Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Training Your Show Dog to Relax for Grooming

One of the things we have to get our show dogs used to is being groomed.  Of course, depending on the breed of dog grooming can be extremely labor intensive or very little work at all. Dogs that are heavily coated need to learn to accept being blow dried, brushed, combed, banded, clipped, nails trimmed, topknots done and so on. My goal is not only get a dog used to it, but I want the dog to really learn to relax and hopefully even enjoy it. 

I recently acquired my first Lowchen and she surely will not be my last. Thankfully, she came from a really proactive breeder, Alexia Rodriguez, who worked on getting the puppies used to all sorts of things including gentle handling, clipper noises and vibrations and various environments. Even though Cannoli had been exposed to it, she wasn't reliably trained to accept it and just lie there and I had to work on that. In this blog post I will go through some of the things I did to teach my now 7 month old puppy to relax and usually fall asleep for her grooming. All this was done using positive reinforcement and gentle methods.

What you will need
In addition to your grooming tools, you will need the following;
  • a towel, blanket, mat or bed to sit on the grooming table
  • a pillow for the dog's head
  • a bag of high value treats
  • a grooming table and arm
First, start out by making the grooming area comfortable and inviting. If your dog is unsure about being on the table or being up high, get her used to that before grooming her up there. Just put her on the table, give her treats and take her down. Stay close and support her. If she is worried you can place the grooming table into a corner so that two sides of the table are up against a wall which can help the dog feel more secure and safe. Place a towel, blanket or dog bed and a pillow up there. Some dogs don't want to lie down on a hard grooming table, but are more than happy to lie on their mat or pad. It doesn't mean you will need it forever, but it is a good idea to use it in the initial stages of training. Cannoli's pillow is fleece fabric rolled up and tied.

Make the table comfortable with a towel or bed and a pillow. 

Next, put the dog on the table and just work on getting her to relax up there. Rather than trying to just push or roll the dog over, teach her to lie down by using food to lure her down. 

Lure the dog down with their chin on the pillow.
Once down, give the treat and then periodically offer treats for staying down on the table. Also, pet and massage the dog on the table to help her relax. Delivering the treats in between the dogs front legs, or in front of the rear foot if they are rolled onto their hip will help to encourage them to stay down and to relax.

Here I delivered a treat in between her front legs to reinforce staying down.

If the dog is relatively comfortable with being on the table AND with being groomed, you can offer treats as you start to groom. Take your time and reinforce OFTEN for staying down.  Practice this until the dog can really relax, even fall asleep on the table. The idea is to teach the dog to love being up there to immediately begin to melt and relax as soon as they get up on the table for grooming.

Cannoli is an extremely active young puppy, but she can relax and sleep while I groom her.

If can be helpful to teach your dog to rest her chin in your hand. I use this for many things including the position for medical procedures like vaccines and exams. This is an extremely valuable tool as it allows you to position the dog's head without any resistance. 

Cannoli rests her chin on my hand while I comb her face and head.
The chin rest on hand transitions nicely to her pillow.

It can be helpful to have someone else available to help with offering treats in the beginning. I was able to just set a bag of treats beside me and offer them every so often. If you need the dog to be standing, consider using a soft food item, such as peanut butter or squeeze cheese on a grooming arm.

Cannoli can lick peanut butter off of the grooming arm while I work on her.

If your dog doesn't like the grooming itself, consider starting to work on the grooming in a very comfortable place like on your lap or on the couch, as she learns how to accept it. Keeps the sessions very short and give frequent breaks and again offer a lot of treats as she begins to accept it.

If you are working with a very sensitive dog or there is already fear or anxiety associated with grooming, you may need to adjust the tools you use and use non invasive, soft tools. Some dogs do not like a slicker brush but may be fine with a wooden pin brush. Experiment with tools and start with ones that are comfortable for the dog.

As the dog begins to understand the process, you can groom for longer periods of time and can offer less treats. In addition to treats, be sure to pet your dog calmly while grooming to build even more positive associations with the process.

Things to Keep in Mind
  • Practice daily with your dog so that she gets a lot of practice. 
  • Be generous with your treats and reinforce good behavior often. 
  • Try to groom gently and thoughtfully without rough handling and yanking on coat. It can be hard sometimes to avoid pulling on their skin, but it is important to work on this so that they can relax and not feel anxious that it will hurt. 
  • If you are working on a sensitive area try to be gentle and offer treats in between very short sessions. This is how I got Cannoli so agreeable when having to comb little knots out of her face.
Grooming can be a really positive and even bonding experience for your dog when you teach it and do it properly. I love brushing out my dogs and all of them will lie on their backs in my lap while I brush and comb them. If they tolerate it easily from the beginning, I reinforce it with food anyway in order to build an even stronger positive association. If they have any fears or reservations about it, I desensitize and counter condition them by doing short sessions that they can tolerate while pairing it with high value treats. 

I did the exact same things for training her for her clipping, nail trims, bathing and blow drying. I offered food and started out with the water turned on low and some peanut butter smeared on the inside wall of the bath tub. I didn't wash her head at first, just got it wet. Now, she actually falls asleep while being washed! 

Same with the blower, I don't force her to stand up all rigid, I let her roll around on the towel at first and then just lie down and relax while I brush and blow dry her. I pet her and talked to her and offered treats while drying her. 

I feel that a lot of times we don't think of something like grooming or gentle handling as things we need to train, but we do. If we want the dog to know what to expect and feel secure in being able to predict what is going to happen, we can make all these things easier and more enjoyable for them.

Picture perfect