Let’s talk about grooming, shall we? First, let’s meet my dog, Goku. Goku is an 11-year-old Papillon Shih Tzu mix who weighs about 7 pounds. He has been with me since he was born and is a tough little dude. Always getting into stuff. We joke he is actually a Labrador in a tiny body. Due to his hair type, he needs to be groomed often. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the importance of grooming until I started my career in the vet field.
We didn’t really try to work on brushing or any sort of home grooming as he was growing up. Once he started getting matted we figured that was the time to get him groomed. We took him to a large company’s grooming salon and was always told he did great. This went on for about 7 years, until I was able to groom him at Ankeny Animal and Avian Clinic. I figured “he does well for grooming” so no big deal, right? I was wrong. It was a big deal.
Goku screamed like I had never heard him scream before. He tried to bite anyone or anything that was trying to touch him, no warning. Because we practice Fear Free across our whole clinic our groomer knew to stop and consult with our vets to formulate a plan. Goku clearly did not like being groomed, likely due to past experiences. Dogs remember traumatizing experiences, and their fear can grow each time they are exposed to similar situations. Boy did Goku remember those past experiences. When he just started exhibiting signs of fear, likely these were subtle and easily ignored. As his behaviors, such as growling increased and the scary thing (grooming) continued, the growls and subtle signs stopped and he went immediately to a more panicked state. I can’t imagine the terror a little dog feels when they are screaming to stop being held down and come at with scissors or clippers, but are ignored. They are not “being a baby” they are terrified for their life and need to be taken seriously.
I was not thrilled about “drugging” my dog at first. Thinking of it in these terms is just not appealing. Giving my dog anti-anxiety medication so he wasn’t terrified felt a lot better to me, and is what was actually happening. I quickly saw the benefit when Goku let the groomer give him a haircut without freaking out like he once had. No one wants to see their baby scared, regardless of why they are. Also, if anti-anxiety medication helps me, it can also be beneficial for my dog.
There is not a miracle medication out there. Every kiddo handles meds differently and sometimes, there just isn’t a medication that can calm their nerves enough. We started with Trazodone alone. It was not enough for my little man, so we added another medication. We do a special combo of meds for “mini grooms”, or just touch ups. We can probably get a full groom in but it is so stressful for both him and I that we opt for sedation if he needs a lot done. Due to his age and odd health issues, we run blood work every 3-6 months on average, which also causes stress and requires sedation. We now try to line up his grooming and wellness visits so he can be asleep and wake up not knowing all of his least favorite things just happened. This is much less stressful for both of us!
What have I learned from this experience? Lots. If I ever have another dog that needs groomed, grooming will be my number one thing to work on when they are a puppy. Getting them used to brushing, clippers and blow dryers at a young age can be so important. Any unpleasant experience in the beginning could cause them to hate it from the start. Slow introductions with lots of treats is always the best way to get puppies used to new scary things. Counter-conditioning an older dog to new and/or scary things is possible, but requires a great deal of time and patience that most people simply don’t have.
Introducing your puppy to grooming before they need to be groomed is really important. Their first experience can be just a brushing or a bath and getting used to being at the groomer instead of everything at once. Start small and less scary before they need the whole spa day. They should start being introduced at 6-16 weeks old. For most dogs (especially doodles) waiting until they are 6 months or older can be to late to train easily. For you and your pet’s sake, do as much as you can at home. I’m not saying you need to become a groomer and do full haircuts. Just keeping your pet well brushed helps tremendously! Matted fur pulls on the skin and can be very uncomfortable on its own, and trying to brush them out is painful and causes more stress and fear. Starting a consistent brushing routine at a young age helps show your pet this is just a normal part of life and not a scary new event.
It is extremely rare to find a pet that enjoys grooms but they shouldn’t have to be scared! They will never get less afraid if they are pushed but they could become less afraid if we help their anxiety and the situations we put them in. If you can find a Fear Free groomer in your area, I highly recommend going to them and doing some research to find one that you are comfortable with.
Goku and I thank you for taking the time to read this. Here are some more pictures of him with different cuts and lengths of hair over the years. We like to have fun with it or just take him really short since it all grows back eventually. 😉