**Teaching Your Pet to Like Grooming

​The easiest way to teach your dogs or cats to like grooming, is to introduce them to it while they're young. With Rescues, though, this is often not possible -- many have either not been introduced to grooming at all, or have been introduced in a negative manner.  It will also help matters if you can pick 1 aspect to work on at a time... for example, work on settle one week, then work on nail-trimming one week, then scissoring one week, then brushing 1 week, then ear-cleaning 1 week, etc.

​All facets of your pet's grooming should be made to be a relaxing, pleasurable experience for him -- it's a bonding process. Clicker Training is especially effective in teaching your dog acceptable, appropriate behavior during these often stressful proceedings, and can easily be incorporated into the following.

The best ways I've found to gain cooperation:  First, if you can engage a helper to handle the reinforcement, this will work the best to allow you to do the actual grooming (trainers are great for this! (lol).  With cats (and some dogs) it's easier to get them to allow you to gain access if they're enjoying the process... this includes eating something really yummy, and this is exponentially heightened when he's hungry).  To gain his cooperation, either don't feed him the morning meal, or feed half rations if you must feed him something.  Let him be hungry, so that the treats have real meaning to him.

At first, get all your stuff together in a basket, and set a timer for 5 minutes.  Treat heavily during the 5-minute grooming time, but NOT when it ends.  Teach him that during this time, the rewards happen while the grooming happens... not after.  You can increase the time on the timer as he starts to enjoy the process more.  You can do these short sessions several times per day, slowly increasing the time each day.

When you want him to cooperate (and gain access to the food), do this when he's hungry.  Do the first session of the day before breakfast if you can work that 5 minutes into your schedule.  Feed him half-rations for breakfast, then do another session at lunchtime.  I use cream cheese, or liverwurst, or squeeze cheese.  You can put canned food or cream cheese in a cake-decorating tube to make reward delivery easier.

It's important that reward delivery happens fast enough that your pet doesn't have time to focus on nail-clipping, or tangle-brushing, or butt-shaving... make sure that your helper understands this.  Grooming is different, especially if you're dealing with a cat, and you need to get this done.  Grooming has often been such a nasty experience in the past (and this often means that the animal hasn't been groomed for a long time) that you have to just do what needs to be done while someone else  shoves food in the bitey end.

Note that I don't usually condone the "just do it" mentality in these kinds of scenarios... but sometimes, you just don't have the luxury of taking your time.  You can do things in a way that won't be so traumatic that the animal won't ever overcome it, and give yourself and the animal more time to become acclimated.  If there's someone that the animal seems to really like, put them in charge of the food.  The food itself should be something soft and smelly, something easy to eat... this helps to ensure that the rate of reinforcement can be kept at a high level, so the animal doesn't get the opportunity to focus on what's going on that he may not like.  The person who is in charge of the "Bitey End" (with my animals, that tends to be the face/ head) will need to hold the dog's collar to keep him in place, and keep a steady stream of reinforcement coming to keep his interest.  This serves 2 really important purposes:

1. As explained previously, it helps to ensure that the rate of reinforcement can be kept at a high level, so the animal doesn't get the opportunity to focus on what's going on that he may not like; and

2. Eating causes a rush of hormones to be released: serotonin, the "feel-good" hormone, floods the brain when we eat.  Serotonin reduces aggressive behavior, helps to modulate stress , and gives you a way to judge the stress level itself... low levels of stress actually are beneficial to the learning process, while higher levels can be detrimental.

​Don't "pin" your dog down (see the Settle command). The best way I've found to introduce a dog to these rituals is to choose a relaxed time -- like when you're sitting on the couch in the evening with the TV on. If your dog is allowed on the couch, he's already there with you. If not, sit or lie on the floor with him. Start slowly, with just your hands -- no grooming supplies. Keep a supply of sliced hotdog or cheese cubes on hand, to reinforce appropriate behavior. Spend 5-10 minutes each evening touching his feet, massaging his ears, and looking in his mouth. Progress to massaging the pads of his feet (this is very sensitive), looking extensively into his ears with some light touching, and probing inside his mouth. This may take a week, or a month, or even longer, depending on the individual dog and his responses to all of this -- the goal is to be able to do all this with the dog remaining relaxed.

​The next step is to add the actual grooming, one tiny step at a time. For the first step, concentrate on nail clipping. Again, a supply of sliced hotdog or cheese will really expedite the process. Begin by going through the massage ritual described for the first week, and then add the nail clippers -- don't actually use them, yet -- just lightly rub them across the pads of the feet. If your dog accepts this easily, praise him and give him a treat for each toe. The next night, follow this same routine, then, if this is easily accepted, quickly snip just the very tip of a nail. Jackpot him! A jackpot is several treats at once -- you give the jackpot any time that you want to really express pleasure with something that your dog has done, or allowed you to do -- it will increase the chances of this particular behavior being offered again! Whether or not you continue on with more nails, at this time, depends on how your dog accepts this single little snip -- don't rush it!!

I have had dogs that hated nail clipping so much that I made myself accept 1 nail per day... it worked.  Before she had a chance to get upset, it was over... jackpot!

​This procedure can be used to make all facets of your dog's grooming go more easily -- even bathing. With bathing, you may require 2 people -- 1 person is present for the sole purpose of treating for appropriate behavior. One of my dogs will stand in the driveway while I wash my car, and just loves it when I turn the hose on her -- she will stand, mouth agape, and allow the stream to hit her dead in the face. This same dog will turn tail and run, if I call her while filling the tub -- she will tolerate it, now, but she may never really enjoy it. She loves the wading pool, though! (During the summer, we use this to our advantage.)

If you have a "standard approach" to part of your dog's grooming -- such as taking him into the bathroom, getting all the things together, etc., and he doesn't like bath-time, it might be because he's learned to associate stress with these proceedings, if he's not tolerating it well. Change the way you do this: get the things together in a wicker basket, wait till you're sitting on the couch in the evening, with his head on your lap, and start messing with his ears, mouth, or feet --  remember to reward appropriate behavior... is he okay with this? Go slowly -- don't just "jump in" with the grooming.

​Using positive reinforcement methods, you and your dog or cat can both learn to enjoy these basic rituals.

An aside: I have a male Persian cat named Achmed.  He is adorable, in a cat kind of way.  He will not allow grooming unless there's squeezy cheese involved.  Seriously.  I think he would gut me like a fish if I tried to clip or brush him without it.  Hubby helps me with him, which means that Hubby feeds the bitey end while I do all the stuff that Achmed would otherwise wish me dead for doing... scissoring, nail-trimming, shaving the butt, scrubbing the ICK out from under his chin... Achmed allows all of these things to happen because Squeezy Cheese.  He really would present a health hazard without all this grooming.

**Teaching “Settle”

​This command enables you to get some peace and quiet {grin}... having your dog "chill out", if he's racing through the house, or nervous at the Vet's, or you want to trim his nails. It's one of the first commands that I teach, because there are so many uses.

To begin teaching this, get out some treats for your dog -- hotdogs or cheese -- and keep them nearby. Sit either on the couch, bed, or floor, and have the dog sit or lay near you. Talking in a happy, light tone (not loudly) will facilitate this process, making it easier for your dog to relax. Begin by firmly massaging the chest area -- circular motions work best (if your dog has trouble with handling exercises, please read "Tactile Sensitivity"). Repeat the word "settle", as you are massaging. Concentrate on one area at a time: first chest, then down the sides to the flank area, then along the spine in smooth, firm strokes. As the dog relaxes, you can gauge whether or not to continue on to the legs and feet, or tail, or head -- with many dogs, these are sensitive areas, and may need a more subtle approach, over a longer period of time. Take your time -- the object is to associate the word "settle" with the feeling that the dog is experiencing at this moment -- the eyes glazed over, the contentment, the peace.

​Over time, as the dog is conditioned, the word will begin to invoke this feeling without the massage, in other locations -- you can help this process along, too. If your dog is nervous in the vet's office, work on the massage and association at home for a couple of weeks, every day. Then, take him to the vet's office (call ahead, and find out if there is a time when no other dogs will be present). Sit in the waiting room, on the floor, and practice the massage and association techniques with him -- remember to take along the treats , as some dogs (I have one of these) tend to stress out as soon as that antiseptic smell hits them -- at the front door. Use the treats liberally -- don't "haul" the dog into the waiting room -- make him really want to follow you in! If you need to skip one of his meals in order to accomplish this, do it -- he can have his meal after the training session. (Note: I have conditioned my own dogs to understand the phrase "Dairy Queen" on the same emotional level that I do {grin}. My dogs know that a trip to the vet's office is followed by a strawberry sundae... although I'm unsure if it's the sundae, or if it's the "hanging the head through the drive-thru window" thing that they enjoy more. lol)

​If your dog has had a really nasty experience involving the vet's office, it may be necessary to break this process down even further -- try just getting him to the front door on the first visit, then, depending on how well he tolerates that, maybe just inside the door for the next visit. Use your dog's behavior as a guide to what he'll tolerate -- don't force the issue.

​Continue to do the initial exercise at home daily, and try to get him into that waiting room a couple of times per week. This won't make him feel the same way about visits to the vet's office as he feels about going to the park, but it will help him to be better able to tolerate these necessaries.

​Within 2 to 3 weeks, you should see noticeable improvement (a decrease in nervous activity) when this command is used. Use it when grooming (see the article on Tactile Sensitivity when working with a dog who has problems in this area), or if he's just tearing through the house, and you feel it's time for him to stop (of course, make sure he's getting the proper exercise -- don't expect him to become a couch potato through the use of these techniques -- that's not the intended use!)

Note that you can incorporate the use of a rug or pillow into this cue, and take it on the road: you can use the rug in his crate in the car when you have to go somewhere, or even use it at a friend's house during a visit!

As with other commands, this one requires regular work to retain its value. You may want to do some "brush-up" work for the few days prior to a vet appointment, and then continue for a few days afterward (so that the cue isn't associated with the Evil Thermometer at the vet's office).  Continuing to work at home at least once per week (nail-trimming sessions, or cleaning the ears) will help, too.

Brenda Rushman, CCBC

 
 

This is Achmed, and YES, that's cat litter mixed with his breakfast under his chin.  It's disgusting, he's a grungy old man.

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