It’s important for puppies to be exposed early to the things that they will need to accept as adult dogs. It’s so important not to waste puppy hood that Dr. Ian Dunbar, the originator of puppy socialization classes, has started an awareness campaign about the issue, and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has published a Puppy Socialization Position Statement to educate veterinarians and the public. Getting a puppy in to a good positive puppy class by age twelve weeks is highly recommended, and the first step in creating a well adjusted dog.
Most puppy classes, while valuable for dog to dog socialization and skill building, don’t provide much guidance on how to acclimate a young dog to the sights and sounds of the grooming salon, a potentially scary environment, although you should pay attention when the pups are being taught the “stand” cue. Dogs that know what to do on the grooming table are far less likely to be constantly manhandled to keep them standing!
So, how do you get your little one educated about the grooming process? First, let’s look at the things that happen in the salon. Your pup will have to undergo brushing, combing, bathing, blow drying, ear cleaning, and nail clipping. If your dog is a “haircut dog” then there will also be body clipping and/or scissoring. Acclimating a young puppy to those things is best done in a calm manner, and before his first experience being dropped off for a “tubby and a trim.” The first thing I like to do is simply get puppy used to the salon environment. To do that, I make repeated visits to the salon long before he’ll really need an appointment, walk in, get someone on the staff to give my pup a cookie, and walk out. I do this randomly for at least a couple of weeks before puppy’s first bath. This puts “deposits” in the bank of “I like that place. I get cookies there.” The pup will have already formed a positive association with the salon and some of the staff by the time it’s appointment time. Even if I plan to bathe and groom my own dog, I still acclimate them to a professional salon environment and have the puppy bathed and groomed professionally while he’s still young. You never know when, during your dog’s lifetime, you might be unable to do it yourself at home, and it pays to be prepared.
I get puppies used to the actual grooming process through the use of food paired with each aspect of the grooming process, to create positive associations step by step. For example, I get puppies used to being in water by using the “bathtub ring method.” I have a pitcher of lukewarm water handy, then I smear some lamb baby food around the tub at puppy mouth level, and put puppy in the tub. After a few moments of puppy happily lapping the baby food, I gently pour some water into the tub so that the puppy’s feet get wet, and I watch puppy’s reaction. If he’s nonchalant, I might pour in some more, or turn the faucet on a trickle. If not, I just let him finish lapping, then end the session. Over several sessions, I increase the depth of the water, start pouring some over his back, wet his face with a facecloth, etc., so long as he is reacting calmly before I go to the next step, and still allowing him to lap at something delicious for each new step, even if I am no longer providing food for earlier steps. This is classical conditioning and can also be used to get puppy used to the sound of clippers, nail trimmers, dryers, or other new or potentially scary happenings. The key is to start at a low intensity of the stimulus (clippers running at a distance, far away from puppy’s ears, for example) and progress only when puppy is comfy at each stage.
It’s important to teach your puppy to be handled everywhere on his body! So, you might smear some peanut butter on the face of your fridge at puppy height and let him lap as you pick up his feet, handle his ears, gently swab his ears with a cotton ball, run your fingers over his gums, or handle his private parts. I know, it’s gross, but the bather or groomer will be doing that, so it’s better for your puppy to learn from you that it’s not scary to be touched in those areas. Besides, as my mentor used to say, you do not want a two year old to grab your puppy in the “wrong” place out of curiosity and get snapped at because puppy has never been handled there before. It’s just one more layer of protection against your dog getting in trouble over something that might have been preventable.
Groomers are patient with puppies, as a rule, but if you can set your puppy up for success at the salon, everyone is happier. There’s nothing sadder than the pup whose owner does no preparation, waits until the puppy coat has turned in to a matted mess, then takes the unsuspecting pup in for his first appointment to a terrifying environment where there are other stressed dogs, lots of noise, barking, and where he will be subjected to new procedures, possibly including de-matting, which can be painful. Grooming should start at home, start early, and be stress free! The groomer you choose should be more than willing to show you how to correctly brush your puppy so that he remains mat-free until his first “real” visit.
If you need help with the process, you can find a positive trainer through the Pet Professional Guild, Truly Dog Friendly, Academy for Dog Trainers, Victoria Stilwell Positively, or Karen Pryor Academy.
Karen McCarthy has written a book entitled “Click for Grooming Handling and Treatment” which is a great step by step guide to training dogs to be cooperative about being cared for by groomers, vets, and others.
Here’s a nice video on acclimating dogs to getting their nails trimmed, which works well either for puppies, or for dogs that have formed an aversion to the process: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuXwKqXTBsE&feature=related