What I Learned in Working with Difficult Dogs

By Jennifer Farley

If you can earn a dog’s trust, even the most wildly behaving pups become infinitely easier to handle on the grooming table. Fear and anxiety are the root of almost all bad behavior. 

As an accomplished freelance artist, and someone who has always loved being around dogs, I am fortunate enough to have found a way to combine my two greatest passions and creative skills in life into a career. I am currently into my 13th year as a professional pet groomer. 

I have noticed that a majority of people working in the pet grooming industry have similar concepts, strategies, ideas and methods of getting things done. I have also noticed that, in my professional opinion, most of those methods can be a bit harsh. For the purpose of this article, I want to focus specifically on dogs that are not so easy to groom. 

If you can earn a dog’s trust, even the most wildly behaving pups become infinitely easier to handle on the grooming table. Fear and anxiety are the root of almost all bad behavior. The first thing I tell anyone who is thinking about starting a career in the grooming industry is that you must absolutely love dogs unconditionally. If you don’t, you will get frustrated. They will push your buttons, aggravate you, get under your skin, tick you off and test every strand of patience you have left. It is human nature to get frustrated when trying to accomplish a relatively simple task and having an external force doing everything in its power to prevent you from doing so. 

As natural as it may be for a human to get frustrated, it is also very much natural for an animal to be nervous, scared or resistant to something it doesn’t understand or feel comfortable with. These dogs are pets. It is easy to think of them as more than just an animal, given that we treat them much differently than we do wild animals; as they live indoors with us, share our beds, respond to our commands, learn their names and communicate to us when they need something. I think some groomers fail to remember that these are, in fact, animals. 

Too many times have I heard fellow groomers comment about how the dog just “needs” to learn to be compliant. They “need” to learn how to stand still. They “need” to learn not to be afraid of the nail clippers. They “need” to learn to like the dryer. They “need” to learn how to mind. Don’t get me wrong, my job would be infinitely easier and less stressful if every dog knew how to do those things effortlessly; however, it is an unrealistic expectation. It is your job, as a groomer and a human being, to learn how to work around obstacles.

The dogs I see in the pet grooming world are not champion show dogs. Competition grooming tables, show floors, studios, cameras and spotlights are not a part of these dogs’ daily lives. No, these dogs spend their days in the dirt and grass, digging holes, chewing on stuffed animals, cuddling with their owners, sniffing mailboxes on their morning walks, barking at frogs and just being dogs. They do not “need” to learn any of those previously mentioned things. What they need is reassurance, confidence and a gentle hand. 

Pets come into my salon to be groomed because they stink and have too much hair on them. There is absolutely no reason why these dogs need to stand like perfect statues on my grooming table. All I ask of them is that they trust me—and that is the most you can ask of a dog on your grooming table. The one human they have come to trust and rely on has just left them alone in a new place. This is an animal that doesn’t know you, and isn’t sure what you are doing to them. They are scared and some will act out. I firmly believe it is not the dog’s job, or the owner’s job, to make them compliant with grooming. As a groomer, it is your job to work with the dog. That is the essence of the job; you work with dogs, not for them, not against them, but with them.

Patience and love, as cliché as it sounds, is the backbone of being a good, efficient groomer. If Buddy cries when you pick up his paw, the answer is not to muzzle, restrain, scold or ignore him. Find a way around it. Instead, scissor it as it sits. He can’t reliably communicate with you what the source of distress is; be it a sore paw, arthritis, bad hips, sensitive joints or simply uncomfortable with the sensation being restrained. See if sitting him down makes it easier on him. Perhaps he wants to lay down? Try talking to him, reassuring him and having someone pet him while you try again would be helpful. The only option is to work with the dog and listen to them. When a dog on your table is acting out vocally or physically, he is trying to communicate to you. Listen to him, as that is all he has. 

I have several small dog clients who are quite unruly and the best method is to simply baby–talk them. Sing to them. If they are being good, tell them they are being good. Let them lick you, wag their tails, sit down or whatever it may be that lets them feel a little more comfortable. Yelling and restraining them unnecessarily is simply venting your frustrations onto them, and is exactly the behavior they are displaying that is impeding your work in the first place. Don’t muzzle them because they are barking, or tighten the loop around their neck because they want to look back and see what you’re doing to their tail, instead reassure them. 

Unlike your first visit to the dentist as a child, there can be no explanation of the procedure. Consider that the both of you had not shared the same language. You would have then been left to infer the situation by the tone of his voice, whether or not your arms are tied to the chair, and from the nurse holding your neck whilst he probes your mouth with instruments you aren’t familiar with. The only form of communication you have with the dog is your tone of voice and your touch. 

My bottom line is, be nice to the dogs. It seems like common sense, but in my time grooming, I am constantly surprised at the unrealistic expectations and lack of compassion that some groomers have for the dogs they are working with. You are an important piece in the puzzle that is that dog’s short life. Once a month he will be on your table for the most stressful and scary experience he ever has to deal with in his pampered life as a pet. Neither you nor the dog benefit from fighting with each other. Find a way to get it done without traumatizing the dog. There are too many things in this world for dogs to fear as it is, let’s keep groomers off that list. 

My end goal with any dog I groom isn’t a paycheck, the perfect haircut or a good tip. If, when finished, that dog still wags his tail and wants to rest his head on my knee, then I have done my job well. ✂️

Jennifer Farley has worked with dogs since she was 16 years old, was born and raised in NJ, and currently resides and works in Cape Coral, Florida for a wonderful small business named Wash n’ Wag. She has spent some time working in an animal shelter, which proved invaluable in teaching her to work with dogs and cats that are not super eager to interact with people. Jennifer has two dachshunds and a cat at home. She is a full time groomer and a part time artist, and cannot imagine a life without dogs.