Teaching Puppies to Love Grooming

Grooming should be a positive part of your dog's life, but when they're first starting out, it can seem strange and frightening. It's important to introduce them to grooming early so that the grooming table becomes a familiar, comfortable place. What they learn as puppies will help establish habits of good behavior for the rest of their lives, so take them to visit the groomer often! And in between those visits, follow these guidelines with your puppy at home to help make their future grooming experiences less stressful and more successful.

1. Never let go. This is the cardinal rule of puppy prep school. When you decide to hold your puppy's feet, ears, tail, or chin, do not let your puppy jerk out of your grasp. If you pick him up, do not let him wriggle away. Never release your hold when your puppy is arguing or fussing with you. When you handle a puppy in strange, new ways, it's natural for them to panic and try to escape. But it's your job to teach them that they are safe and that you'd like them to cooperate. Gently but firmly keep control. Use both hands so that your puppy doesn't hurt himself. When he calms down and stops fighting, that's when you can release him with lots of rewards and praise.

Puppy groomingSome puppies are naturally mild, while others are feisty and stubborn. Your puppy may struggle, pull, scratch at you, yell, or try to bite you when you start teaching him about grooming. It's important to stay strong in the face of puppy drama. If you let go on their terms, they'll learn that fighting works. But if wait them out and hang on until they're behaving better, they'll learn that fighting is a waste of time. It should only take a few training sessions for them to figure out that standing on a table and having their feet or chins held isn't scary or dangerous. When they understand that, they won't panic and they'll stop resisting. How much your puppy is likely to fuss will vary, but how you deal with it will make the difference between a future of calm, happy grooming experiences and frustrating, scary ones, so be as patient as you need to be.

2. Hold your puppy's hand. Literally! All dogs are instinctively protective of their feet. The more you handle your puppy's paws, the more comfortable she'll be when it comes time to groom her feet and nails. Playing with her feet regularly doesn't guarantee she'll be a pro for her next nail trim -- she'll still have to practice that -- but it will help make her less twitchy and suspicious.

You'll also want to play with her ears (most dogs enjoy a nice ear massage), poking your fingers around, rubbing, and tugging gently. Lift her tail. Hold her muzzle. You should be able to do anything to your puppy (being mindful of their body's range of motion) without upsetting them.

If you have electric clippers or an electric toothbrush at home, you can try to get your puppy comfortable with the sounds their motors make. Turn them on some distance away while she's eating her food or playing or doing other fun things. Start from another room if you have to and slowly move them closer as she gets used to them. It may take only minutes or it may take a few days. The idea is to desensitize her to the noise and vibration. When she's comfortable with having the clippers near her, you can start to rub the non-cutting edge of them on her back end and slowly work your way up to having them touch her around her front legs, face, and ears.

It's also extremely important to get your puppy used to having her chin hair held. Groomers hold dogs by the chin while they're working around the face and eyes to help keep the dog's head still. A dog who argues for face trimming is at much higher risk for injury than one who cooperates. Holding the chin (or elsewhere on the face and head, for dogs without facial hair) is a gentle method of control that requires trust. Start by teaching your puppy to tolerate having her chin held and then work your way up to having her very hold still while you wipe around her eyes.

You can make chin-holding fun by feeding your puppy tiny bits of something she really likes. Tic tac sized bits of food work well. Or a favorite toy for less food-motivated puppies. Making squeaky or kissy noises in front of your puppy will also encourage them to move toward you, rather than pull away. If she does fuss, blowing gently in her face can sometimes distract her enough to stop wiggling. If your timing is perfect, that instant of stillness is your opportunity to let go!

Remember Rule #1. Wait until your puppy is calm and still before you release her. Make sure you have a firm grip on a good section of hair so that your puppy can't easily jerk away from you. Use your other hand if you need to for extra control. It's better to follow your puppy's head around than to pull against it -- the goal here is not to cause any pain. But don't let go! If she gets away, she's learned the opposite of what you want to teach her.

3. Learn the language. Teach your puppy to stand still as soon as possible. Hold your hand under her belly and say the word, "stand." Simply hold her there until she stands calmly for a few seconds. Then release her and tell her she what a good job she did. Many puppies will instinctively try to lay down when you put your hand under their bellies. Just hold them up gently but firmly until they put their feet down and stand on their own without wiggling or trying to walk away. Use treats and toys to distract and reward them.

"Relax" is also an excellent word for puppies to know and it's easy to teach. When your puppy is being calm and quiet say, "good relax" in a soothing, mellow voice. When you think she's made the connection between the word and the state of mind, trying using the word as a command when you want her to be peaceful. You can also teach the word "settle" as a way to tell your puppy to stop bouncing around and act calmly.

"Focus" is a great command for puppies who are generally well-behaved, but easily distractable. When you say "focus," it means you want the dog to look at your eyes and pay attention only to you. Wiggle your pointer finger in front of your eyes to show them what you want. When they look, say "Good puppy!" in a fun, squeaky voice. You can use toys and treats to help your puppy learn focus faster.

4. When in doubt, do nothing. If you're not consistent or if you use techniques improperly (remember rule #1), there's a chance you can reinforce bad behavior in your puppy instead of teaching him good behavior. If you're not sure you're handling your puppy the right way, or if he seems to be getting worse for grooming instead of calmer, let the professionals handle it. Don't handle his feet, his ears, brush him, or make him listen to the electric razor. Just enjoy his company and let the groomer handle the training. If your puppy sees his groomer every four weeks or less and isn't taught any bad habits at home, he'll learn quickly enough to accept grooming in a calm and comfortable way for life.

5. Be the parent. Be the boss. All of the above rules apply to any kind of grooming you do at home, but it's also about developing a relationship with your puppy that establishes you as the one in charge, who makes decisions in your pet's best interests. In order to be accepted as the boss, you have to prove you're good at it. So be calm, be kind, be consistent. Do not let your puppy decide when your grooming session begins or ends or how it will go. The less nonsense you accept, the happier your dog will be in the long run - confident, comfortable, and calm. A well-adjusted dog can deal with challenging situations because they've learned to trust the humans in their lives to look out for them.

You want to teach your puppy that grooming time is serious time and that the reward for being good is cuddles, toys, and treats. You don't want playtime to overlap with grooming time. Don't let your puppy take charge by kissing you or pawing at you or biting the brush. The overall experience of grooming should be fun, but you don't want your puppy thinking it's OK to play with scissors. Your goal is to set clear and consistent boundaries that will keep your puppy safe, so commit to being a parent and not giving in to your puppy's every whim. It helps to keep training sessions short and slowly build up to asking for better behavior for longer times. The nice thing about training at home is that there's no rush and no reason to push until you and your puppy are frustrated with each other.

6. Don't train fear. Never comfort a puppy who seems anxious. Our first instinct is always to cuddle a crying baby, but comforting a frightened puppy with kisses and hugs is a good way to raise a nervous dog. You wouldn't reward your puppy for peeing on the carpet, so don't reward your puppy for being afraid. If you don't get upset at grooming time, your puppy will learn that there's no reason to for anyone to be upset. Give your puppy a moment to collect herself and her natural curiosity will overrule her fear. When that happens, be sure to praise her for being brave!

Any time you take your dog somewhere like the grooming shop or the vet or the boarding kennel, make as little fuss as possible. Be calm. Be confident. There's a saying that tension travels down the leash and it's true. So don't ask your puppy, "What's wrong?" Show them that there's nothing wrong and they'll follow your lead.

--Vania Velotta
Pet Groom Studio, Orange Village, OH