One Groomer’s Tips for Handling a Nervous Dog
“You Can Lead That Dog into Bravery”
Every pet groomer has encountered nervous dogs during their grooming career. As you know that nervousness shows up in so many ways. Some shake and whimper. Others are aggressive or “go flat” on the table. If you’ve been a pet groomer for any amount of time, you’ve encountered all of these. None of them are ideal of course and there’s no “one size fits all” way to handle the behaviors. You know every dog is an individual and reacts differently. Yet, as a pet groomer, it’s important that you develop successful ways of handling such dogs for both safety and sanity. You became a pet groomer because you love animals and you want to spend your time helping them feel and look their best.
You also want repeat clients who sing your praises to their friends and family.
While you can’t control what happens before the dog comes into your shop, you can control the way you handle the dog once they come through your doors.
Award-winning Rachel Ann Stalcoskie of Country Clips Pet Grooming in Pocono Summit, Pa shared some of her secret sauce with us. She said, “I have a few special secrets for handling nervous dogs that I share with my trainees.”
Over the course of our conversation, a key theme of leadership emerged. She also has a few favorite products and a process she’s developed over the years. Yet, confidence is key in putting nervous pups at ease.
Rachel Ann says, “Every dog is an individual and have different personalities. But the one thing they have in common is they’re pack animals and they want a leader.”
By training her staff to have a kind confidence in their interactions, the dogs relax and feel secure which results in a quiet shop.
“We see between 20-30 dogs a day with 5-6 of us working. You can hear a pin drop because everyone is super comfortable. They know exactly what’s going to happen. There will be times I might have two people work on a dog at a time because it’s faster and that works for the dog. Or, I might have them give the dog a ton of breaks and take longer time because that works best for that dog.”
That leadership theme comes up again and again in our conversation.
Rachel says one reason dogs can be nervous at grooms is that it’s always new. “A lot of owners will hop from groomer to groomer for whatever reason. That’s the worst thing you can do for your dog. If you find a groomer who cares for your dog, then stay with them. The dog knows the environment, the same person, the same routine. Even if they have a different groomer within that environment, being in the same environment is familiar and that helps the dog relax.”
Be the Leader
Rachel Ann says, “The most important thing is that you are in charge and confident. I’ve watched other groomers with nervous dogs. And they’re nervous too which the dog picks up on. The dog looks to you for reassurance.”
Rachel Ann says that talking in a baby voice like a lot of people do is terrifying to the dog because it tells the dog that you’re not comfortable either.
She says, “You have to be so confident that you’re going to lead that dog into bravery. They’re pack animals. When you’re confident, you help them be confident. You let them know that this job will get done and it will be done comfortably.”
When you demonstrate your leadership kindly, the dog gets comfortable with you. “Handled with confidence, even nervous dogs can relax within 1-2 grooms. They’ll be so comfortable the dog might fall asleep. I’ve seen it happen.”
One way that happens is because of the system Rachel Ann’s developed and taught her staff.
Dogs Like Knowing What to Expect
She says, “You can come into my shop any day, any year, and you’ll encounter the same process for grooming. From the way the dog is blown dry, to which paw is picked up first. It doesn’t matter who’s working on them. They’ll pick their next paw up for you because they know what’s going to happen next. Dogs like routine. It really helps get rid of any anxiety.”
When customers bring their nervous dog in for the first time, Rachel says “We talk for however long they need. We talk about everything physically and mentally with the pet. I sit on the floor and let the dog come to me if they’re willing. Some dogs will quake behind their owner but other times, they’ll come to me. Or, sometimes, I’ll have the owner pass me the leash if I think they’ll do better if away from the owner.”
She relies on reading the dog.
Rachel says, “Most groomers I know have a pretty good routine. They should always have a routine and not get lazy to set a dog at ease. That routine is the same for everyone and doesn’t vary. Be kind but confident.”
Like many dog groomers, Rachel started her pet career as a pet bather while in her teens. She later became a licensed veterinary technician but realized it wasn’t for her. “I worked in ER’s and it was upsetting. Not just working with sick animals but also business decisions that were made or the way things were done. I’d always think how I would do it. I always held multiple jobs and worked at a dog kennel too. Eventually, I realized I wanted to own my own business.”
Rachel Ann took an online dog grooming certification and started practicing on friend’s pets for free. Then, she ran the grooming business from her basement for two years before opening the existing grooming shop.
15 years later, she’s tried many products but there are two she’s found most helpful for nervous dogs.
Two Products for Calming Nervous Dogs
In addition to processes and routine, Rachel Ann’s discovered two helpful products for calming nervous dogs.
“I absolutely love to use some products. So, if I have a really nervous dog, many many, many times, the Thunderjacket is amazing. I have every size. I can put them on a big, soft, fluffy dog blankie, with a Thunderjacket and that helps.”
She also relies on a calming essential oil. “For over 15 years, I’ve used a dab of 100% lavender oil on my wrist in the morning and afternoon. To be clear, I’m not putting this on the animal or blowing it in the air. I put it on myself and it’s high-quality, 100% lavender oil.”
The lavender oil relaxes the dogs.
Rachel’s techniques work so well, that she’s even trained her daughter Gwendolyn in the art of dog handling. “By the time she was 5 years old, I’d taught her to clip toenails. She’s so confident and sweet at the same time. The animals love her. Now she’s the youngest competition groomer in the country at 11 years old. At Intergroom last year, she won best first timer with a terrier mix. She has two competition dogs this year. She can say to the dog, “Stand up and the dog stands up.”
When asked what’s something you wish people knew about handling nervous dogs Rachel Ann has a ready answer. “I wish people would be more confident. They can be an example. I think owners and groomers can all set nervous dogs at ease. It just requires sticking to the routine and having confidence.”
And if you encounter emboldened dog owners who are attempting grooming their own nervous dog, have them check out our article on why we feel it is best done by a professional as DIY grooming has a lot of risks to it. Now that you know Rachel Ann’s secret sauce for calming nervous pets, which of these will you implement in your dog grooming salon?