Help! My dog freaks out at the groomer’s!


Rohini Sankar
Many pets freak out at the grooming salon. The good news is that it’s possible to prevent, manage and, in some cases, reverse these unhappy feelings with some time and effort. Let’s see how.
Dogs aren’t born hating particular people or places. Usually two things need to happen before your pet decides that their groomers are the incarnation of everything scary. The first is unfamiliarity, and the second is unpleasant experiences. Just as people do, pets cling to the familiar and reject the unknown. An unfamiliar place with strange noises and smells can make pets nervous and defensive; add to that an unpleasant experience and, sure enough, you will have an unhappy dog. Accustoming your pet to being handled and to the sights, sounds and smells of the grooming salon will greatly reduce your pet’s stress when she actually goes into these places for an appointment.
Teach your pet to be handled: In order to deal with your pet’s fear of groomers, the first thing you need to do is accustom your dog to being handled. Help your dog to associate handling with pleasant experiences, like – food or toys or anything that your pet thinks is grade-A ‘awesome’. You want those good feelings to be triggered when your pet is touched or controlled by a human’s hands. Handling isn’t just petting. Pets should be accustomed to having the following touched, manipulated, and so on:

  • Mouth (show teeth, open)
  • Ears (look inside)
  • Eyes (clean the eye lids with cotton or gauze)
  • Nose (accustom your dog to being touched on the nose; be gentle, as the nose is very sensitive)
  • Feet (check paws, clip nails)
  • Tail (brush the tail, check for parasites)
  • Unmentionables (her private parts)

Start at home: If your pet gets used to you checking her paws just before her dinner, she will soon begin to view paw handling as a matter of course. Then, when the groomer goes for the nail clippers, your pet’s first impulse will be to look for her reward. Gradually introducing each grooming tool and situation is the number one rule to remember and follow. It lays the foundation for everything else.
Make grooming experience fun! Associate the groomer with positive experiences. If you take Buddy to the vet groomer five or ten times and only one of those results in a bath or a clipper session, chances are that he will be much less apprehensive about visiting. Break out the liver or the cheese or the ball or the chew toy. Whatever it takes to get your pet happily distracted – use it.
Talk to the groomer: Obviously, making your pet feel reassured at the salon requires some cooperation from your groomer. Talk to them. Tell them that you want your pet to associate their business with positive experiences and you will take up minimal time. If you are positive and friendly, many animal professionals will go out of their way to try and accommodate you.
Remember to act confident: If you seem nervous or afraid, your dog will most likely pick up on it and display the same behaviour.
Warning! Yelling at or hitting your pup will not make him calmer. He might appear calmer, but he’ll be much more nervous and fearful. The key is to do everything gradually and gently. The goal is to teach the dog to enjoy being touched everywhere, not just to tolerate handling. If you can achieve that, you’ll have a relaxed dog with good associations to the presence of the handler, the act of being handled, and the use of grooming tools.
5 Steps to make grooming a pleasurable experience…first at home!
Grooming can be a pleasurable activity for both your pet and yourself. Start early, be consistent and, be patient.
Step 1:Go slow and steady Few dogs will tolerate you whipping out a pair of nail clippers and shaving down their nails without warning. Instead of getting right to business, gradually condition your pup to accept each grooming tool and situation. If you grind his nails, for example, let him see the grinder and give him treats when he sniffs it, then touch it to his paws while it’s switched off and give him treats. Once he becomes comfortable with the current step, increase the exposure, at all times rewarding him for cooperating with you. Pets respond very well to vocal praise and will learn to associate the grooming tools with rewards.
Step 2: Groom him in a neutral location If you groom your little guy in the same room every time and he freaks out every time, he’s going to think that bad things happen in that room, and will become nervous if he’s shuffled in there. Choosing a neutral location may be impossible when you give him a bath, but clipping his nails or giving him a haircut or a good brushing should be done in an area of the house he’s not afraid of, nor particularly attached to. He probably won’t associate his new grooming location with something bad, as long as you use positive reinforcement and gradually introduce each tool.
Step 3: Give treats throughout the process and talk to him Make sure that the fun and rewards don’t end when he’s used to getting all jazzed up. Give him a treat or two as you clip a few nails and talk to him as you brush him. It’s easy to focus on grooming your little guy as a job; but making sure it’s a reward for him as well, from the beginning to the end, will lead to more positive grooming sessions.
Step 4: Keep the situation comfortable for your dog Forget about any advice you hear that tells you to hold your dog down or secure him to something with his leash. Anytime you force your pup to do something or to remain somewhere he really doesn’t want to be, you’re going to make him freak out and panic. Instead, ask him to lie down and keep him calm. Don’t force him to the ground or force him to stick around. A little “Ah, wait” should be enough to keep him from bolting off, as long as he’s been conditioned to enjoy the grooming process.
Step 5: Tire your pup out beforehand This usually isn’t required, but it can help make certain dogs calmer, especially those who are hyper and full of energy. Take your little guy for a walk or play fetch for 20 minutes. Make sure you allow him to rest for 10 or 15 minutes between exercise and grooming. You don’t want to make him too worked up that he makes himself sick.
(Rohini Sankar has done Diploma in Canine Behavior Counselling, Therapy and Training from The Association of Companion Animal Behavior Counselors (ACABC), USA; she has more than nine years of professional experience as a canine behaviour counsellor, trainer and therapist.)