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 get them started 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 successful instead of stressful.

1. Never let go. It's natural for puppies to resist new things. Your job as a pet parent is to teach them that there's no reason to fight human touch, even when something happens that they may not like or understand. If you give in to them every time they argue, they'll learn that fighting is a good way to get what they want. But if you teach them that they can't win, then they'll focus on how to please you instead of on how to beat you.

When you hold your puppy's feet, ears, tail, or chin, you should be prepared for him to try to jerk out of your grasp. If you pick him up, expect that he might try to wriggle away. Baby animals are supposed to yell and fight if they think something wants to eat them, and it's only through socialization and practice that they learn that humans are safe. Even a well-socialized puppy may react to something new, so be ready to take control of the interaction.

If your puppy argues or fusses, hold on. Be thoughtful and gentle. Use both hands so that your puppy doesn't hurt himself. This is NOT tug-of-war; you do NOT want to hurt or further distress your dog. But you also don't want to let go. The goal is to hold on and follow where the dog goes, like a collar he can't take off. Use a helper if you need to -- another person or a leash tethered to something. Use distractions like toys, treats, and squeaky noises to encourage your puppy to want to cooperate.

When he calms down and stops fighting, that's when you can release him with lots of rewards and praise. This is how you teach him that there's little point in arguing and that even when you do something strange to him, it won't hurt him, and it will be over quickly. Start with short exercises (ie. holding a paw for a few seconds) and build up to longer sessions at a pace your puppy seems comfortable with.

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. Are you doing something that's actually hurting your puppy? If you are, then stop. If not, then you have to stay strong in the face of your puppy's drama. Remember, any time you let go on their terms, you're teaching them that fighting works.

It should only take a few training sessions for them to figure out that standing on a table having their hair styled isn't scary or dangerous. When they understand that, they won't panic and they won't resist. 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 doesn't move for face trimming is less likely to be injured than one who jerks and jumps around. Holding the chin (or elsewhere on the face and head, for dogs without facial hair) is a gentle method of control that requires trust and practice. Start by teaching your puppy to tolerate having her chin held for a few seconds and then work your way up to having her hold still for longer periods while you rub around her nose and 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. Favorite toys work 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 and tell her good job!

Remember Rule #1. Wait until your puppy is calm and quiet 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. Follow your puppy's head around and don't pull against her -- the goal here is not to cause any pain. But don't let go! If she manages to pull a paw away from you, immediately pick it back up. If you let her get away, she'll learn that if she tries hard enough, she can win the game. You want her to learn that grooming isn't a game -- it's a job you ask her to do.

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. Be sure to take your puppy to see your groomer at least every four weeks, avoid teaching bad habits at home, and he'll learn quickly enough to accept grooming in a calm and comfortable way for life.

5. Be the parent. Be in charge. Teaching your puppy what's expected of him doesn't just make his visits to the groomer easier, it makes for a more well-adjusted puppy overall. Training helps develop a relationship with dogs that establishes you as the one in charge, who your pet can trust to make decisions in his best interests. In order to be accepted as the leader, you have to prove you're good at it. It's not about dominance; it's about parenting. Your baby doesn't like going to the doctor, but that's part of keeping her healthy. You make that decision for her, no matter how much she disagrees.

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. That said, do tailor your decisions to your puppy's comfort level. Some puppies deal with stress better than others. Don't push your puppy too far beyond what they can handle. You want the overall experience of training to be a fun challenge, not a traumatic experience.

When you work with your puppy, make sure that playtime doesn't overlap with grooming time. That means puppies aren't allowed to play with or bite the brush. If you are rubbing their paws, they should not be kissing or nibbling on your hands. The overall experience of grooming should be fun, but it won't be fun if they're injured trying to lick the scissors! So remember, it's a job, not a game. While you're combing your puppy, holding their chin hair, or asking them to stand still, there's no playing allowed. Discourage playing by freezing in place, saying "no," and distracting your puppy with a noise or gently blowing on their face.

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. How do you know if you're training them properly? If their behavior improves!

6. Confidence is contagious. Some puppies are naturally more anxious than others. While you don't want to force a nervous dog to interact with strangers or drag them into a strange building, you do have to hand them over to the groomer and leave them for grooming. It's important to stay relaxed and confident when you're dropping off your baby, even if they seem unhappy or stressed. If you have the time, the best thing you can do is give your puppy a moment to collect herself. Don't kiss or cuddle her -- just tell her she's OK and wait. The best cure for anxiety is boredom. You can yawn to show your puppy how relaxed you feel. (Yawning is a "calming signal; if your puppy is yawning during grooming, that's an excellent sign and deserves praise.) A puppy's natural curiosity usually overrules their fear pretty quickly. When that happens and she starts to explore, be sure to praise her for being brave!

If there isn't enough time to wait for your puppy to relax, that's OK. Just make as little fuss as possible. There's a saying that tension travels down the leash, so be calm. Be confident. Instead of asking your puppy, "What's wrong?," hand her over to the professionals and tell her, "Enjoy your spa day!"

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

Disclaimer: Vania Velotta is neither a certified pet trainer nor a veterinarian. Her advice is based on years of experience in the pet care industry and working with rescued animals as well as theories and techniques expressed by professional trainers and experienced pet owners through a variety of media. This advice is not intended to replace or supercede the advice of professional pet trainers or veterinarians. Always consult a qualified professional if you have questions about behavior or medical issues. There are many techniques and philosophies today concerning pet care and behavior - find what works best for you and your pet!