Different breeds require different levels of commitment when it comes to grooming, but no matter how easy to maintain, most dogs will dislike some part of the process without a little help. In fact, dogs that require less frequent grooming are often the worst about tolerating it. Here are some tips and techniques to help grooming become an easy chore instead of doggy torture.
Desensitization is the process of reducing or eliminating a negative response though regular neutral exposure. That means that a scary object or activity becomes normal, because we’re exposed to the scary thing frequently in a non-scary context. You begin with a low intensity and increase the dog’s exposure as he becomes more comfortable. It is not flooding, where you’re exposed to a scary thing in a very scary context. Flooding has been shown to actually increase fear and anxiety, and that’s the opposite of what we’re aiming for. If your dog is showing signs of fear during desensitization, you’re moving too quickly or at too high of an intensity. To use people phobias as an example, desensitization would be showing someone afraid of spiders a small picture of one far away, and then gradually getting closer/bigger and eventually, when the person was ready, moving to a real spider. Flooding would be dumping spiders on them and hoping they stop being afraid. Even though the spiders don’t hurt them, it’s a terrifying experience that makes them more afraid of spiders instead of less.
In grooming, we can most easily use desensitization for the tools and types of handling required for grooming. If you only handle your dog’s feet and the nail clippers during nail cutting and you clip the quick or he finds having his feet handled uncomfortable, he’s likely going to become fearful of having his feet handled, nail clippers, and the act of having his nails clipped. Because you’ll spend much longer handling his feet and holding the clippers than you will actually cutting his nails he’s got much more time to be frightened and will likely become more worked up. If you regularly touch his feet, handle the nail clippers, and touch the clippers to his feet without clipping his nails those things will become normal. If you do accidentally clip too closely he’s less likely to be fearful of the clippers and people touching his feet because those aren’t usually paired with nail clipping in his experience.
You can apply this to all types of grooming activities. I keep scissors and cotton balls on the kitchen table so that I’ll remember to regularly touch the dogs with them and handle them in the dog’s presence. I dab a small amount of the ear cleaner we use on the cotton balls so that they’ll stay accustomed to the smell of the cleaner and the feel of something damp on their ears. I make sure to pet and touch the areas of my fluffy dog’s body where his fur tends to mat so that scissors and handling won’t add to the slight discomfort of having his hair pulled a bit to trim it. Ear cleaning and trimming are understandably unpleasant for dogs, but the less frightening the situations surrounding grooming are, the more relaxed your dog will stay.
Counterconditioning is similar to desensitization, you’re exposing your dog to a lower intensity version of something he finds uncomfortable or scary, but then you’re pairing it with something wonderful. Your dog learns that the scary thing is going to result in great food or a game or attention the same way he learns that the leash comes out before he goes for a walk. It’s important to remember that you’re not using the treats as a distraction, you’re teaching your dog to have a different emotional reaction to a necessary aversive in his life. The scary thing has to become a predictor of something awesome, so he needs to be relaxed enough to enjoy his treat and the intensity of the scary thing needs to be below the level where he begins to react. A different emotional reaction is hard to muster if you’re already terrified. For grooming, you might begin by treating just looking at a brush, or allowing hands near ears or feet without touching. When your dog is completely comfortable you can move up a little bit; if he becomes fearful, back off and move up more slowly.
After gradually working up to it, I started putting ear cleaner in my dog’s ear right before letting him out of the truck for a walk. Having liquid in your ears is pretty uncomfortable, so I needed to use a powerful reward, like a walk, to make it a more positive experience. Most days I just hold the bottle near his ears and do a “dry run” so that the bottle near his ears consistently predicts getting out of the truck. You have to be very careful to go slowly enough that your dog remains comfortable, or you can actually train your dog that a certain treat or activity is going to result in awful grooming and create a new phobia. Rushing is the enemy of success; if your dog is fearful, you’re going too fast.
Tips For Success
If your dog is already fearful, it’s often best to change the process as much as possible as you begin desensitization and counterconditioning. Buy new tools and products in different styles or scents, start with a different area of the body and groom in a different location. Your dog has connected the whole package with the discomfort of grooming so the more you can change things the less existing fear you’ll have to work through. Many people have success teaching dogs who are fearful of nail trimming to tolerate filing or even to use a rough surface to file their own nails. This is because the process is so different from trimming with clippers that the only part of the old phobia you’re working against is paw touching.
If you’ve got a grooming emergency it may be best to have your dog sedated and groomed by a vet so that you can begin to countercondition without the pressure of needing to groom now. The more traumatic experiences your dog has with a particular procedure, the harder it will be to teach him to remain calm, so forcing him through it awake is often counterproductive. Having time to work gives you a great chance for success.
Make things easy on yourself. It’s easy to ignore your dog’s nails or ears until things are out of control, and then you’re feeling pressured to fix it NOW. If you keep your tools out where you and your dogs hang out, you can easily work desensitization into your normal day. The more positive or neutral experiences you can work in without actually doing the uncomfortable part, the better.
Even if your dog goes to the groomer, you can work on counterconditioning and desensitization. Take your dog to the groomer just to eat a treat and leave. Get a recording of hair clippers and gradually work up to playing it near your dog’s head and other sensitive spots at home. Touch the areas your dog will need groomed regularly. Picking a groomer carefully, and avoiding places where they aren’t willing to use treats and be patient is important, but you’re with your dog much more often than they are. Your involvement will allow your dog to become more comfortable more quickly.
Try to put yourself in your dog’s shoes. Many dogs are more comfortable in the bath after something has been added to keep them from sliding around in the tub. Adding poor footing to the process understandably makes the whole thing scary. If your dog is allowed to get used to getting into the tub dry, and accustomed to water separately, and the poor footing is remedied, when you add all the elements of a bath together it’s much less overwhelming. If you can figure out exactly which parts are making your dog physically or emotionally uncomfortable you can work to improve those aspects. Many times it’s something you can work on in other contexts, for instance often people only restrain or lift their dogs at the vet or during grooming, so it adds to the fear factor.
Listen to your pets. I discovered that my cat with skin allergies is much less upset by using a different brand of topical flea preventative than the rest of the house. I’m guessing that because she already has skin issues that the original brand was causing genuine discomfort by triggering an allergic reaction. If your dog just doesn’t like something after slow, methodical counterconditioning he may have a pretty good reason. You’re going to have a hard time teaching a different emotional response to burning, itching, and other invisible reactions to a shampoo or other grooming product.
If you’re not seeing results, try calling in a professional to give things a second look. Can you make the steps between different levels of intensity smaller? Is your timing off when you’re using treats? Is your dog completely comfortable with each step before you progress? This is where writing things down can become invaluable, because you’ll have a record of exactly where you got off track, what your different levels of intensity were, and how quickly you progressed.
Especially after your dog has already developed a strongly rooted phobia, or if they’re just nervous in general, it can be a lot of work to train them to stay calm and relaxed. It’s easy to just ignore the problem, and the less grooming your dog requires, the easier it is to overlook. Remember that the goal of easy, relaxed grooming is worth the effort. It saves you money, time, and more importantly, stress for you and your pet. If grooming isn’t a battle you’ll be able to do it more often and better maintain your dog’s health. A few months or even a year of effort to change your dog’s reaction is more than worth it when you measure it in the context of the years you’ll need to be trimming your dog’s nails or cleaning their ears.