Making a Good First Impression

A positive first encounter is a critical part of building long-lasting relationships with your canine clients.

There’s a saying that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. This is absolutely true with dogs. With this in mind, groomers certainly don’t want to squander their chance to provide canine clients with a super-positive association with visiting the salon. You want your first-time meetings to go as smoothly as possible, which means creating that positive association and building relationships.

So, just how should groomers go about doing this? In training terms, it is called creating a positive conditioned emotional response (CER). It’s not a difficult process; it just takes a bit of planning. As famed animal behavior expert Bob Bailey says, “Think, plan, do!” 

According to Jay Andors, veteran master groomer and Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, groomers can use a strategy that he calls “the Meet and Treat.” In order to set everyone up for success, your very first greeting would ideally take place outside of the salon before any scheduled grooming is happening.

In fact, it is a good idea to meet your new canine client and their caregiver a couple of blocks away from your grooming business. Plan on bringing a generous selection of high-value food items to this meeting. (As a side note, it is probably worthwhile to ask about any allergy concerns ahead of time.) 

The value of the food selection should be considered from the point of view of the learner—in this case, the dog. So, bring the most exciting, novel, often smelly goodie that a dog would consider a really special treat. For dogs, things that normally fall into this category may be liver pate, meatballs or dried fish skin treats. Remember, you are trying to associate the idea and appearance of the groomer with a wonderful experience.

Another important aspect of the first meeting is the setup. You want the dog to be the first to approach. This provides it with some control over the situation. Some dogs may be fearful and unable to comfortably come right up to you immediately. Allowing for this additional time and space can go a long way in beginning to build a trusting bond with the dog. 

The final tip for the “Meet and Treat” interaction involves your body language when the dog approaches. Standing or crouching down in a sideways manner, if the dog is comfortable with this position, avoids direct, head-on contact. Leaving eye contact for after a few minutes can also help to lessen any initial tension or anxiety. 

At this point, if the dog is interested, you can put your hand out, close to your body (versus reaching toward the dog). With an open palm, offer one of the delicious treats and allow the dog to come and get it without any movement. A key piece here is to let the dog take the treat and move away if they wish without trying to initiate any contact. Then repeat. 

Once you note that the dog is feeling relaxed, you can pat under the chin while continuing to offer the top notch treats.

Following the above steps will help you to make a great first impression, which will go a long way toward ensuring the start of a long and positive relationship with your canine clients. 

Terrie Hayward is a certified, professional animal trainer and the owner of PAW-Positive Animal Wellness, LLC in Rincon, Puerto Rico. She specializes in canine separation anxiety cases, working with families and their animal companions, presenting workshops, and consulting on positive reinforcement interactions and modifying behavior through applications in behavior analysis. Hayward is the author of the pocket guide to working with deaf dogs titled, A Deaf Dog Joins the Family: Training, Education, and Communication for a Smooth Transition. For more information, visit positiveanimalwellness.com.


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