All You Need is Love: How Affection and Understanding Can Help Aggressive Dogs
As Fear Free certified and personal appointment groomers, we are often asked to evaluate and groom dogs that are labeled as aggressive. Perhaps the owner recognizes aggressive tendencies in their dog, or maybe the dog has been given that label by a vet, trainer, or another groomer. No matter the case, we are always willing to try.
Starting a grooming relationship with an “aggressive” dog (I use quotations here because they are not often truly aggressive, but more on that later) takes time, patience, and a knowledge of canine behavior.
We typically start these relationships with a phone call or an email from a hesitant and worried dog owner. The details vary, but these communications usually follow the same pattern:
Dog owner briefly introduces themselves.
Dog owner briefly introduces the dog.
Dog owner describes the dog as “aggressive”, “doesn’t like strangers”, “doesn’t like grooming”, “reactive”, “difficult”, or some combination of those.
Often, the owner notes that the dog has been turned away from other grooming salons due to behavior.
Finally, the communication is ended with a plea for help. This is the part that really gets to me, personally. The dog owner in question NEEDS help. The dog must be groomed, but they’ve hit a wall (often, several walls) and nobody seems willing or able to help them or their dog.
In these situations I always recommend our Meet & Treat service. The Meet & Treat is a free, 15 minute visit to our salon where I speak with the owner about their concerns, discuss the dog’s health, grooming, and behavioral history, and formulate a plan to help the dog. During these visits I typically ask the owner to let their dog wander around in the lobby of the salon, and allow them to go wherever they like. I use most of this time to discuss the dog’s history with their owner. Sometimes it may seem like I’m not paying any attention to the dog at all, but this is not the case. I am watching the dog and taking in a lot of information about his/her feelings by observing body language. By not attempting to interact with the dog directly, I give him/her the space they need to show their true colors. If the dog feels comfortable enough to approach me calmly I will offer a treat or a pat. Positive interactions between the dog and our environment and staff help the dog feel comfortable and learn to trust us. Trust is the foundation we will use to build a relationship.
Meet & Treat appointments also tell me if a dog is truly aggressive. True human aggression in dogs is rare. A human aggressive dog goes out of his/her way to chase, approach, provoke, and/or bite people. More often than not, a dog that has been labeled as aggressive in a grooming environment is fearful, anxious, and/or reactive. There are many things in a grooming salon that could be considered triggers for a fearful, anxious, or reactive dog:
Lack of exposure or (more detrimental) bad experiences with common grooming scenarios or tools.
Typically, the initial Meet & Treat gives me enough information to feel comfortable booking a grooming appointment. In the rare cares when a dog is truly aggressive or so fearful that I cannot touch him/her, we will schedule more Meet & Treats until such time that I can safely handle the dog.
Going forward into grooming appointments depends on the individual dog. Some dogs might benefit from having their owner present during the entire service, while others will do better without Mom or Dad. Some might need services done in a specific order. Some might need their grooming spread out and broken down into 10, 15, 30, 60, etc minute intervals either throughout a day with breaks or on multiple days. Some may need certain parts of the grooming done at home by the owner or by a vet under sedation. Some may need an anxiety reducing medication or sedative.
Most dogs will need a regular grooming schedule with the same groomer every 4-8 weeks. In extreme cases we may need to see your dog as often as weekly or bi-weekly, at least in the beginning. Whatever your dog needs to feel more comfortable, I believe it is beneficial. If we recommend a regular "behavioral grooming" schedule for your dog, it is because we want the opportunity to build a trusting relationship with your dog. While this type of schedule may be cumbersome to you in terms of time and finances, we do not recommend it lightly and only when we feel that it will benefit your dog's well-being. We count on your understanding and cooperation in maintaining a regular schedule in order to best serve your dog's needs.
In extremely rare cases, our Fear Free certified approach is not enough to acclimate a dog to a professional grooming salon experience. In these cases I am happy to recommend other potential service providers or give advice on managing the dog’s grooming needs at home.
There are a number of reasons that your dog may have difficulty with being groomed. It is my job, and my commitment to help you, your dog, my staff, and myself to perform needed grooming tasks in the safest and least stressful way possible. It may take extra time and extra effort, but ultimately I believe that Love is all you need.
Robin Pitoscia is the owner of Diva Dog Grooming LLC, located in Duluth, MN. She has been a professional dog groomer for 15 years, working in a number of grooming salons across the Midwest. In addition to grooming dogs, she also breeds and exhibits Chinese Cresteds in a variety of AKC dog shows and sports. She is a strong advocate for building respectful relationships between humans and dogs through positive reinforcement and an understanding of canine cognition and behavior.