Recognizing Fear and Aggression in Dogs During Grooming
There is nothing worse in a full day of grooming than being bitten by a client’s dog. Having to deal with dogs that do not enjoy grooming is par for the course but being bitten is oftentimes rare, painful and can set you back for hours, if not days.
As groomers, I feel like we are excellent animal wranglers. Collectively, we’ve managed to get more things done to dogs in the name of hygiene than anyone else. I know of no other industry that posses as many people with the skill set of being able to body hug a dachshund during a nail trim in just the right way that makes biting fingers and injuring itself impossible.
The downside to our job and this skill set is that oftentimes we find ourselves in very close proximity with fearful, nervous, and anxious dogs. It seems almost unavoidable that each working day we will be handling a dog in a way they find uncomfortable, despite being as gentle as possible.
Though, it’s usually slight and mild discomfort for most dogs, some dogs can become so fearful that they aggress. Rescued dogs and dogs that are new to the tools used in professional grooming (high velocity force dryers, nail dremels, toothbrushes, to name a few) usually won’t hide their feelings of discomfort and taking note of their personal threshold for anxiety can be obvious and easy.
Other dogs however, the signs of fear and pre-aggression can be slight and are not always obvious. I remember in particular a golden retriever who walked in on his own accord, didn’t move an inch in the bath, stood like a statue for the haircut, made not a single noise, and promptly bit my employee in the face as she was putting a bandana on his neck. On the other hand, I’ve had countless dogs start a session with growling and go on to playfully giving me kisses by the time we are through.
So how are we supposed to know which signs to take seriously and which to ignore? As with everything in dog behavior the answer is always; it depends.
Even though we can’t predict with total accuracy, which dogs are bluffing and which are serious threats, there are a few tricks that can get us closer to the answer.
A dog’s need for aggression is need based. When dogs are fearful, aggression is an option available to them. Dogs have three options when being confronted with a fearful situation: Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
From the dog’s point of view, the whole nature of being groomed takes away the option of flight. I won’t say all, some programs are offering grooming entirely free of restraints, allowing the dog to come and go from the grooming table as they choose. The idea that a dog could walk away should they feel fearful is commendable, something to strive for and would certainly eliminate the dog’s need for aggression.
However, I feel it’s safe to say that this is not the norm for most of us in the business yet.
The first step to reducing the need for aggression is to reduce the level of fear the dog is feeling. There are a lot of ways to do this and all of them double as a test that can give insight into the rate of fear the dog is experiencing. If we think of a dog having a fuse like a bomb, these tricks essentially lengthen the fuse. Yes, given enough pressure and stress the dog could still aggress, but each time you engage them in one of these activities, the amount of time before the dog’s threshold is reached is lengthened.
Ways to reduce fear in the grooming setting.
Give the dog a break. This can be as lengthy as taking the dog potty or as simple as putting down the grooming tools and giving the dog a few minutes. If the dog does a shake off, gives a big yawn, begins sniffing the table, or sits down to scratch, the dog is diffusing their own stress. Allowing dogs a break, especially if they engage in diffusion (sometimes called displacement) behaviors lengthens the fuse tremendously. Dogs are masters at avoiding conflict and when given the opportunity, will always engage in these actions of diffusion.
Never punish a growl. Growling is usually the last communication a dog gives before a bite, so training the dog not to growl through punishment essentially takes away the warning system nature has put into place. All dogs are born knowing how to growl. I have to assume that the golden who put 4 stitches into my employees face that day, at some point in his life had been taught not to growl. If not for you or the dog, keep it mind that it can do a great disservice to the next groomer to punish the dog for growling.
Forcefully suppressing behaviors of any kind will not cure the dog of fear. If a dog is jerking their head wildly while being brushed, grabbing underneath the chin and jerking will usually create a stunned dog that is still enough to comb through. The dog may seem to have gotten over the fear of being brushed because suppressed behaviors look a lot like “good dog” behavior. Dogs can be frozen by fear or shut down into lethargy by it.
An easy and quick test of courage can be simply offering the dog a treat. Most dogs will be too nervous to eat a regular biscuit so I always offer a tablespoon of braunschweiger, liverwurst, or canned cat food. I make sure to ask the owners beforehand but if allowed, this style of meat usually puts me in high favors with the dog. Getting a dog to eat something is multi-purpose. When a dog eats, they must relax enough to do it, if even for a second. Meat that must be licked off a spoon requires the dog to relax for upwards of a minute or more and focus on enjoyment. This allows the dog to diffuse, look around and lengthen their fuse. Subsequently, dogs that are unwilling to eat are telling us they are very stressed.
Open a window or play music. Anything that allows the dog to focus on other senses is a great way to reduce fear. Scent and sound can be important tools in helping the dog to focus on something besides the grooming procedure.
Ask the dog to do something it knows. Relaxed dogs will readily respond to cues they know. Asking a dog to sit or shake can give the dog a chance to have a choice. Some dogs will find this instantly uplifting and happily respond to something they know, something they can do which is difference than being groomed. After doing a few cues, it’s normal to see a “shake off” or yawn from the dog; a clear indication that they have let go of some stress.
When a dog stays frozen and seems to ignore the request to do a known behavior, this is a stress indicator. What we often think of as stubbornness in dogs can be a clear sign of fear. Humans of all ages can become unable to follow directions when anxious or afraid and dogs are not immune to this reaction either.
Signs of fear and stress include panting, dilated pupils or “whale eye”, ears pulled back, yawning, tail tucking, crouching, lying down, whining, barking, shaking, pacing, lip licking, moving away, trying to escape, looking in all directions, and of course, growling.
Signals of stress and fear run like a scale of 1-10 with varying degrees. Subtle signs may indicate mild stress and include small movements of the eyes, ears, head and body while moderate signs include the heavy panting, crouching and shaking. Aggression that is based on fear is the ultimate sign of panic from the dog. Almost all dogs will try flight when given the option but we usually take that away from them for reasons of safety and productivity. Leaving a dog with just the options of freeze or fight makes learning the signs of fear imperative. Using this knowledge to give the dog a break and include time to lengthen the fuse reduces the dog’s need to use aggression, thus creating a safer grooming experience for all involved.