By Emma Steadman:
I am a dog groomer, as my job is about the welfare of the dog, to make them feel and look good.
Looking good is great but if that comes at the expense of the emotional state of the dog then, to me, what does the hair cut matter? We know very well that stress shortens our lives so it’s not so far of a leap to think the same may affect our dogs too. We already know they have the same stress hormones as us they feel fear, pain and happiness similarly to us.
Of course there will always be the one dog who is totally nonchalant about grooming- but that could be ‘do what you need to do, I’m ok with that’ – this is ok! This is still a dog who is choosing to allow the process. The fearful dog who stands there beautifully but is actually very stiff in body – averting any and all eye contact internally in extreme fear – this is not ok.
It’s not ok with me and if we were able to talk to our dogs we would be able to understand more clearly how much fear some dogs feel. But we can’t talk to them. This is why understanding the term ‘calming signals’ is so vital to me.
Now, just like learning any new language there are often dialect differences. This is no different to learning dogs’ body language, as every dog is an individual and will choose to speak in its own way. Environmental factors can and do play a part in this.
Society did change for a while and it was popular to not allow dog to bark – this meant one less way for them to communicate with us.
As a groomer, this was and can still be, a big struggle. Trying to step back and read the whole dog for shifts in weight, a wrinkle of their nose, a super quick lip lick that’s missed in the blink of an eye can be difficult while a groomer’s head is buried under a fluffy tail trimming a dogs pantaloons. Take away that bark, and miss these much more subtle body changes, and the groomer is left with no warnings before that bite.
A dog will only ever bite as a last resort, if they are unable to move away, if they have not been listened to or the body language they have been displaying has been misinterpreted. Dialects can be tricky things to understand! This is where allowing your groomer to build that solid relationship has a profound effect.
Trust works both ways and is key to how I work. Without the dogs’ trust I can’t work with them, only on them. And I don’t like that. Without trust first, most dogs will not be happy in that situation – I wouldn’t be happy
That’s where working with consent-based methods always gives the dog some choice. They still do not get to choose if they come for a groom today, they don’t get to choose how long they stay; (mostly) dogs don’t get a lot of choice as we decide most things for them.
But as soon as we ask
– do you want to walk up the ramp to the bath?
– do you want to stand on the grooming table?
We are giving them some empowerment, lifting their emotions, allowing them some freedom to choose what the are happy and comfortable to do.
Don’t forget dogs are domesticated, they want to be with us and they want us to be happy. Given choice and time to process what it is we are asking they will often choose the option we want.
But working on a dog’s terms is not quick, it doesn’t happen overnight and continually needs to be built on and reinforced. It’s us humans who like quick fixes to ‘just get the job done’ but at what expense?
It’s a very fine balancing act as a groomer, managing owners’ expectations versus the reality and the challenge that is putting into words the behaviour I see almost unconsciously in dogs. It’s very easy to anthropomorphise and talk for the dogs, but this is subjective and we have no way of knowing if it is correct or not. But the body language the small darting eye look the firming stiffness of skin and leaning away for us can not be miss interpreted that is what we need to discuss more as the visual evidence of how comfortable each dog is.
Every dog teaches me something new and the amazing thing is science is constantly evolving and releasing new data so we can keep learning and improving our relationship with dogs.
Grooming is hugely important in most dogs’ lives and highly underrated: the knots in pads that get missed for 6 weeks between grooms; the thick dead coat stuck while new coat is growing through this process especially in puppies is what can start matting from forming.
But knowing the knots and mats sitting tightly to the skin can cause pain discomfort and create an environment perfect to start some nasty conditions from starting is catch 22 when we get to this point. The dog is uncomfortable at this point but that is also normal…. the weird human they have just met not only smells weird, is in a weird room they have not been to before. Now wants them to stand still! On a weird table that they have never done before? Oh and then we start tugging on those mats making more pain; oh, and not to mention the noise of these weird vibrating loud things they are waving around 🤯 so in the dog’s mind – a whole lot of new stuff has just happened and then there was pain too = this is bad! Add in IF the groomer manages to remove all matting, at this point it’s definitely working on the dog not with. The owner returns and can’t hide the shock at their new look. To the dog – oh my dog! This must be really bad place look mum doesn’t even like it!
This is why when you bring your dog to me I highly recommend 4 weekly, monthly grooms. This allows us to build a relationship to keep the skin maintained to keep the coat maintained to be able to train a calm, comfortable and cooperative dog. Take one of those 3 Cs away and the chances are the dog is already has too many emotions happening and will be unable to learn and take part and we are back to working on not with.
Prevention and training is key to how I work and create dogs great for grooming and happy to be groomed!