The main key to any well-behaved dog is early desensitization. Desensitization to new situations, other dogs, strange people, being handled, medical examination, and grooming, are all immensely important when creating a “bombproof” dog.
When working on teaching your dog to tolerate, or even enjoy, being groomed, there are a number of steps you must take. The first step in this process is understanding the most important components of good desensitization.
Principles of Desensitization
Many pet owners misinterpret the meaning and execution of desensitization. Desensitization does not equal exposure.
Simply exposing your dog to different stimuli is not going to result in a well-rounded dog, and it may actually initiate additional behavioral problems in some puppies. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to see a person with a new puppy bringing the dog with them everywhere they go, in the name of socialization. It also isn’t uncommon to see those same puppies cowering behind their owner’s legs as strangers ogle at them.
The reaction of the dog is the most important key in the process of desensitizing a dog. A dog that is having a rough time with the process will not magically love the water. Not by being throwing them headfirst into the deep end.
A dog will give you signs when they are uncomfortable in a situation, and it is imperative that you heed these warnings! If your dog is uncomfortable, anxious, or downright afraid of something, you should pair that exposure with something the dog really likes.
You should also decrease the intensity of the exposure when possible. In most cases, adding a reinforcer will develop an association between the potentially scary thing and the good thing (the reinforcer), making the scary thing less scary in your pup’s mind.
A puppy that dislikes people touching his paws is our example. If the dog doesn’t like people touching him, you will most certainly have a difficult time clipping its nails.
However, if you give the puppy its favorite treat every time you touch its paw, the puppy is likely to begin tolerating your handling over time. The puppy may even begin to look forward to your paw-handling sessions because it means they get yummy treats!
Puppies vs. Adult Dogs
The example above would require the same steps when working with an adult dog as it would with a puppy, however, progress can vary greatly between the two.
Puppies and adult dogs learn differently, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! While an older dog might be more difficult to teach at times, it is simply because they have already learned bad habits.
Puppies are “easier” to teach because they haven’t learned the inappropriate behaviors just yet. Puppies give us the wonderful opportunity to work on bad behaviors before they happen. Once a dog has developed a problematic behavior it is much more difficult to break them of it.
This is why early desensitization of your dog is absolutely essential while your dog is still young and impressionable. When your dog is 3 years old and already has to be sedated to trim his nails, the process will be possible, but much more difficult.
Acclimating Your Dog to Handling
The first step in the process of desensitizing your dog to grooming is acclimating them to being handled. Every aspect of grooming requires your dog to be comfortable with frequent handling. Some of the most important focus points should be your dog’s back, sides, tail, legs, and paws.
It is important to pair reinforcement with handling for any body part that seems uncomfortable to your dog. This will begin the process of counter-conditioning, and keep your dog moving in the right direction.
Begin your training session by choosing a variety of treats, deciding on one body part to work on –we’ll use the leg, and reducing any other distractions (like other dogs, televisions, etc.) to keep your dog focused on you.
Begin by simply giving your dog a few treats, or asking your dog to sit. Gently touch your dog’s leg, and immediately remove your hand and reinforce. Repeat this step, increasing the amount of time you touch your pup’s leg by one-second increments.
Only increase the duration when your dog seems entirely comfortable. Or if your dog begins to show any signs of discomfort simply take a “step” or two back, by reducing the amount of time you “ask” for. As your dog grows more relaxed with handling, begin to move your hands around, move their leg, etc.
Once you have desensitized your dog to handling, they will be comfortable with having multiple areas of their body touched. This is useful when we begin to use different tools for grooming, including brushes. Always ensure you are using the correct brush for your dog, and you are using it properly to avoid additional discomfort. See “Everything You Need to Know About Grooming: A Complete Guide”(LINK WHEN POSTED) for more information on dog grooming brushes.
Let’s use the dog in our first example, and brush the feathering on the leg we have desensitized to handling. Begin by gently manipulating the leg, and reinforcing. Next, take your brush and gently touch the bristles to your dog’s leg – reinforce your pup. Brush gently with the direction of hair – reinforce again. Brush gently on the ends of the leg feathering, being cautious not to pull any tangles – reinforce again. Repeat this process, taking care to avoid as much discomfort as possible, and reinforcing heavily for any tangles that may hurt to brush through.
Acclimating Your Dog to Clippers
To acclimate your dog to clippers, they must first be comfortable with the sound associated. Once they are comfortable with the noise, we can desensitize to trimming small areas of hair, and build up the duration of time your dog stands still while being trimmed. This process is extremely important, because it is easy to accidentally nick a squirmy dog when trimming. It only takes one or two negative experiences for a dog to develop an association between grooming and pain. It is definitely not something we want!
Steps to Success
We will continue with our leg example, and move to simply trimming the feathering off the leg. Begin by turning the clippers on, away from your dog, and shutting them off again – reinforce your pup. If your dog reacts fearfully, try turning the clippers on (carefully!) behind your back, this should reduce some of the sound. Continue this until the sound of the clippers can't flinch your dog.Although you left them for a few moments.
Next, hold your dog’s leg gently and touch the clippers, but not the blades, to their leg – reinforce again. Continue to increase the duration of time the clippers touch your dog’s leg by one-second increments. The sensation of the clippers vibrating on your dog’s leg will be very foreign and possibly scary, be patient with your dog and don’t push them too quickly. Only move forward when your dog seems entirely comfortable and relaxed.
Finally, use the blades of the trimmer to clip a small portion of hair, taking care not to knick your dog’s skin – reinforce again. Slowly acclimate your dog to having larger and larger portions of hair clipped, and always make sure to give your dog breaks if needed. Be cautious of the temperature of the blades, to avoid accidentally burning your dog if they begin to get too hot. Being nicked by the clippers is painful, even a single instance can create a strong negative association for your dog. Avoid this! Be very cautious and take a break if your work begins to get sloppy, if you hurt your dog make sure to reinforce heavily to counteract the negative association.
Desensitizing Nail Clipping
Our final, and typically most difficult, grooming step to desensitize is nail cutting. This guide also applies for cat nail trimming, albeit at a slower pace. Many dogs, cats, ferrets, parrots, rabbits, basically any animal actually - squirms like a worm at having their nails trimmed.
We discuss dremel vs. clippers in “Everything You Need to Know About Grooming: A Complete Guide”(LINK WHEN POSTED) but the process will be similar for both. We will use the dremel as an example, because it requires an additional step in desensitizing to the sound. When using nail clippers you can simply skip this step. Begin by assembling all your necessary tools. Furthermore, your dog shall acclimate handling. As this will require lots of paw manipulation.
Steps to Success
Start by turning on the dremel (as with the hair clippers - behind the back if necessary) for a second or two, shutting it off and reinforcing. Increase the amount of time the dremel is left on by one-second increments. Your dog shall relax despite off its sound. Next, practice moving the dremel towards your dog’s paw without touching – reinforce your dog. Repeat this step until your dog doesn’t attempt to withdraw their paw, and reinforce heavily.
Finally, ever so slightly touch the dremel to your dog’s nail for a millisecond, before withdrawing and reinforcing immediately. Your dog may recoil, so it may be necessary to move back to simply turning the dremel on and off without any movement for a few repetitions. Once your dog is comfortable simply increase the duration of time you grind your dog’s nails. Once they sit comfortably for one entire nail, move to two, and three, and four, always ensuring you don’t push your pup too quickly. Do not dremel or clip all the way to your dog’s quick! It will hurt, and they will be much more disdainful towards the next nail clipping!
By letting your dog take things at their own pace. And making sure not to push them faster than they can handle. You can create a scenario where your dog could care less what their groomer is doing. Dogs that are fully comfortable are less likely to flinch, or tremble, and potentially injure themselves with the trimmer or nail clippers. It is crucial to avoid injuring your dog, or your training can backslide quickly. One lazy slip up, because you were attempting to rush through the grooming process, can result in the destruction of days worth of training. Always be patient and careful when working with your dog. And both of you will have a much more relaxed and enjoyable grooming session!