Dogs and humans have different ideas of what “well groomed” means. Humans tend to like a neat coat, well-trimmed nails, clean teeth, and a pleasant or at least non-offensive odor.
Dogs, well, just don’t really seem to care. Just as long at they are not too itchy, it’s all good. And as for odor, is there really such as thing as a “bad” odor when you’re a dog?
So when it comes time for grooming, it’s hardly a surprise when a dog resists the idea of holding still for what may be a long time, isn’t overwhelmed with joy at being placed in a tub, actively fights have his nails clipped, or nips at a comb or brush that is teasing out mats.
These are not natural activities for a dog, and if they are not introduced as a part of early socialization, many dogs will not enjoy them. The fact is, things that dogs do not experience when they are young puppies can be scary for them when they are older.
Forcing a dog to submit to these things is not a good idea either, as it can increase anxiety and may even lead to an aggressive response. Even if they do go along, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are enjoying themselves – many owners (and groomers, alas) are not familiar with the difference between calm and still.
Let’s look at the dictionary:
calm adjective (of a person, action, or manner) not showing or feeling nervousness, anger, or other emotions.
still adjective not moving or making a sound.
Buddha is calm when he is groomed. He enjoys it!
So how can we convince a dog that grooming is a good thing? How can we make sure that he is actually calm, and not just still?
The answer is counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC&DS.) CC&DS is a process where in we teach our dogs (but if you look around the ‘net you’ll see the process is often used with humans too) that something they find scary or unpleasant can actually be fun and rewarding. We do this by gradually pairing the unpleasant (or unknown) thing with something pleasant, such as food.
For example, let’s look at nail clipping. Many dogs find the process very unpleasant. As a matter of fact many dogs don’t even like having their feet handled at all, let alone held while their nails are clipped or ground. In this case “starting gradually” means starting out by gently handling a foot while giving your dog a treat.
Here’s one way to approach the problem.
- In a quiet place starting out gently touching your dog’s foot. Give him a very yummy treat. Repeat a few times. Move to step #2 when your dog is enjoying the process. These sessions are always very short. Maybe a minute or so.
- While your dog is lying down, handle the foot a little bit longer. Spread out his toes. Give him a yummy treat. When your dog seems to be enjoying this continue, but also start step #3 in parallel, but never at the same time.
- Take out your nail clippers or nail grinder. Show them to your dog. Put them away. Give your dog a treat.
- If you are using the grinder, turn it on before bringing it near your dog. Combine yummy treats with the sound it makes.
- Once your dog seems happy with having feet handled and seeing the clippers, introduce the clippers while handling the feet but do not clip yet. Be generous with treats while handling feet and display the clippers.
- If you are using clippers, starting making some noise with them while handling the feet, but still not clipping.
- Trying clipping a single nail. Give the dog a treat. Put the clippers away and call it quits. Many people stop at this step, or soon after – instead of making nail clipping an hour-long ordeal, they cut 2 or 3 at a time, and make it much less stressful event.
Each step may take days, maybe even a week or more. Move on to the next step when your dog is relaxed and calm with the one you are working on. Think of the proverbial tortoise: slow and steady wins the race.
This methodology works with any kind of handling. You can break down brushing, clipping hair, and even cleaning ears.
A while back Buddha needed to have medication applied to an infected eye. Needless to say, this is not a comfortable process. Watch his reaction to having cream put directly on his eye in this video.
If something like this can be done without force or fear, why can’t grooming be the same way?
Take it slow, make it rewarding, and never force the issue. Your dog will thank you for it!