For some guardians and their dogs grooming can be a bonding time, but for many it can become an ever increasing source of anxiety, frustration and stress, triggering a range of behaviours in dogs that many guardians and professional dog groomers may find unacceptable, and likewise behaviours in humans that are not conducive to changing the way the dog feels about being groomed..
As a professional dog groomer, one of the most frequent issues I come across, either from guardians or in discussions with other groomers, is that many dogs dislike being brushed. Unfortunately for many dogs brushing isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity. Lack of regular brushing for many breeds results in matted coats, then in turn the mats become a major problem for dogs, guardians and professional groomers:
- Mats are uncomfortable and become painful whilst being brushed or clipped off. Imagine a cot in your own hair and how that feels against your scalp and when you try to brush it out.
- A matted coat prevents maintaining a healthy temperature, especially during the warmer weather. A mat free coat will capture the cool air within the coat and prevent penetration of the sun heat rays reaching the skin therefore keeping the dog cooler. However, a matted coat will capture the heat and hold it against the dogs skin, basically causing the dog to overheat.
- Matted coats can potentially cause or hide health related issues (cuts, lumps, bumps, grass seeds, ticks parasites, etc.).
- Prolonged matted coats may cause the skin to break down, resulting in open wounds and infection, and in extreme cases maggots!.
- When the coat has to be shaved close to the skin to remove the matting there is the potential for the skin to tear, irritation or clipper rash, leaving the dog itchy and uncomfortable. (These issues are as a result of the matting not the incompetence of the groomer).
- Shaving matted ears regularly causes hematoma – where the blood builds up and then bursts, causing bleeding. Although the groomer will do their best to prevent this, it is not always possible, particularly if the dog shakes his head.
- Most groomers WILL completely shave off a matted coat because it is the humane thing to do. Brushing out a matted coat is painful, time-consuming and considered by the grooming community to be against the Animal Welfare Act, and will result in your dog having a negative association with being groomed. This may also result in aggressive behaviour due to the associated pain or fear of pain.
Given the seriousness of not brushing, what can we do to help our dogs cope better with the brushing process. Well, there are lots of techniques we can use, but the best way to approach brushing our dogs is using compassionate approach by understanding how your dog feels about being brushed. Brushing should be an opportunity for bonding and trust building, with both of you calm and relaxed.
If you have a dog that willingly allows you to brush, then you are well on your way. However, if you have dog that you have to restrain to groom, tries to bite you or the brush, runs away, or shows any other behaviour that indicates that it is not a pleasant experience for them, then we need to think about what we can do to make it a more tolerable, if not enjoyable, experience for them.
We first need to understand why your dog is showing these behaviours (which we perceived to be negative): they are often from a place of fear, and are reflexive behaviours – your dog isn’t consciously being naughty, it is just a reflection of his emotional state. Although we are not intending to hurt or scare them, they may be frightened that it will hurt, fears based on previous experiences, they feel threatened, or they may have some discomfort in their body. It is irrelevant that this is just a perceived threat, the sympathetic nervous system will react as if it is a real threat.
For puppies, it can often become a game or a battle, neither of which should be reinforced by continuing. For adolescents they may have growing pains and become more touch sensitive as their body goes through many changes, and for the older dogs medical issues may make grooming more uncomfortable for them.
Build up the Trust
Bearing in mind the need for grooming but taking into consideration their fears and discomfort, how can you approach the way you groom your dog to make it easier for you both? You can do this easily by taking a compassionate approach.
If you are restraining your dog in any way to groom them (holding by the collar, getting someone else to hold them or pin them down), then the first step is to take a restraint-free approach. Restraining in this way just increases anxiety and by preventing a “flight” response, so you are more likely to be pushing your dog into the “fight” response instead.
In my book “Taking the Grrr out of Grooming Your Dog” I discuss various techniques including counter-conditioning, desensitisation and canine permissions based techniques. However, one simple technique I have taught some of my clients with success is a technique I refer to as “trust brushing”. For this, you need to brush at your dogs pace and constantly be checking his body language, for calming signals or indication that he may be struggling, including looking or moving away.
Starting with an area on his body that you know he finds easier to be touched, gently take one or two strokes with the brush, if he appears relaxed, continue and gradually move around the body. However, the minute he moves away or shows you he is struggling, put the brush away, and try again later. Over a period of time, if you continue to brush in this way he will start to allow you to brush for longer periods and more difficult areas, knowing that by simply moving away he can stop the brushing. The main aim of any contact though is to keep it relaxed and calm. If you feel yourself getting frustrated, put the brush down, and do something else that will help you calm. This isn’t giving in to him or letting him have his own way, this is building trust.
Sometimes this approach can become frustrating, which is totally understandable, but by understanding that the behaviour your dog shows about being groomed is an emotional response, we can start to think how we can make it easier.
If he is already too fearful of the brush to even allow you to get the brush near to him, then start by using novel items, such as a soft makeup brush or small sponge, spoons (to replicate the feel of scissors) and build up the contact with those first. A spray of Pet Remedy on the item as well may help.
Food can be your best friend
One of the easiest ways of (re)introducing grooming for your dog, is to use food. Food can be very powerful in changing the way your dog feels about being groomed. Counterconditioning using food is one of the easiest ways. I often recommend using a Lickimat with Liver Paste or doggy Peanut butter or a snuffle mat with lots of small treats, so that you have both hands free (licking is also exceptionally good to help calm). Pairing something yummy with brushing gently (still abiding by the trust based technique) will start to change his emotional response to being brushed and make it easier for him to tolerate, if not enjoy, being brushed.
Eventually, instead of using a Lickimat or snuffle mat you can reward him with a treat for a few strokes of the brush.
Helping your dogs for Professional Grooming
If you have a dog that needs to be groomed by a Professional Groomer, then it is important that they continue to groom using a compassionate approach. If you know your dog is anxious about the grooming process, I would also recommend finding a Professional Dog Groomer who is prepared to work with you and your dog to find ways in making a groom much more tolerable.
A Professional Grooming Salon can be a very scary place for dogs, especially if they have never been before, or if they have had a bad experience (whether perceived or real). There are lots of actions you can take though to make professional grooming much easier for your dog. Think about what type of groomer (multi groomer salon, lone groomer, mobile van, or a groomer that comes to your home)
Steps that may include:
- Finding a groomer who comes to your home
- Find a groomer that specialises in anxious dogs, or focusses on ensuring your dogs emotional health comes before a “perfect” style groom (these groomers may call themselves force free, remedial, grooming behaviourists, low stress, or holistic).
- Request a consultation visit first, so you can get a feel of how the groomer works, how comfortable your dog is in the salon, etc. If the groomer is not prepared to do this then maybe they won’t be the groomer for your dog. You need to be your dogs advocate.
- Have shorter more regular visits on a maintenance programme rather than a full groom every time.
- Keeping the coat clipped short so that brushing is easier.
- Choosing a style suitable for the dog. Although you may like a breed specific clip, these do not suit every lifestyle. For example, for a dog that does lots of outdoor activities and gets dirty frequently, the upkeep of a longer coat or specific breed style may become too difficult for both you to manage and your dog to cope with.
- If your dog is matted, seriously consider getting a full clip off under sedation at the vets so that you can start work on a short mat free coat.
- Train your dog at home to cope with various aspects of the groom and counter conditioning or desensitise the aspect he finds most difficult.
Taking a compassionate approach to grooming your dog will pay dividends, sometimes it will be slow, sometimes it will be frustrating, but the pleasure you will get when you can finally brush your dog in a relaxed manner will be worth the effort, and your dog will love you for it.
Sue Williamson is a dog groomer based in Leicestershire (UK) specialising in dogs with grooming anxieties dogs. Sue is an Animal Centred Education Advanced Tutor, Tellington TTouch Training Practitioner (P2) and have a Diploma in Canine Behavoiur. She combines her canine knowledge with her grooming skills to ensure that her canine clients each have their own grooming plan so that they are able to relax during their grooming session. Sue has taken her knowledge to write Taking the Grrr out of Grooming Your dog and Taking the Grrr out of the Grooming Salon. She also runs Facebook Group “Taking the Grrr out of Grooming Dogs”