When I first started working with dogs, I worked with a groomer who didn't have a lot of patience with them. Dogs danced. They panted and drooled. They sat down - a lot. They growled, pulled, snapped, and bit. The groomer was constantly struggling. It did not take long before I began to think most dogs were naughty on the grooming table.
Eventually, the groomer moved on and I got a promotion. I went from being a kennel worker to grooming. It was not an advancement I was looking forward to.
I came from a horse background. The better I understood the behavior and psychology of horses, the stronger horsewoman I became. The horses I worked with became my partners. We were a team. When you're dealing with large animals, that's exactly what you want.
I quickly applied this concept to the dogs I was working with every day. Sure, I had to learn the haircuts. More importantly, I had to learn how to win their trust and cooperation. I needed to get inside the mind of a dog.
This idea was confirmed when I went to a large dog show in Chicago. I was working on learning how to identify breeds and learn their haircuts. There was a special bonus about attending the show. Barbara Woodhouse, a world-renowned UK dog trainer, was there. She was going to be working with some difficult dogs. It was one of her specialties.
I remember sitting in the audience looking down onto the floor of the auditorium. She was working with an Afghan Hound in full coat. She had a light show lead on the dog but the dog would not walk. It had to be carried to the center of the arena. When the dog was set down, it curled up in a small ball, trying to become invisible. It was clearly terrified.
Barbara Woodhouse approached the dog with confidence. She bent over the dog and soothed it with long methodical strokes to its head and ears while speaking in a very calming sing-song type voice. Even from a distance, I could see the dog starting to relax.
Within moments, she coaxed the dog into a standing position. However, it was evident the dog was still very scared.
Mrs. Woodhouse continued in her sing-song voice, explaining what she was doing while giving reassurance to the dog. She gently and methodically moved her hands over the dog's body. The Afghan was slowly starting to relax. It's topline leveled out. Its head started to come up. As she got towards the rear of the dog, she let her hand slide to the inside of the thigh and gently stroked the inside of the leg.
The dog gave a yawn and then a shake. She softly praised the behavior. The dog's tail came up as it looked to Mrs. Woodhouse for direction. With that, she asked the dog to move forward. It did. Within moments she had the dog fully gaiting on a show lead around the arena. It was amazing.
I will never forget how she was able to gently and confidently work the dog out of its fear in just minutes.
I thought to myself, if Barbara Woodhouse could have such a quick and positive effect on this dog, I needed to learn how to have the same effect.
When I first started grooming, many dogs coming into the salon lacked confidence. They were uncooperative. They struggled. I needed to win their trust. Watching Barbara Woodhouse taught me handling was a learnable skill I needed to master.
I became fascinated with dog behavior, psychology, canine body language, and natural dog training. I read training books by Barbara Woodhouse and Carol Lea Benjamin. I studied canine behavior and psychology. I spent hours watching dogs naturally interact with one another and with humans. I thoroughly enjoyed learning how to use Tellington TTouch® develop by Linda Tellington-Jones. TTouch influences animals in a way that develops trust, and helps forms a harmonious bond between the pet and the person. It can also have a positive effect toward changing unwanted behavior.
Before long, I had very few difficult dogs to work with. Dogs who had been challenging to handle were becoming calm and cooperative. As I gained more experience, it took only moments to gain the trust and respect of my four-legged clients.
Here are a 15 of my favorite handling thoughts and practices:
- Dogs are hardwired to think like dogs.
- Dogs live in the present.
- Dog take their clues from their handler, so set limitations, rules, and boundaries immediately.
- The canine species is a pack animal - dogs need to accept and respect us as the pack leader.
- The word NO is one of the most overused words in the dog's home environment - use a different sound or word to indicate undesirable behavior.
- Never work on a pet you feel is dangerous to itself or to you.
- Always maintain the 3 C's: Calm - Cool - Collected.
- Dogs are silent communicators and are highly responsive to your energy.
- Never take an unfamiliar pet directly from the owner's arms.
- Always maintain some form of physical control - properly adjusted leads or safety loops.
- Be a life-long learner of canine psychology and body language.
- Not all pets are candidates for all professional grooming settings.
- Humanity always comes before vanity.
- If the eyes glow red or green - don't groom the dog.
- Your hands are your livelihood - always protect them.
Personal self-confidence stems from education and experience. Continue to learn new ways to communicate with the pets you handle. The more self-confidence you have, the more successfully you will work with animals.
Never put a dog in danger. Always use respectful but effective handling methods. Do not let your emotions get the best of you. Don't let frustration get in the way.
Always know how your equipment performs and what can happen if you do not use it properly. You need to establish yourself as a pack leader but never at the expense of the dog.
For most of us, grooming dogs is a dream come true. However, every job has its challenges, including grooming. Not every dog loves the grooming process. Most dogs, when skillfully handled with respect, can be groomed with minimal stress to both the pet and the groomer.
Pick trainers you admire and follow them. Study the natural body language of dogs. Learn as much as you can about canine behavior and psychology.
The better you can communicate with the pet you're working on, the less stressful your job is going to be. Most people who have been in the business for a long time have mastered the art of canine (and/or feline) communications. It doesn't matter whether they are working on a regular client or one they only see a few times a year. Rarely do they have difficult or naughty dogs on the grooming table.
It does not mean experienced groomers don't get challenging pets. They do. They just have the skills to handle that pet more effectively than someone with fewer handling skills. If they have a consistently full appointment book, they have the option to make choices in their clientele. Whether they continue to work with a difficult pet or refuse it in the future is totally theirs.
Experienced pet stylists set the rules, limitations, and boundaries automatically - many times without ever saying a word. Even if they do have issues, they know how to effectively deal with problem pets in a safe and gentle manner. Do you know their secrets?