Puppy Grooming: Get Started on the Right Paw
Congratulations on your new puppy!
Bringing home a new family member is always an exciting time. You've probably been preparing for the arrival of your puppy by buying supplies, puppy-proofing your home, and making an appointment with your puppy's new veterinarian.
What you may have missed is making an appointment with your puppy's new groomer. Establishing a relationship with a groomer right away will set you and your darling doggy up for success!
Most puppies go to their new homes somewhere between 8-12 weeks of age. This coincides with the Critical Socialization Period for dogs, which usually lasts until 16 weeks. During the first few months of your dog's life they are learning about the world and how to survive in it. Their brain is forming connections that will last a lifetime. These early months will shape how your dog perceives and responds to stimuli both physically and emotionally. Therefore, it is essential that your puppy begins being socialized and habituated to grooming. Not doing so can set your puppy up for a future of difficulty and stress surrounding grooming experiences that will be required for their entire life.
Speak with your puppy's veterinarian about when they feel that you can safely bring your new puppy out into the world. Most vets will recommend that your puppy not go to places that other dogs frequent (such as a grooming salon) until they have had 1 or more vaccinations, in order to protect them from communicable disease. During this time, here are some things you can do with your puppy at home to make grooming more pleasurable for them. If you purchased your puppy from a responsible breeder they have already been doing these things with your puppy. If your puppy is a rescue you might have some extra work to do, but it is not difficult:
Gently touch, stroke, and hold your puppy EVERYWHERE. Play with their feet and toes, lift their ears, lift their tail, lift their lips and look at their teeth.
Brush and/or comb your puppy regularly, at least a few minutes every day. Brushing your dog can quickly become a very relaxing bonding time for you and your pet when done consistently.
Brush your puppy's teeth at least once per day. There are many dog toothpastes on the market that come in flavors your puppy will enjoy. Start by putting a small dab of dog toothpaste on your finger or a toothbrush and let your pup lick it off. Your pup will start to view this as treat time instead of a chore. *NEVER use human toothpaste, some of the ingredients can be toxic to dogs!*
Clip your puppy's nails regularly, at least once a week. If you are afraid of cutting the quick (the blood vessel in the nail) just trim the tips off. If your puppy is small you can use human nail clippers.
Habituate your puppy to loud noises like a vacuum and blow dryer. A great way to do this is to let your puppy watch as you blow dry your own hair. Talk to your puppy and offer them pets or even treats while the dryer is running. If your puppy is afraid of the noise you can try increasing the distance between them and the noise.
If your puppy gets mouthy, bites, cries, or seems very afraid of any of these activities DO NOT force them. Simply stop the activity, set your puppy down, and walk away until they choose to reengage with you in a calm way. Don't forget to reward them with treats and/or praise when they participate in these activities calmly.
If your veterinarian approves, you can also bring your puppy to the grooming salon for a meet and greet. It is generally recommended that you carry your puppy (keeping them off the floor), don't allow them to interact with other dogs, and ask anyone wishing to touch them to wash or sanitize their hands.
Once your veterinarian feels that it would be safe, plan to make an appointment with a professional groomer. Explain to the groomer that this will be your puppy's first visit to a grooming salon. Take the time to speak with the groomer and learn about their handling techniques and beliefs. You want to be sure that the groomer you hire is professional, knowledgable, and kind in order to provide your puppy with the best experience. The groomer should be willing and able to set aside some extra time for you and your puppy to discuss the grooming process, evaluate your puppy's behavior and physical condition, and to set expectations. More often than not, a puppy's first grooming appointment (or possibly the first couple of appointments) will be an "introduction" to grooming. Your puppy will likely be given a bath, dried, brushed, have their nails clipped, ears cleaned, and possibly have the face, feet, and sanitary areas trimmed. Your puppy will experience a lot of new things at a grooming salon, and it is important that this process happens at a pace that your puppy can handle without flooding them and causing undue stress. A good groomer should be able to read your puppy's body language and behavior to determine what grooming services they are able to handle. Depending on your puppy's breed, temperament, and how much grooming you are willing/able to do at home, it may be beneficial for them to visit the groomer more frequently during the first few months than once they are an adult. Frequent visits to your groomer will help your puppy be more comfortable at the salon and it's sights, sounds, and smells. Bringing your puppy to the salon just to say "hi" and get a treat and some pets can be a great way to build a happy relationship between them and the groomer!
Most importantly, we want your puppy's grooming appointments to be as stress-free as possible. Grooming should never be scary for a dog, but young puppies are especially impressionable. Remember that Critical Socialization Period we mentioned? The things that your puppy experiences during this time will literally be the foundation of their psychological and emotional health. Forcing a puppy through services that frighten or hurt them could make them fearful or even aggressive for grooming in the future. Avoiding grooming during this time means your puppy will view it as an unusual and potentially dangerous experience when they are older. Providing a puppy with a calm, gentle service can help them build positive associations and find the experience pleasurable. This is why it is in your puppy's best interest to establish healthy, happy, and compassionate grooming routines as early as possible.
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.