This modern approach is sometimes called force-free, low-stress or fear-free handling.
Dr. Sophia Yin and Dr. Marty Becker have been pioneers introducing this concept in veterinary care, while the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) has led the way informing pet owners and professionals alike about force-free methods. Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPAB) even rolled out a new dog trainer certification specific to force-free practices: PCT-A.
Unfortunately, the pet grooming industry seems to be lagging behind.
Michelle Martiya, a groomer with 20-years of experience, is trying to change that. In her PPG webinar “Learn How to Reduce Stress in Dogs During Grooming” she describes her journey in the grooming profession, and more recently as a certified professional trainer.
Her advice to dog trainers is to reach out to local groomers in order to support, inform and educate them…and to learn about the sort of handling a pet must be comfortable with during a grooming session. With that knowledge, a trainer may then do a better job teaching dogs how to accept handling in a grooming environment.
The benefits of low-stress grooming appointments include reduced risk of injury to the pet and the groomer, reduced risk of fear-induced aggression, and better health for the pet. The immune system is suppressed by stress and fear-free methods avoid that.
I recently spent four hours visiting Ayn Steinlein of Blue Dog Grooming in Evansville, WI. It was my second visit with Ayn and she graciously allowed me to observe her working with Jackson, a Bernese Mountain Dog I have worked with for the past year. It was Jackson’s first visit to a new groomer.
Ayn explained her philosophy and her professional approach to grooming. “First, I do not harm.” This impressed me, as it is also the first tenant of professional veterinary and human medical care. “Next, I make the safety and comfort of the animal my highest priority. Then I ensure human safety.”
To ensure that Jackson had a great experience, his was the only appointment she made that morning, to allow Jackson as much time as he needed. When he first arrived Jackson was surprised to see me, but that was part of the plan. Jackson had to watch his owner depart, but he was with still with a familiar and trusted person so it kept his anxiety low.
Ayn gave him time to sniff around and acclimate to the surroundings, and we played with Jackson and gave him treats in exchange for responding to training cues. The first task was to bathe him and Ayn intended to get Jackson into a raised bathtub so she could stand upright and work with him. Jackson was reluctant to enter the tub, so Ayn switched gears and took him to a kennel with a floor drain. It was a bit harder for Ayn, but it was easier for Jackson.
The bathing process required spraying Jackson with a hose and a spray nozzle, but the clicking sound of the nozzle trigger appeared to be stressful for Jackson. Once again, Ayn thought about the welfare of her client and used an alternate hose and nozzle that was quiet and had a gentler spray.
After a bit of towel drying Jackson was given time to relax, and then he needed to climb onto the grooming table. The table surface had a textured rubberized surface for traction. Placing treats on the table and using Touch as a training cue, Jackson began exploring the table top and jumped up when he was ready to do so. He earned a happy celebration and a jackpot of treats in return!
Ayn stated many dogs are fearful of the dryer, so she used a slow and steady approach. At first, whenever the dryer was turned on, it was paired with a treat for Jackson. Before long he was standing comfortably as Ayn dried his thick coat and I offered treats.
The final step was to trim the hair between his paws, but Jackson needed a break and some time to relax. When a dog is stressed, it can take 20 minutes or more for the stress chemicals to subside. Ayn demonstrated a sound knowledge of canine body language and put him back on the floor, even though it was easier for her to work with him on the elevated table.
Ayn gave Jackson a stuffed toy to play with and he immediately repaid her with several play bows. When the novelty of the toy wore off, Jackson was given a ball to play with. When a dog is engaged in play, it counters stress hormones.
A few minutes later Jackson was offering his belly for rubbing and Ayn found it easy to work on his paws. Mission accomplished, and the end result was a well-groomed and very happy dog.
We discussed other steps that Ayn takes for the comfort of her clients such as playing calming classical music, providing comfortable beds and fun toys for dogs to enjoy while waiting for their owners, and she will soon be using a Dog Appeasing Pheromone diffuser and lavender essential oil to enhance the environment.
Ayn described herself as a self-taught professional with a passion for ongoing education. That is precisely the path I took to becoming a certified professional dog trainer, so I appreciated her motivation and drive.
It was helpful for me to see the grooming process since our Labradors have never required such services. I also appreciated that Ayn sought to send each animal home in a happy state, so neither the pet nor the family would have to suffer the consequences of a distressed animal. It also increases the odds that the next grooming session with take less time and effort, because the pet has learned that grooming is a rewarding experience.
Well done Ayn! I hope other groomers step up to the higher standard of care you offer. Thank you to Ayn and Jackson’s family for permitting me to write about his!
Blue Dog Grooming LLC
18 Maple Street, Evansville, WI 53536
Daniel H. Antolec, CPT-A, CPDT-KA is the owner of Happy Buddha Dog Training. He has membership in Pet Professional Guild, Force-Free Trainers of Wisconsin, Association of Professional Dog Trainers, Association of Professional Humane Educators and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He also sits on the Board of Directors for Dogs on Call, Inc. and is Chairman of Pet Professional Guild Advocacy Committee.