My childhood dog, a Wire Fox Terrier named Scooter, was terrified of the groomer. Her anxiety started on the drive over and continued through her entire grooming session. At every appointment, she showed signs of anxiousness, including panting, whining, salivating, trembling and even becoming physically ill. When it was over, she looked great — a clean coat and a precise cut — but she was exhausted and traumatized.
Not all dogs are afraid of the groomer, but, like Scooter, many are. Their responses can vary from mild anxiety to full-blown panic attacks.
No matter how your dog’s fear manifests itself, it is important to take preventive measures to address his anxiety before it escalates into aggression. Here are my top tips for reducing the fear factor at the groomer.
Turn Grooming from Torture into Treat
Take the stress out of the ride. Car rides can provoke anxiety; a dog who arrives at the groomer already stressed out and anxious can be an extra challenge. There are a couple of reasons your dog may dislike the car. He may be anxious about the ride itself or the anticipated destination — like the groomer. Counter conditioning can help ease your dog’s fear and increase his enjoyment of riding in the car. His anxiety and discomfort may also be related to motion sickness. Talk to your veterinarian to see if an antinausea medication may be helpful.
Get your dog used to being handled. Grooming often includes handling of sensitive areas, including the muzzle, eyes, ears, paws, tail, rear and groin. Training can help your dog remain relaxed with different types of touching, even in sensitive spots. Work with your dog at home to get him used to being handled before you take him to the groomer. Pair a predictor word, like “ears,” with a gentle touch on that specific area; reward your dog with a treat during or immediately after giving the cue and handling the area. Go slowly: If your dog is sensitive in an area like the paws, start by touching him on an area where he is less sensitive, like his shoulder, and gradually move toward the paw. Continue training only while he is relaxed and receptive
Make the groomer’s a happy place to visit. Ask your groomer if it’s possible to do a training visit without any grooming being done. Instead, pair being in the parking lot or lobby with events your dog likes, such as play, treat training or going on a walk. If possible, ask staff to practice the handling you’ve trained and following up with rewards. Use the visit to accustom your dog to the sights and sounds of the groomer, including the noise of clippers or dryers, and to practice being lifted on and off the grooming table. Be sure to follow up with lots of treats, so that your dog learns to associate the groomer’s with good things.
Think outside the box. Identify the specific aspects of the grooming experience that make your dog uncomfortable and look for alternatives. For instance, if your dog is frightened when he’s lifted onto the grooming table, look for options, like ramps or stairs, that let him climb up on his own. If he dislikes the slippery surface of the grooming table, place towels or antislip mats under him. Facial wipes or lightly dampened cloths can be used for dogs who dislike running water near their heads. Products like Scaredy Cut Silent Pet Clippers, Mutt Muffs or the Happy Hoodie can help dogs who are sensitive to sound, while a Thunder Cap can decrease visual stimuli. Even small changes like increasing the frequency of treats or adjusting the temperature of the bathwater can help reduce your dog’s stress levels tremendously.
Consider a muzzle. A muzzle can make grooming easier and safer for your dog and for the groomer, especially if your dog is already difficult to handle and has needed extra restraint or muzzling in the past. Muzzle training can reduce the need for other types of restraint and can protect your pet against the implications of a bite. Train your dog to willingly put his nose into the muzzle by smearing a soft treat, like peanut butter, on the inside. I prefer to use a basket muzzle with small openings; this allows the dog to take treats while wearing the muzzle, which can also help keep the dog calm.
These strategies may not work for every dog. If training is failing to make a dent in your dog’s anxiety levels, or if your dog is reacting aggressively to any attempts to groom him, seek your veterinarian’s guidance about professional training. Talk to your vet as well about possible medication options to help manage your dog’s grooming anxiety.