By Daryl Conner
When I got my last puppy, I began taking him to Wag It Games classes. These were taught locally, and my dog and I both enjoyed them tremendously. It was here that I was introduced to the concept of “rear end awareness.”
Wag It Games Master Instructor and judge Tracy Snow–Cormier from Portage, ME explains, “Dogs carry 60% of their body weight on their front ends naturally. And as a dog ages, it gets even more weight to the front end to reduce pain from their hind ends. Most dogs aren’t aware of their back legs.”
As a groomer, this was an important realization for me. So many dogs step one or both back legs off the grooming table. A stylist I used to work with would quip to the dogs, “There IS an end to your world,” when they would swing their hips back and step off into space.
The phenomena seems to be more common in new–to–the–grooming–process puppies and old, frail dogs. Very athletic dogs tended to be more adept at keeping all four paws on the tabletop.
Looking back, I considered the stepping off the edge behavior a strange mixture of misbehavior combined with lack of coordination. When I learned the rear end awareness concept while training my puppy, a light came on in my sometimes dim brain. The dogs were not being naughty when they danced their fannies off my table; they were simply unaware of that portion of their body.
People who train their dogs in obedience, agility and similar sports make efforts to teach their pet how to be more conscious of the region behind their shoulders. This is important for precision heeling work, as well as maneuvering the types of obstacles found in the agility ring.
Snow–Cormier says, “Your dog’s awareness of his rear end is not only important for skills in dog sports, but also for living a healthy life. A dog that can consciously control his back legs is less likely to trip and fall, is less likely to put undue stress on his spine and front end, and will learn to improve strength and stability through the hip joints. This is also important in later stages of life.”
So, why is this something groomers should be aware of? Let me tell you about a horrible story I heard many years ago. I’ve never forgotten it, because I can see how easily it could happen to anyone.
A groomer had a large breed dog on the table. She was scissoring its side, with the tips of the shears pointing up towards the dog’s spine. The dog stepped off the table with the hind leg closest to the groomer, and its body slammed downwards for one instant until it regained its footing and stood back up. The groomer then noticed blood dripping. It turned out that when the dog’s body mass dropped, the shears plunged deeply into its belly, then came out again as the dog stood. The groomer never realized this freak accident had occurred until she saw the blood.
This is the sort of potential mishap that gives me nightmares. I have been far more careful and understanding of dogs putting a rear foot off the table since learning of their inability to judge where their hindquarters are.
There are some simple exercises that we can do with our own pets to help them with rear end awareness, but Snow–Cormier had a great idea for pets on our table, too. “A simple trick that might help groomers in the moment is to slip soft, human hair scrunchies around each leg. I was introduced to this idea at a seminar where one student’s dog didn’t know it had hind legs.”
Snow–Cormier also shared these simple exercises to improve rear end awareness:
- Stand with the dog’s head lifted. When the dog looks up while standing, the weight is shifted to the rear legs and this will increase strength and awareness of the rear legs.
- Walking backwards helps with balance and knowing where the dog’s hind limbs are. You can work on backing up by creating a narrow place such as a hallway or between a couch and a wall. Call the dog to you, then start walking toward them causing them to back up. Praise and reward even the smallest step backward, until the dog can take several steps. You can lure them by holding a treat low, at chest level (most dogs automatically sit if the treat is held high.)
- Put a ladder on the ground and teach your dog to walk through it. They have to pay attention to their rear feet or they step on the rungs.
- Place random poles on the ground and teach your dog to step over them.
- Teach your dog to back up onto a low stair or similar object.
In your grooming space, you can do several things to keep dogs safer on the table:
- Be aware that the dog is not being purposely disobedient when it seems to have no control of its hindquarters.
- Keep your table up against a wall to reduce the area a dog can step off of.
- Use a Groomers Helper tool to assist the dog in maintaining a central position on the table.
- Use a purpose–made support strap under the tuck up and attached to the grooming arm.
- Try tying a ribbon or sliding a hair scrunchy on the dog’s rear legs to help them be more aware of them.
- Engage an assistant to help stabilize the dog if it is moving so much as to be a danger to itself.
- See if the dog’s owner would be willing to practice some of the above exercises at home between grooming appointments.
Helping the pets we groom stay safe is such an important part of our job. Knowing that they may need help with rear end awareness is a good step towards understanding better how to accomplish our safety goals. ✂️