How to get dogs to sit still for grooming
I am often asked… “How do you get them to sit so still? How do you get them to let you do that?”
The answer to this question is often hard to sum up in a quick retort. So here, I have taken time to explain what makes the really talented pet groomers great at what they do and the techniques behind the magic of what I like to call “The jedi mind wave” (convincing pets that it is in their best interest to sit still.)
1. Don't Get Bit
Animal handling can be a very dangerous prospect. I think there aren't too many people that haven't been somehow affected by an animal viciously biting a human. How about that story, you know the one… about a pit-bull aggressively attacking or killing a human. An extreme case would be in 2003 during a Siegfried & Roy performance; a large cat viciously attacked Trainer Roy Horn. Yes, this was an exotic large Cat, but it was also a cat that the trainer knew extremely well. When it comes to animal handling, whether it be a pet dog/cat, a wild raccoon, or a zoo animal, getting bit is the biggest danger.
I use all the experiences I have had with many animals to do an "evaluation in an instant". Most pets are loved and willing to be handled as long as they don't get hurt. Those pets are easy to spot, some petting gets their tails going, and a sing-songy voice takes them to a happy place. These dogs are generally pretty intelligent and know that we are experts. They don't sense the tensions and anxieties that their owners have about attempting delicate grooming matters. Because we are practiced, we also know exactly how much tugging, pulling, or combing a certain coat type needs, thus we never tug too hard. Brushing, combing and de-matting are tedious work for both pet and owner. Sometimes by the time the owner gets it figured out, the pet it was learned with wants to have nothing to do with it, and will bite.
Mistrust and fear are the # 1 reason for bites or combative behavior. If you address these two issues first with any pet, your chances of having a happy grooming session are much improved, and doing this from the beginning is crucial. Many groomers make the mistake of assuming that the dog should automatically trust them as long a they've never done anything wrong to the dog. They figure they should start out at 100% with every dog and have room to go down from there. This is so wrong. They are not the only factor that would cause the dog to be mistrusting or afraid: previous experiences, cage fright, blowers, other dogs, car rides, sudden sounds... The list goes on an on.... The trick is learning what makes each pet trusting and confident in you. The most wonderful pet groomers take the extra time to learn your pet’s personality and needs upfront.
2. Show them what you want them to do.
Most dogs and cats aren't stupid. They can be happy to do what you want if you show them how. With groomers, we place their feet where we want them to stand, and patiently keep placing them back into that position while trying to work. It can be quite a dance. With some dogs, this can mean talking to them to encourage them with your voice that they are doing good job of being still and standing. With others, it may have to be more businesslike because encouragement makes the dog wiggle, and/or wag. (I am going to write a series on wagging soon.) However the voice method, the repetitive nature of putting them back into position will cause most dogs to comply. Many groomers can account a time of grooming an overweight Golden Retriever that must be lifted back to standing from sitting dozens of times during a trimming. It's exhausting. After grooming a couple of these guys you realize that it's easier to stop them from sitting than lifting them back up once they've flopped their big butt down on the table. So- you are now officially grooming one handed, as the hand not holding a tool is under the dog's abdomen ready to give an encouragement by pushing up when the dog shifts his weight a split second before he sits down. Sometimes a small dog likes to do a couple of circles on the table before settling in, these dogs just need to get their barring on the table and get some wiggles out. Telling them what you are doing, showing them how to do it and reminding them over and over, with understanding and patience is absolutely a quality that the great ones have.
3. Treats, grooming loops, cages, tables, restraint systems and more.
An important part of animal handling is keeping a pet feeling secure. The basic needs of life must be met in the first, which are: Food, water, and toileting. Right? So—if one of these needs is lacking, the dog may not respond to his fullest potential. Water to drink and one or more chances to go “potty” will keep a well-trained pet from fretting over these issues. As an experienced groomer, however, I do not recommend food during the grooming process. A nice breakfast should sustain any dog over even the longest of days. Nervous bellies and completely empty bellies may experience vomiting. Always be sure that your pet has eaten before going to see his groomer.
Treats in the form of bribery are not a reliable way to train dogs and to get them to trust and believe in you. It is a good way of reinforcing good habits and general commands, but other than their empty bellies it doesn’t provide enough “Alpha support” to risk making them feel sick. A treat after everything is all done is great! Actually, a longer lasting, new something (squeak toy, chew toy) is a more satisfying reward after being good for hours.
Another important part of making a pet feel secure is giving them their own space, and feeling safe in it. For some pets/dogs the feeling of being kept from another person/animal can hurt them or not.. For a few pets, this becomes their sanctuary and no one may invade it. This might be the only time that a pet bites. Once they are out, it is a non-issue. Pet’s that defend an enclosed space must be “lassoed” with a leash and walked out. From time to time, this requires a jump!... to the safety of the arms of a human. If the dog wasn’t pegged for “cage guarding” and put in a overheard cage, this can be a hairy situation; the dog must be pulled to jumping. The physiological change in the dog happens in the air, between the dog “guarding the cage”, and the secure feeling of human arms. A few of these dogs caged high, must land on flat ground before being touched by a human, as the insecurity of the jump will often illicit a bite. Whichever, these dogs are unwillingly pulled from a high place to an abrupt landing, but land with a commanding feeling of accomplishment, amplified by praise from a handler that facilitated landing making it exponentially successful! The “ground” type of jump includes placing a high enough table into position that a dog can make the jump without physically overexerting, or injuring himself jumping to it. Believe me when I say that the great groomers that attempt this jump, in arms or ground, achieve a level of trust that can’t be rivaled.
After the dog is on the table, they must NEVER feel like they might fall. Dogs contained on a limited high surface, might not exactly KNOW where the edges are. Grooming tables are equipped with a high bar that includes a hanging leash that has a choice of loops (choker style, collar style, or loose leaf). This device makes it possible for groomers to give pets freedom without the surprising fall/ demise that is possible. A loop or leash that secures a pet in a high place (over 22”) can mean their certain death or safety. In our American history, hanging is reported as one of the worst deaths. I would never want that to happen. The grooming loop is only to give the dog security, and if, in the case that it saves him… only the split second it takes to give a contentious person time to react. If a pet is more rambunctious than a simple leash a “groomer’s helper” can be enlisted to control the front of a dog’s body. The leash is clipped from the collar/neck to the grooming arm. There also exists an “add on” to the groomer’s helper that controls the pet’s sitting ability to move his rear end/sit…. I don not think that this type of restraint is necessary, but for dog’s that we consider “lead butts”. Controlling a dog’s rear while the front is restrained can inhibit the dog’s ability to be reasonable. The really great groomers abandon all these available restraint systems for more personal control, lovingly and directly, in the form of physical holding. This type of holding can be reinforced by a loving voice that can encourage the pet to stop moving and relinquish the combative urges that they have. The great groomers that I have known in y career, use the most logical and respectful of these systems to accomplish the goal of letting the pet/dog to allow the thing that they least desire to happen without injury to themselves or others.
4. Don't let them be sneaky with checks.
Checking is a very important role in grooming but not like you think if you have ever seen an NHL player check an opponent into the glass. Checking is an instantaneous, quick as a flash, non-painful response to a good pet getting ready to cross the line from good behavior to bad. It can be verbal or physical. It has the effect of surprise. Good groomers are usually trying to convey a quick "Hey!” or “What are you doing?” type of message. An experienced groomer knows by the pet’s squirming, stance, or head movements that it is turning into a possibly combative direction. The pet generally tests the waters first. This is the time for a correction that doesn’t punish, but encourages an animal to continue the good behavior and to forget about what they were thinking of doing. A confident groomer can convey this message without threatening a pet or squaring off as an enemy. A good example is when the pet’s foot is extended in front of them, as if to trim the toenails. As the dog's face starts to come down toward your hand to bite, nip, nibble, lick… (all signs of displeasure/ discomfort with the situation), you position his own paw in between and gently bop them with it... Sometimes you have to do this gently multiple times while handling a pet's foot (or other body part… ear, eyes, lips….). It is another dance... More like “Stop, please let me finish. Stop, please let do this. Stop, please let me just trim this ONE thing” It can be a way of talking them out of crossing that line even if they forget every 10 seconds. Great pet groomers don’t force dogs to cooperate, they help them learn to.
5. Be aware of what provokes a negative behavior, and don't do it or put protection in place.
If a gentle check provokes an aggressive response, checking is out. A pet that’s personality is beyond a gentle reminder. A pet that wants to bite requires some form of restraint. A pet that is biting can be handled easier if a soft muzzle is placed around the pet's mouth BEFORE they become agitated enough, or at the first signal that they may bite. Sometimes this even stops other combative behavior such as throwing paws, rearing up, or head butting. Sometimes the very act of keeping the dog from biting can help keep them calm.
Often, when a dog is muzzled for something and the muzzle removed as soon as it’s over and lot’s of praising ensues, the dog learns that it’s okay and that they survived and can do so without all the fanfare next time. In many cases, this has to be done over and over until the pet understands. They WILL in most cases. I have an aggressive standard poodle that I groom that took 9 haircuts with the muzzle on and off, before he decided that I was okay and would let me do it without one. Really great groomers know that muzzling and gentling restraining pets is a necessary component of teaching dogs to be trusting. They use it to help the pet understand that there is nothing to fear, and the goal is to loose it eventually.
6.) We can do this the easy way or the hard way.
This is the hardest animal to handle. This is the dog or the cat that is ready to fight you, regardless of whether it is a big deal or not. This is the pet that will do anything and everything to avoid giving up or giving in. This pet is handled like a child that is developmentally disabled. You MUST protect he animal from hurting you, itself, or others during a grooming. Many times these animals can’t be caged, or picked up. Often these dogs are willing to jump up onto a table and be muzzled, but not if they are already agitated enough to believe that the muzzle will force their hand, or be something that brings harm to them. Many of these dogs but must be held/restrained, and coddled through the entire process. For some it may only be one part of the process, like getting their toenails trimmed. It is very likely that this pet will NEVER be able to be fully trusted, even if they are given small opportunities to show their true colors. The really awesome groomers in a small league of experts, can graciously handle an animal that is quite serious, without taking it too seriously.
Occasionally there is the pet that no matter what is taken into consideration, is IMPOOSIBLE to convince that “we come in peace”. Dogs and cats that will viciously bite no matter what the circumstance ultimately should be cut by a groomer that works at a vet clinic. A vet can tranquilize or sedate the animal so that a groomer can do their work while the pet dozes or sleeps. This is much safer for the groomer and less demands on the pet to cooperate. He can wake up and think “Oh, I got a haircut!”
Grooming and training methods can differ from groomer to groomer. Each pet is different and a groomer should always be willing to try a different technique as long as it is humane. A pet should never be hit, screamed at, forced into submission, or “alpha flipped” to be groomed. Groomers that use such techniques should be ashamed of themselves and pick another career. A groomer should be willing to hold a pet in their lap to help a pet to learn to trust, and have a clear understand that these are God’s little creatures to be loved and cared for by us. And when they do… guess what? They sit still.
Do you have something that works exceptionally well at getting pets to trust and not fear?
We welcome your comments!