In the first of a regular series on dog behaviour and grooming, Tracy McCrindle explains her interest in the subject and offers advice on responsible grooming…

Spend time on any grooming website and the subject of behaviour will inevitably rear its head. With the best intentions, groomers offer advice to other groomers but, while some tips on handling are useful to everyone, too much of the information getting out there is downright dangerous. Behaviour modification in dogs is my passion. Some groomers jump for joy at the sight of certain breeds, some do a dance when asked for a creative style, others can barely contain their excitement at the thought of competing. For me, though, it’s the words ‘he’ll probably bite you’ that motivate me most.

Behavioural background

I got into behaviour long before I got into grooming when one of my own dogs became reactive following a series of attacks. I wanted to help him but was baffled by conflicting views on treatment plans. Most of the information made easily accessible to the public through television and magazines did not sit well with me. My dog wasn’t trying to take control of the household, he wasn’t listing his comrades in numerical order of importance, and he certainly wasn’t making plans to sign up as a canine extremist because of the occasional cuddle on the sofa. I was lucky. I met the right people at the right time and began a journey where I would meet amazing mentors who convinced me beyond doubt that science-based behavioural modification is what truly works. Alongside work in my salon, where I now accept only difficult dogs on referral, I continue to learn. Having reached degree-level study in canine behaviour management there aren’t many hours left in the day, but when Total Grooming approached me about a regular behaviour feature I knew I’d find the time. I hope that bringing the science to you, with the jargon taken out and the relevance to grooming put in, will help you in your own salons. Furthermore, the principles of behaviour can be applied to more than just the dogs. Anyone who’s ever considered Alpha Rolling a nightmare client will appreciate the more viable alternatives!

Behaviour is a complex subject that cannot be taught in one article. When any subject is stripped back to a few hundred words, it’s easy for people to give up on a technique thinking its not working – short features condense the facts to a level where it’s impossible to provide enough information. At a recent seminar on behaviour for the SPGN, I could easily have filled another full day answering everyone’s questions. Let’s break it down, issue by issue, and tackle one thing at a time.

A groomer’s responsibility?

So, where do we start? How about with the question, “Is it our job to tackle difficult behaviour?” Many groomers are very hard on themselves, feeling like they’ve failed both the client and the dog if they cannot groom the teeth-baring monster presented to them for a teddy bear trim. But ask yourself this – when did you last pop into your local dog training class and, along with the hour of sit-stays and recalls, expect the trainer to just tidy up your dog’s beard and eyebrows. Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? But in reality, this is what is asked of groomers when a client presents with a difficult dog. We are trained to groom: to care for coat, skin, ears and nails, and to clip and scissor neatly. Many groomers will also have some training or experience in handling the wrigglers and the bath dodgers. But when a dog with a behavioural problem, that has the capacity to cause serious injury to himself, the groomer, or both, is brought to the salon, do we take them on? A recent Facebook thread suggests that a lot of groomers are definitely willing to try, which is no doubt a relief for the owners of the troublemakers.

To groom or not to groom

Sometimes one groomer can work easily on a dog that has caused another to stop the groom. If the dog instantly settles with you that’s great, but if the unwanted behaviour continues you must make a responsible decision on what to do next. If you are still willing to try then I believe you must be sure you have the skills and knowledge to act in the best interests of the dog. Problem behaviours can easily be escalated by well meaning people using unsuitable techniques, failing to properly diagnose the root cause of the behaviour, or neglecting to involve the client’s vet. On the flip side, if you don’t want to get involved it is perfectly okay to turn them away. I see groomers post on forums about how much they dread certain dogs coming in, as they know there is a high chance they will be very stressed, and possibly bitten by the end of the working day. I don’t see any shame in telling an owner that you are a great groomer but you don’t offer behaviour modification as part of your services. Likewise, if an owner came to me to enquire about a specific show trim on a poodle I would turn them away. I just don’t have enough poodle experience to take that on, and it would be unfair to do so. There is often an unnecessary taboo attached to admitting that we don’t have the know-how to fix the problem and that can have far reaching consequences. A contact in rescue pointed out to me the number of dogs returned after two or three salons told the new owner that their dog was unlikely to ever be groomed. We need to make it clear to the owners that when their pet is turned away it is not because the end of the road has been reached – it is simply because the problem requires the help of someone with behavioural training more advanced than a groomer can reasonably be expected to have.

A difficult dog is something we will all encounter at some point. In the next issue we will start to look at the behavioural tools available to us, and how they can make life easier for everyone.