By Nan Kené Arthur, CDBC, CPDT-KSA, KPACTP
Low-stress handling is becoming a big trend in the veterinary community, with more and more facilities committing to teaching, rather than forcing, dogs to cooperate with needed vet care.
Following that trend is the grooming community, and while it’s still a nova, humane handling is making inroads on its way to full stardom. As this movement grows, so does a well-needed niche market that groomers can glom onto and build reputations as gentle groomers.
Dog trainers that deal with behavior cases readily confess that one of the more challenging behaviors to modify is sensitivity to touch and handling. This is especially true once a dog or puppy has had one or more negative experiences with things like grooming or rough handling during vet visits. (Is this torture?)
For some dogs, it can take only one scary experience to become “hand shy,” or worse. This can quickly grow to the point where the dog feels a need to lash out at hands or equipment as a way to protect themselves from perceived danger. Sadly, many of these same dogs then advance their reactions and often have to be anesthetized for routine care such as nail trims, de-matting, and ear cleaning. This risks the dog’s life, and further perpetuates the handling and grooming issues, as the dog still has to be restrained during the anesthesia process.
Benefits of proper touching and handling
It’s sometimes hard for humans to remember that dogs are a different species, and therefore communicate differently. As humans, we approach life in a species-specific manner, as do canines, and it’s important to keep that in mind any time you approach a dog during grooming or any handling.
Humans are frontal in our approach to one another — we stand vertically, we have hands with opposable thumbs, and we communicate with the spoken language and physical gestures, particularly when things are painful or scary for us.
Dogs, on the other hand, are horizontal— they rarely approach each other from the front, they readily protect their paws from injury given that it could incapacitate them, and they too communicate with one another in their own language, which includes growling, snapping, and biting if they really need to make a point.
Adding to the complexity of these differences are the learning experiences when dogs are forced to endure routine handling during vet visits or grooming. This can make a dog even more sensitive to being touched or handled when compounded with our mixed messages when we arbitrarily offer human behavior towards them.
Regardless of why or how a dog builds a sensitivity to handling (or anything else), it’s always a shock when someone’s sweet dog all of the sudden turns into Cujo and growls, snaps, or bites during the course of handling, petting, or grooming. No matter how shocking, it’s important as a professional to respond, not react, if a dog displays any of these behaviors, and even better to be proactive to prevent the fear in the first place. If a dog has resorted to using one of these stronger statements, you can be sure that communications have broken down somewhere along the line.
Some professionals might be inclined to just “make” the dog accept grooming and handling, but that not only puts the welfare of the dog in question, it increases your risk for getting bitten, and all the while making the sensitivity stronger.
Even when dogs have had a steady course of positive experiences with handling, it’s still beneficial for groomers and support staff to sustain and maintain good handling experiences for each dog they encounter. If for no other reason than to offset any potential negative experiences in the future, this ethical approach to handling dogs helps minimize everyone’s stress levels.
Luckily, with some simple techniques, training can become the bridge for helping dogs relax more with grooming and to overcome issues that might already in place.
In addition, the good news is that you don’t have to have a long training background to help dogs be more comfortable with grooming; you only need to understand more about dogs and behavior. Working with a positive, certified trainer can teach you the basics, and by doing so, you will be building an alliance that can send you more business.
Building that niche market
The majority of people want their dogs handled with care and kindness, and those that want to work on helping their dogs be less stressed with grooming are going to be willing to pay extra for you to go slowly and build trust.
The problem is that most people have no idea what takes place in a typical grooming session. While most groomers are professional and know their craft well, they are taught a lot of restraint and “get it done” techniques that can lead to the aforementioned sensitivities. Sara Scott, a groomer in Salt Lake City, offers a service where the owners are able to watch her groom for an extra fee, and she can show the owner how she strives to be as gentle as possible with the dog. That extra fee covers the additional time spent, but gives the owners the assurance that their beloved dog is in good hands.
Scott works with a number of trainers who also refer to her when they have more difficult handling cases, even for things as simple as baths, because they know she will not undo any of the work they are doing to help the dog be more comfortable with handling in general.
Setting your own policy about how you will go about grooming dogs is another easy way to enhance your business. If you decide that you will only use gentle methods of grooming, you can set your prices higher to begin with and market yourself as a specialty groomer up front. Then, by learning techniques that help dogs relax with grooming, not only do you get a dog that is able to cooperate with you (making grooming easier), you have techniques that you can then offer to teach other groomers or give classes to owners that teach them to keep up with their pet’s grooming in a positive way. For example, Sara Scott offers classes such as “Untangled,” how to keep mats to a manageable level, and “Stable on the Table,” which helps dogs learn to be steady and accept touching and handling while on the grooming table.
All of these ideas add to the revenue stream, and even give you a way to profit from selling things like brushes, combs, and other related equipment and products that the owners can buy to keep up with what you have taught them.
Creating “Buy In”
Likely, the most difficult pushback of instituting this sort of plan will be from busy grooming shops that are used to production grooming where time is money, but if you can demonstrate how doing this can actually increase the revenue by helping make the venue “the place” to go, and where they specialize in humane handling, post-grooming support, and education, the pace can slow down and the revenue can increase.
Being an expert in that arena can also put you in front of the local news cameras as filler content for morning news shows, which are always looking for new things to offer their pet-friendly audiences. It can be a pretty impressive piece when a dog offers his paw for a nail trim!
Working with trainers who have certifications in behavior and training, such as those from the Karen Pryor Academy’s Certified Professional Dog Training program, is an excellent place to start, and groomers such as Jennie Willoughby (who owns Waggin Tails in Moorpark, CA), have taken the course to augment their business and train their groomers how to use training techniques that make it easier for the dogs.
Looking at low-stress handling as an option to augment your current or new business is not only is beneficial for the dogs, it’s a wonderful way to help you grow a niche market that provides solid traction into the ever-growing community that wants their pets groomed with as little stress as possible. And that foothold equals additional income when you work with training and behavior experts via referrals and by building your reputation as the groomer who wants to take grooming to the next level.
Nan Kené Arthur, CDBC, CPDT-KSA, KPACTP, is the owner of Whole Dog Training and author of “Chill Out Fido!: How to Calm Your Dog”. Nan is a Certification Instructor with dog*tec Dog Walking Academy in San Diego, and also serves as Faculty with the Karen Pryor Academy.
This post was originally published on January 25, 2016.