Training Canine Clients

Helping dogs feel safe and relaxed in the grooming salon is a win/win situation for groomers, the dogs that they are working with and the dogs’ family members. Reducing stress and anxiety can go a long way toward helping groomers work with dogs more efficiently via cooperative animal care.

Groomers should begin by setting up the right situation for success. This means that from the very start, groomers and their human and canine clients need to communicate effectively. Oftentimes, behavior that is observed at the grooming salon may be labeled as “aggressive,” when in fact it is fear based.

With fearful behaviors, groomers need to address two factors. The first is the dog’s emotional response. According to Certified Professional Dog Trainer Debbie Jacobs, the author of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog, “The dog needs to feel safe and feel good about the things that scare or worry them. We pair the scary stuff with good stuff until the scary stuff predicts good stuff, and we see a change in the dog’s emotional response. We identify the change in a dog’s emotional response by the change in their behavior.”

The second factor deals with training behaviors by using positive reinforcement, which will be covered in the next issue of Grooming Business. However, it is important to first address reflexive behaviors—for emotions and responses that dogs are born with—because if a dog is too fearful to respond appropriately, it will be difficult to train cooperative care behaviors, like lifting its feet and stationing it for nail trimming.

As the first step toward healthy communication, groomers should speak with clients about appropriate expectations. Dogs with major fear and anxiety may require additional visits involving counter conditioning and desensitization, as well as some homework to help the animals feel more comfortable in the salon and with the procedures that will take place there. Pet owners may need to realize that extra preliminary work might need to be done for dogs that are incredibly anxious about the grooming experience.

Dogs might need to be made to better understand, via our communication skills, that they are in a safe environment. The use of aversive methods (e.g., pinning and yelling) can result in increased anxiety about the grooming process—and can also produce additional side effects such as aggression, generalized fear, escape/avoidance and apathy—so this practice should be avoided.

Some dogs may have an existing aversion to the grooming experience. In these cases, counter conditioning can help to provide permanent long-term behavioral change. Counter conditioning is when we change the association of “groomer equals scary,” to “groomer equals yummy, great things happening!” So, we want to pair the groomer and/or salon setting with something that the dog has a positive feeling about.

This is an opportunity for pet owners and groomers to work together. Perhaps the pet owner can bring the dog into the shop for a brief, fun visit. During this visit, the pup would be fed rapidly and repeatedly using tiny pieces of something that it finds irresistible. Keep in mind that items such as chicken or cheese generally tend to have a higher value for many canines than commercially purchased dog treats.

The same technique can be used to counter-condition to certain grooming tools, such as a brush. Again, the goal is to connect the brush to a happy, fun experience by pairing it with something that the dog really enjoys. Start slowly, perhaps by just showing the pup the brush and feeding a tiny bite of something considered by the dog to be delicious.

Next, let the dog eat a piece of the deliciousness while gently moving the brush closer to its coat. Continue working with the brush and delicious food item—a process that may be slow and will certainly require repetition. The question of how much and how long will depend on the dog’s history, severity of anxiety, and the time that the owner and/or groomer is able to dedicate to the protocol of counter conditioning.

If the pup has more severe anxiety—for example, about a certain grooming tool—it is important to take a step back and use desensitization to avoid the fear response. In this case, distance is key, so feed the pup with very small pieces of something amazing while the tool is present, but nowhere near the dog. This way, the trigger is close enough to be noticed, but far enough away that it will not elicit fear. Very slowly, bring the tool closer. If this procedure is repeated enough times, eventually, the tool will elicit happy feelings.

The same process can be used with the salon setting itself, if the dog has severe anxiety related to even arriving at the grooming facility. In this case, the owner may need to begin the process in the car, or even before getting close to the shop.

If the dog is afraid due to previous fearfulness of the groomers themselves, the same procedure of desensitization can be implemented. In other words, let the dog see the groomer from a distance while feeding it tiny bits of goodness. Over time, this will change the response from a negative one to a positive one.

With the processes of counter-conditioning and desensitization, the dog does not have to perform any behavior in order to get the treat. The process only involves pairing the very positive stimulus (the yummy food) with the scary tool/person/situation.

While working on counter-conditioning and desensitization, groomers will want to keep the three Ds in mind:
• Distance
• Duration
• Distraction

Small steps and mini-sessions, so as to not overwhelm the dog, are also key. Introduce the triggers in tiny increments. With some dogs, one repetition may be enough to get started. With others, multiple steps may be tolerated before stopping for a break.
Finally, distractions in the form of other dogs, a busy/noisy locale, and loud dryers or music may all contribute to the final environment. However, whenever possible, introduce things slowly. Start with the lowest amount of distracting ambiance possible, and build in tiny increments.

The science of behavior helps us to make permanent, lasting changes which, when done with patience and consistency, will enable groomers to perform with more relaxed, patient canine clientele.

Terrie Hayward holds a MEd, is a Karen Pryor Academy-Certified Training Partner and is a CPDT-KA (Council for Professional Dog Trainers) certified professional animal trainer. She works primarily with dogs, using the science of applied behavioral analysis to effect positive change in the learning patterns of animals and their caregivers. Her business, PAW-Positive Animal Wellness can be found on Facebook and online at positiveanimalwellness.com.

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