Three Keys to Low-Stress Handling

Helping canine clients feel confident and comfortable in your shop can pay big dividends by fostering long-standing relationships based on trust.

Do you have clients whose dogs hate coming to the groomer’s? Do you inwardly groan when a certain client calls to schedule a grooming appointment?

The good news is that there are a number of things that you can do to help make the experience much less stressful for your canine and human clients. The following three tips, in particular, can make the dogs that come into your shop feel more confident and comfortable, which will lead to lower stress and anxiety. That, in turn, is sure to produce a higher degree of safety for the pups and more loyal clients.

Tip #1: Meet & Treat
First impressions are important. Dedicate a time when new dogs and their families can come in to the shop for a “meet and treat” experience. For this visit, the family can bring along some favorite tasty treats, or perhaps your shop also sells high-quality treats. If you have some available for these sessions, perhaps folks may consider making a purchase. The ultimate goal here, though, is to help the pup make the association that visiting the groomer equals fun, yummy goodies.
Once the dog comes inside, allow it to approach you if interested. Then slowly drop a treat on the floor. If the dog seems calm, you can also slowly lower a hand down (not out toward the dog) and allow it to come and take the treat from an upturned, open palm. Then allow the dog to move away at its own pace. If it returns voluntarily, you can repeat the offered treat process.
This strategy will set everyone (groomer, dog and family) up for a successful experience at the salon. Clients who have a positive interaction are more likely to return and refer, so taking the time to assure that this first interaction goes as smoothly and positively as possible can yield great benefits.

Tip #2: Follow the LIMA Path
The acronym LIMA stands for “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” This is the gold standard for animal care in our industry, whether it is applied to groomers, veterinarians or trainers. If there is a procedure or behavior that can be performed with less force, you always want to begin there. 

For example, when you need the dog to sit on the table, the very first option—which seems obvious but is sometimes overlooked—is to ask it to sit. If the dog is unable to respond appropriately to the sit cue, then you can move to a lure. Placing a small, tasty treat close to and above the nose and then moving it backward over the dog’s body (not up) will often elicit the response where the nose goes up and the bottom goes down, thus accomplishing the sit you are seeking. 

Finally, if both of these techniques aren’t working, you can place one hand gently behind the rump and just under the tail, while holding a treat in front of the nose. You want the dog to associate the rear end touch with something positive—hence the treat. Apply very gentle pressure just under the tail (but not above and on the lower back, as this can cause injury). This way, you will avoid the oppositional reflex—where you push down and bottom goes up—and can guide the dog into a seated position instead. 

Tip #3: Slow & Steady
Finally, it is important that you move at a pace that makes the animal comfortable. You don’t want to squander the big opportunity that you have with your first interaction, as you won’t get a second chance at a first try. For this reason, and for the long-term goal of establishing a relationship that will lead to a pleasant, easy and safe grooming routine for years to come, you must only push as far and as fast as is comfortable for the dog. 

If this means that you spend a bit of time desensitizing (slowly introducing something at a pace that keeps the dog feeling comfortable) and counter conditioning (pairing potentially scary experiences with something that the dog finds pleasant), it will go a long way towards building trust and a long-term relationship. When you go to touch the dog’s ears, for example, do so gently at first and pair each touch with a tiny, yummy treat. 

Instead of trying to push on through and get the procedure done quickly, which can potentially lead to a more scared and possibly more dangerous dog in future encounters, you want to take the time to set everyone up for success. This way, the dog learns that you aren’t a threat and can look forward to the attention and care that you provide.

Terrie Hayward holds a Master’s degree in Bilingual Special Education and is a faculty member of the Karen Pryor Academy (KPA), a KPA-certified training partner (CTP), and a certified professional dog trainer through the Council of Professional Dog Trainers. Additionally, she is certified in Canine Separation Anxiety Training (CSAT) and is an associate member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). Terrie is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and has written articles on training for BARKS magazine, Pet Business and Grooming Business magazine. She is also the author of the pocket guide to working with deaf dogs: A Deaf Dog Joins the Family.


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