Q. Why is my dog scared to go to the groomer?
A. This is a great question. I never had a dog that had get groomed before I became a groomer. We grew up with labs, German shepherds, and cats. As an adult, I had a wolf hound/mastiff mix and a corgi mix. We gave them a bath in the river a couple times a year.
When I started grooming, I thought every dog loved to come to the spa and get a haircut, just as I, as a human, loved doing. Of course, I quickly found out that this is just not the case. In my experience, it is probably a 50/50 split of dogs who love coming in to the salon and who are terrified of coming in. Half the dogs do love their spa day and love getting attention and getting touched and being cooed at. And then there’s the half that start shaking when their owner’s car pulls up. They don’t want to get a bath, or they are terrified of the high velocity blow dryer, or some other reason that I’m about to get in to. That half breaks my heart to see. I don’t like being the bad guy that makes a dog do something they don’t want to do, but the reality of it is that number one, they need to be groomed, and number 2, if I show fear or anxiety back to them, if I coddle them for the behavior they are showing, that just reinforces that behavior.
So, what are the dogs afraid of when they get groomed? This is of course the biggest question from owners and I think a lot of it comes from the mystery of what actually happens in the grooming salon. Most people have not worked at a grooming salon, nor have ever been educated on the process there, nor have ever given their own dog a haircut, and possibly never given them a bath even. The dogs could be afraid of a number of things that happen in the span of a grooming appointment. Here is a list of the things that dogs seem to be afraid of during grooming:
Matting—they are scared of having their hair brushed or pulled on. This is a big reason why we don’t recommend letting your dog get matted between appointments and want you to schedule appropriately for the comfort of your dog. Also this is why we refuse to brush out a severely matted dog—because it hurts! If I wouldn’t do it to my own dog, I am not going to do it to your dog. Humanity before vanity is our motto and we stick to it.
Separation Anxiety—they may not want to have to leave their owners.
High velocity blow dryer noise is loud. We use something called a Happy Hoodie that wraps around their head and covers their ears, but the noise can greatly affect dogs that are sensitive to loud sounds.
Baths—the smell of the shampoo, being sprayed with water, having to stand up for the duration of the bath can be hard for senior dogs.
Kennel anxiety—most dogs at Powder Hounds are only briefly put in a kennel, if at all, unless they are aggressive with other dogs, scared of other dogs, or we put them in there for their own safety. We sometimes use kennels to help dry their faces, so that we don’t have to use the high velocity dryer around their ears and faces, but it is for a short time. This is one of the reasons why we schedule by appointments.
The clippers—the noise, the vibration.
Other dogs—sometimes the noise of other dogs barking can be scary to your dogs.
There is another category of dogs within the 50/50 split that I want to mention. Maybe 25% of the terrified half act terrified in front of their owner and then as soon as the owner leaves, the dog acts fine. You might think that these dogs are the best actors—they will be shivering, panting, clinging to mom, pleading with their eyes to not be left at this awful place and the minute that mom walks out that door, they stop shaking and prance around, sniffing and saying hi to all the other dogs. Why is this? Now, I am not the dog whisperer; they don’t whisper in my ear and tell me what they are thinking. But, I do have extensive experience in observing dogs with their owners and without their owners, I’ve watched many episodes of Cesar’s Way, read a few dog training books, and hired trainers to help train my own dogs. And in my experience, there are 2 things that could be happening.
1. This behavior change could be coming from the owner acting scared, nervous or stressed. Your dog is responding to your body language. And just imagine, if you are clutching your toy poodle to your chest as you anxiously walk in that door, unsure of what the grooming process is and not knowing or trusting the people you are about to leave your baby with, your dog is going to feel that energy and also start feeling nervous. Or if you feel stressed and are tightly gripping your dog’s leash as you walk in that door and you jump when you hear a dog bark because the door opened, your dog will feel that. He will be on high alert.
2. Or it could be from coddling your nervous dog and in doing so, reinforcing this behavior. It is so hard to not have a maternal or paternal instinct kick in when your dog seems scared. With humans, we want to hug our kids and tell them it’s ok and we can explain to them what’s about to happen. But if we do this with dogs, they understand it as being shown that this behavior is how we want them to act. We can’t verbally explain that they need to get a bath and haircut and we will be back in a couple of hours.
The best thing you can do for your dog when they are stressed at the groomer’s is to remain confident and collected and hand them off to the groomer without hesitation. The longer you linger and fuss and pet and coo, the more they will demonstrate that behavior and the more it will be reinforced.
I hope this helps in understanding what happens at the groomer’s! If you have other questions, please leave them in the comments or email me!