon these techniques will become second nature in your salon, and the number of stressful drying moments will decrease. There are many small steps and conscious efforts we can make in all areas of grooming to make our salons more peaceful for everyone, and providing low stress drying procedures is a brilliant way to work towards that.