Q: I'm so frustrated! My dog has a long, thick coat and I've tried to groom him but he just won't cooperate. Trying to work with him always turns into a wrestling match and I'm the loser. Sometimes he even snaps at me. I've heard that dogs like being brushed but this one doesn't! Is there anything I can do?
A: Yes! You're not alone -- many dogs have to learn to behave themselves before they realize how nice it feels to be groomed.
An unruly dog's attitude toward grooming isn't much different from that of a small child's. Toddlers often resent having their faces washed or their hair brushed, but being clean and tidy is a necessary part of life. If your child refused to be bathed or threw a tantrum over it, what would you do? Gently, patiently and firmly, you'd teach him to tolerate it. The same for your dog.
First, the dog needs to learn to tolerate your handling of his body, even the parts he'd rather you left alone. Some dogs don't want their feet touched, with others, their rear ends or tails. You can easily teach your dog that this handling feels good and is something to look forward to.
To start this training, choose a time when you're relaxed and in a good mood. Your dog should be relaxed and in a good mood, too. An ideal time is after your dog has had a meal and has settled down for a nap. Sit next to your dog and stroke his body. Talk softly to him while you gently massage him all over. Encourage him to stretch out flat on his side. Rub his belly, scratch his ears, the base of his tail, all his favorite places. Then move on to his unfavorite places usually his feet and rear end. Run your hands down his legs to his paws and gently massage his toes and pads. Massage his ears, rump, thighs and hocks. Praise him for lying quietly. Most dogs enjoy this and relax almost completely. It's very relaxing for the owner, too!
Give your dog a massage for a few minutes every day. It won't take long for him to look forward to this time with you. Dogs love one-on-one attention. They especially love to feel good and this is about as good as it gets!
After a few of these massages, introduce a brush. I recommend a "pin brush" -- it looks similar to a woman's hair brush. At first, brush only for a few moments and don't try to make any real grooming progress. Your goal is to get him used to the sensation and to associate it with the pleasant massage process. Each day, brush him a few minutes longer, spending time on different parts of his body. Again, praise him for lying quietly and tell him how wonderful he looks.
Although your dog is sure to enjoy his massage and this exclusive attention, after a little while he may decide that enough is enough and try to get up. You'll feel his body tense as he prepares to rise. Before he's actually lifted his head, place the flat of your hand along the side of his neck, just behind his ears and gently but firmly, push his head back to floor, telling him "No, be still." Praise him and rub his tummy as he settles back down. Brush him a little while longer you should be the one to decide when the session is over. Increase the length of the session a little at a time until he'll lie there as long as you want.
Some dogs are too rambunctious or dominant to lie quietly on the floor. Here's a tip from professional groomers -- use a grooming table. On the ground, the dog is in control. He's quicker and stronger than you are and he knows it. Off the ground, he's insecure and you're in control. Grooming tables can be purchased from pet stores or supply companies. You can easily make one with material from the hardware store. A kitchen counter (for a small dog) or a workbench will do in a pinch as long as there's room for the dog to stand comfortably and has a non-skid surface.
To get your dog used to the table, put him on it for a few moments every day. Praise him, give him treats, massage him, handle his body all over. Make the table a pleasant place to be. Be gentle but firm and insist that he stand, sit or lie quietly while you touch him. If he's really uncooperative, ask someone to help you by steadying him and keeping him from jumping off. Using the same process that I've already described, introduce him to the brush. Each day, increase the length of the session and brush more seriously, praising for good behavior.
Don't tolerate any growling or snapping! You wouldn't put up with sassiness from your child just because she doesn't want her face washed. You shouldn't put up with sassiness from your dog either. Be firm! Correct each and every instance of nasty behavior by grabbing your dog's muzzle, glaring at him and saying "No!" in your toughest, meanest voice. Then, matter of factly, continue working. As your dog learns that his antics won't scare you or make you stop, he'll settle down and behave.
A well-groomed dog looks good and feels good. Regular grooming helps to build a close bond between the two of you through one-on-one attention. It keeps tabs on his health by helping you stay in tune with his body and skin condition. A well-groomed dog is a thing of beauty and something to be proud of. Your dog can tell when you're proud of him and he'll strut his stuff with all the flair of a show dog!
More on grooming is available in a grooming primer.
Q: My last dog behaved terribly at the vet's. I have a puppy now and want to get things started on the right foot. Is there anything I can do to train her so that going to the vet won't be so hard on her -- and me?
A: Sure! There are a lot of hints in the answer I just gave about teaching a dog to be groomed. Few of us like going to the doctor and few dogs like going to the vet. Like grooming, though, going to the vet is a necessary part of a dog's life. The better your dog behaves, the faster the vet's exam will go and the more effective it will be.
This kind of training is part of what we call "socialization." Socialization is the process of teaching a dog to live comfortably in a human world. To do that, the dog has to learn to accept handling by strangers, meet new people and cope with new places. A dog can be socialized at any age and it's easy to socialize a puppy.
Almost anything can be turned into an opportunity for socialization, even regular playtime. Every chance you get, handle the puppy's feet and toes, open her mouth, look in her ears. Get her used to being touched on all parts of her body. Have your family and friends do the same. Be gentle but firm and don't take no for an answer. Praise her for allowing this handling.
Many dogs are afraid of the vet's examination table. To prevent that fear, pick up your puppy and set her on a raised surface such as a grooming table, desk or kitchen counter a couple times a day. With one hand supporting her rear and your other hand under her chin, teach her to stand quietly, for just a few seconds at first but gradually working up to a couple minutes. Reward her with treats for being calm and still. (Never step away from the table leaving your puppy unattended for even a second. She could jump off in an instant and be seriously injured or killed.)
When you're at the vet's office, help your puppy to be confident by being confident yourself. Don't comfort or try to soothe the puppy if she's frightened. It will only backfire and make her even more frightened. Instead, talk to her in a high-pitched, "happy" tone of voice. Bring along some of her favorite treats and toys and play a game with her. Encourage her to meet and be petted by the vet techs.
In the exam room, put the puppy on the table and hold her in position just like you've been doing at home. This should be familiar to her by now and she knows that you expect her to stand quietly. Be firm, correct her with a stern "No!" and gently put her back in position if she tries to struggle. Reward good behavior with praise and treats.
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