It's not easy being cute...
I've owned a dog grooming shop for 17 years, and owned a boarding kennel for 6 of those years as well. I see on average 7-12 dogs a day coming through my doors, 5 days a week. There is one thing almost all of these dogs have in common, day in and day out; they have their owners wrapped around their adorable little paws.
One comment I hear most often in my career is "Fluffy is shaking! He's so scared!". This is usually voiced in a high pitched wail while said shaking dog is being hugged, cooed at and desperately reassured while me, the groomer, is trying to pry Fluffy out of the iron grasp of his distraught owners.
There is a reason why Fluffy is acting this way, and I'm hoping that a little insight will help you as an owner understand your dog's behavior at the groomer, vet office, or boarding kennel and how to make these visits less stressful.
Face It, Grooming, Health Care and Being Left Behind are Not Fun Things
Taking your pet to the groomer, veterinarian or the boarding facility are not fun times. I know we all wish we never had to make our dogs uncomfortable, but the fact of the matter is, all dogs need to visit these facilities in their lifetime. In the case of the groomer, sometimes as often as once a month. They are dropped off, bathed, brushed, nails trimmed, anal glands expressed, blow dried, ears cleaned, poked, prodded, held down, given shots, and surrounded by strange people, dogs, smells, and noises.
These Things Are Not Fun. Some dogs are more go with the flow, just like some children. Every personality is a little different, and how you handle these visits makes a HUGE impact on how comfortable your pet will be. Would you drop your child off at the dentist and let them pry your unsure kid out of your arms while informing them in high pitched, anxious voices that it won't hurt TOO bad? Do you drop your child off at daycare and make the daycare workers force your child out of your arms and push you out the door while you anxiously call out words of apology for abandoning them?
No, you don't. Well I hope not. If you are, you are a terrible parent and you need to stop that.
Then don't be a terrible dog parent, because those scenarios I just described are exactly what most pet owners do when they drop their pets off with the professionals, and it is no less terrifying to your pet than it would be to your child.
Dentists, doctors and daycares are uncomfortable but necessary experiences of being a child (and a parent). Groomers, vets and boarding facilities are the doggie equivalent of these. It is up to you as the owner to make these experiences positive ones, even if they really are not very fun.
It's All About The Attitude, and Your Pet Is Smarter Than You Think
My own dogs refuse to purposely set foot in my grooming shop, which is attached to my home. They know the door in the laundry room leads to Bath Land, and they are SO not going there. I just pick them up, march into the shop and unceremoniously dump them into the tub. No reassuring, desperate, pleading voice. No over-exaggerated pats, treats and bribes. I just dump them in the tub, hum ridiculous songs to myself, and do my job. They glare at me. They sulk. They shake as much as absolute possible to be sure I get as soaked as they are. And all is fine, because in the end, it's just a bath, and it's only as bad as I make it out to be.
Your dog doesn't care what you say to them. You can talk about the weather, your cankles, or the new outfit you are dying to buy. It is your voice and body language that matters. They are shaking, whimpering, cowering and carrying on because you are reacting to it. You are reassuring them there is something to be scared of, when there really isn't.
The big secret that I try to share as much as possible?
As soon as you leave, they sigh, make a few sulky rounds in the holding kennel, and curl up and go to sleep until something interesting happens, because the biggest source of anxiety (that would be you!) has left. Now they can relax and process this strange environment on their own terms, and you are no longer present to manipulate with those big doe eyes and quivering limbs.
Some dogs really do spend their entire visits anxious, pacing, barking and crying, and these dogs almost always have particularly stressed out and anxious owners. If you are not comfortable with your chosen pet professional, that is something you need to work on by talking to them, getting to know them and asking your questions BEFORE you bring your dog in and pass that anxiety and distrust on to them.
I know it's not easy. When I changed to just grooming from owning a boarding kennel as well, I had to find a boarding facility for my own dogs when I left town. I was lucky to have a friend open a kennel, and I 100% trust his care, the facility is clean and secure, and I have no doubts leaving my dogs with him. I used to roll my eyes and inwardly curse at owners who passed on their stress to their dogs before leaving on vacation with long goodbyes. I will admit, I got a taste of my own medicine when I dropped off my 3 boys at the kennel for a week over christmas. It was very hard to not hug them, kiss them, reassure them I would be back, and apologize for leaving them on a holiday. What I DID do was hand over the leash and walk back into the waiting room without a word or a backward glance while they gleefully ran out to the play yard. I cried the whole way home. So yes, it's hard to leave your pets. They are family. You want everything they experience to be fun and include you, but that isn't how it works. So please, do your pet and your pet professional a favor and happily, joyfully and quickly hand over the leash and hop out the door.
It's ok to cry in the car.
Speaking Of Leashes...
Remember that old song lyric "you can't have one without the other"?
If you own a dog, you need to own a properly fitted collar and flat leather or nylon leash.
One thing that is super frustrating for pet professionals is trying to safely handle your dog without a properly fitted collar and leash. Retractable leashes are the bane of our careers. I don't know a single pet professional that wouldn't gladly ban them from existence. Retractable leashes offer no control, are bulky and hard to handle, usually weigh more than your actual dog, and are often broken, knotted up, chewed on and no longer lock or retract at all.
Please do not drop your dog off with your pet professional on a retractable lead. If you must own one, purchase a flat nylon or leather lead to use when taking your pup into facilities where other pets are present and your dog will be confined in a cage or on a table for portions of their stay.
I require leashes on ALL dogs of all sizes in my shop. People often complain about this rule because their dog is small and can be carried, hates leashes, or some other excuse. I care more about your dogs safety than anything else. There is a reason for my madness besides the obvious one of keeping your pet from running out the door and into oncoming traffic. Dogs often have to wait in a kennel until it is their turn to be groomed. If I can open the cage, grab their familiar and well fitted leash and happily lead them out, my risk of being bitten is much lower than if I have to reach in and grab an unsure dog. The risk of them bolting out the cage and onto the hard floor face first is also much lower if I have something to grab to control them the moment the door opens.
The same applies for when you pick your pet up. The moment they see you, they are super excited, wiggling, dancing and carrying on. They want to go home! However, I still have to open the cage door and hand over that wiggling, dancing pup, and I cannot safely do that when I have nothing to grab onto when I open the door other than an oversized chunk of plastic full of dental floss attached to a too-big, broken buckled collar.
Do you drop your kid off at school in nothing but an oversized t-shirt full of holes? Properly fitted clothes are not optional child attire, nor should properly fitted collars and leashes be optional for your dog. People are coming and going all the time. Doors are opening and closing. Other pets are coming and going. Your pet NEEDS to be safely contained for his safety, the security of other pets, and my sanity.
Carriers are also not a good choice and in fact, I require pets be removed from carriers before their owners can leave. Pets become very protective of their carriers, and strange hands reaching into a crowded space to pry out a nervous dog is a recipe for a bad bite. When I owned the boarding facility, people often brought their dogs carriers or crates to put inside the larger kennels because it was their safe spot. This is great at home, but in the already stressful environment of a boarding kennel, this just gives your dog something familiar they feel they need to protect, and causes more stress for the people that are caring for your pet. Blankets, toys and other familiar items are great...but leave the carriers in the car.
There is the issue of bribery to touch on quickly here too. When I owned the kennel, people would bring bags of horrible smelling special treats to make themselves feel better for leaving their pets behind. Treats their pets usually don't get. Combine smelly, fast-food treats with a nervous pet and you have a mess of body fluids and an upset, guilty dog. Never feed your pet a meal or treats before taking them for a ride to spend hours away from home, and always potty them before drop off. I feel so sorry for dogs who are well trained and know it is "naughty" to potty inside, but they are too full of nerves and food to control themselves. Not to mention the added fees you end up paying for clean up and rebathing.
People often focus on the wrong things once their pets are home as well. I remember when I was younger, my grandparents would always get their dog groomed and he had to be shaved short as they didn't get him groomed very often and he was matted by the time he was taken in. He would come home with pink skin and hide under the bed for days. I used to think he was ashamed of his haircut. Now as someone who deals with this every day, I realized he wasn't used to feeling the air on his skin after many months of matted fur, and my grandma would spend days feeling sorry for him and reassure him with full course meals and apprehensive, coddling cuddle sessions. He didn't understand what this sudden surge of fretful attention was for, all he knew was he was milking that for all it was worth.
Bribery doesn't work. Reassurance is confusing. Your pet lives in the now and doesn't understand this concept. Save it for your kids at the dentist.
Don't tell the dentists I said that.
So...How Do I Make My Dogs Groomer/Vet/Kennel Visits FUN?
It really is up to you as a loving pet owner to set the positive tone for your pets' visit to the groomer, vet or boarding kennel. He may never enjoy them or think of them as fun filled days, but how you handle it can go a long way to at least making it a constructive experience. Let's recap...
*Drop off your pet with a positive attitude and joyous body language. You don't have to sing and dance, but a smile and a "see you later!" wave is all your pet needs to be reassured. If they are shaking, crying or cowering, allow the pet professional to confidently take over while you back off and let them do their job. Baths suck, but I promise you, they are not that bad. Hopefully you have experience with bathing yourself, preferably at least a few times a week, and can confidently tell your pets they really will be fine.
*Have conversations about any concerns, worries or questions before your appointment. If you are not confident with the care your pet will receive, they will not feel comfortable with your choice any more than you are. My own parents dog absolutely loves me when I visit their home. She acts like I'm the grim reaper when they bring her in for a groom. Luckily, I have my parents well versed on drop off behavior and Sophie pretty much sleeps through the rest of the visit after a 10 minutes singing session lamenting her woes at being abandoned for 4 entire hours.
*Never arrive early to check on your pet or pick them up before arranged times. We cannot safely finish caring for an over-excited pet in a timely and safe manner.
*Always have your pet on a secure, properly fitted leash or harness and non-retractable collar. ALWAYS.
* Never feed your pet a meal or treats before drop off, and be sure to potty them before walking into the establishment. A pet that makes a mess inside will feel guilty and upset, making the rest of the visit harder on them. By all means, save that special treat for when all the not-so-fun stuff is over. It's 5-oclock somewhere! Bring on the biscuits!
* Sometimes your dog will continue this behavior after they get home. New haircuts should be something to brag about. Tell your dog how wonderful they look with a nice cuddle session rather than voice frustration over the haircut being too short because you didn't get them booked in time or didn't take care of the coat between grooms. Don't focus on how uncomfortable that cone must be, or how silly the shaved area for the IV or surgery site looks. Your dog will pick up on these unnecessary unease and act accordingly. Hair grows back, cones are not needed forever, but your love is unconditional. Show that :)
By Seri Dukart - Groomer/ Boarding Kennel Owner
Special thanks to all the people who answered my call for woeful looking pet pictures for this article. It was hard to pick which ones to use and not use them all! Ha!