The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Working together with the owners of canine clients on cooperative care and husbandry skills will help in fostering a less-stressful grooming process.

In the salon environment, the entire grooming process goes smoother for dogs that are relaxed and calm. As such, there are several things that groomers can help dog owners understand and work on prior to actually arriving for their appointments. Doing so will greatly enable groomers to effectively provide the least intrusive, most positive experiences for their clients.

When animals voluntarily participate without pressure or compulsion, they are more relaxed and eager to engage in the behavior. Although the initial training may require some additional effort, the resulting participatory behavior is far calmer and stress free, and can facilitate other behaviors as well.

Behaviors taught using positive reinforcement training are the least intrusive, most effective, and produce the longest-lasting results. Positive reinforcement training consists of observing, marking and reinforcing a behavior.

By pairing markers with something that the animal finds reinforcing, we enable a unique set of communication whereby the animal understands that each marker indicates that they have done something that we like. In addition, each marker predicts something that the animal finds reinforcing.

Things that the animal may find reinforcing can range from tiny tasty treats to affection to praise. Within the reinforcer category, there is a scale of things that may be considered less or far more reinforcing by the animal. It is sort of like the difference between a $1 bill (less reinforcing) and a $100 bill (more reinforcing).

For example, if I want a dog to look at me and or focus on my face, every time the dog looks at me, even for a brief second, I’ll mark that behavior with the word, “yes!” Then, I’ll follow up my marker with something that that particular dog enjoys.

Tiny bits of treats work well. Perhaps the salon may use some that are for sale on site, thus opening up an avenue for future revenue as the pet caregivers may want to purchase some of those same treats to have for use in training at home as well.

One important point to note is that the marker functions like a promise. It communicates to the dog, “The thing that you just did was what I wanted, and now you have earned something that you like.” With this in mind, following each marker with a reinforcer is an important piece of the communication.

Key Behaviors
Within the salon environment and at home, groomers and families can work together on some key behaviors that will make the grooming experience more pleasant and comfortable. Three important dog behaviors to train that would be highly useful in the grooming environment would be voluntarily stationing, collar grab and offering paws.

A voluntarily stationing behavior refers to an animal maintaining a certain position without force or coercion. Basically, what we want to do is reinforce the behavior of staying in one spot calmly. That is, if we would like an animal to remain in place rather than wiggling, jumping or moving about, we will mark and reinforce quiet, calm behavior in one location.

If, for example, the dog is standing still in one spot, we mark with, “yes!” and follow with a reinforcer. Initially, we’ll mark for just a second of non-movement. However, little by little, we’ll delay our marker word “yes!”, thus drawing out the duration of the stationing behavior.

With repetition, the dog is going to get the idea that staying still and quiet earns good things. He is going to find this reinforcing and thus will repeat the behavior, which is exactly what we are seeking.

While training behavior, we’ll keep in mind two rules: Ignore what we don’t like, and reinforce what we do like. That is, when the dog jumps or moves around, we’ll offer zero interaction. However, the second the dog remains calm or still, we’ll mark and reinforce. Soon, you’ll see a change in the dog’s behavior as he figures out that it is far more reinforcing to stay in one position.

The second behavior that would be helpful to train is a collar grab. This is one of the easiest behaviors to train, but it is also one that is frequently overlooked. It can be of great assistance on the grooming table when a dog enjoys and relaxes when you may need to hold them by the collar.

Step one is teaching the dog that you touching their collar is actually a good thing. They may have had contrary experiences in the past, which is another reason to partner with caregivers and encourage practice at home.

The way that we communicate to dogs that a collar grab is actually a nice experience is by pairing the behavior with something that the dog enjoys. Remember that dogs are individuals, just as people are, so finding something enjoyable to each particular pup is important.

Dogs actually usually really like this behavior once it’s taught, as they don’t have to do very much in order to earn good things.
To begin, touch the dog’s collar lightly, and as you touch the collar, mark with your verbal marker, “yes!” Then deliver something reinforcing (tiny bite of something yummy). Repeat. Once the dog is comfortable with a very light collar touch, you can gradually move to holding the collar and eventually to more of a grab.

Throughout the process, be cautious to go slowly and be sure that the dog is feeling comfortable with each touch before moving to a more advanced level of the behavior. Soon, you’ll have pups enjoying the collar grab behavior, which will make holding collars for grooming much safer and easier.

The third behavior that I suggest training is a voluntary paw offer/handling. Frequently, dogs are uncomfortable with paw touches during nail trims/exams. Having a dog able to offer their paw in your hand and allow you to manipulate and cut nails in a relaxed manner is behavior that can greatly reduce the strife and stress for both groomer and dog.

To start, we’ll begin with what the dog tolerates most. This will vary by dog. Some dogs may easily allow a paw touch, while many others will pull away slightly or demonstrate even more displeasure. If  the dog will allow a brief, light touch, we will use one finger and place it gently on one of the dog’s paws. If he allows this, we’ll mark with our verbal “yes!” and reinforce with something that the dog enjoys.

Then we may move to a couple of fingers laid lightly on the paw. If the dog’s paw remains in place, we’ll again mark and reinforce. If, however, the dog pulls his paw back, we’ll note that, ignore it and back up a step. This would be an indication that we’ve moved too far, too fast. So, we’ll just take it easy and gently build back up to making the dog comfortable having its paw touched and held. Remember, we mark and reinforce the behavior, so the dog will understand and ultimately repeat what they find reinforcing.

Through patient and consistent communication and training, the grooming process can be an enjoyable experience for groomer and dog.

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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