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How To Groom a Reactive Dog

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David Adams

July 07, 2020

Dog Reactivity

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* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

There are easy things about being a pet parent, and there are, well...less easy things about being a pet parent. For many pet moms and dads, at-home grooming falls firmly into the latter category. 

Whether you’re bathing your pup, brushing mattes from his coat, or trimming his nails, grooming can be a chore–even when it comes to dogs with the calmest of dispositions. Trying to play groomer to a reactive dog, though? That’s a whole other story. Here’s what you need to know before you embark on an adventure in grooming with a reactive pup.

What is a reactive dog?

We have to start with the basics: What is a reactive dog, exactly? The answer isn’t quite that simple, since different dogs can be triggered to reactive behavior in different situations. The one thing to keep in mind that is universal is what reactivity is not–a reactive dog is not, necessarily, an aggressive dog (even though, as the AKC points out, the two are frequently conflated).

In general, a reactive dog is one that overreacts to specific things or situations. Usually, reactivity is caused by a combination of genetics, lack of proper socialization, and fear. In the context of grooming, a reactive dog is often one that is triggered by being on a leash or being otherwise physically constrained. A reactive dog who is triggered by the grooming process will often bark, squirm, and sometimes even nip or bite.

How to groom a reactive dog at home

When it comes to grooming a reactive dog, there are several options available, from doing your best to minimize triggers during at-home grooming sessions to enlisting the help of a professional. Here are some solutions to explore if you need to groom your reactive pup. 

1. Use positive reinforcements: 

As with any form of dog training, using positive reinforcement is key when working with a dog who becomes reactive during grooming. Start slow and reward (with verbal praise and high-value treats) every win, no matter how small. 

Patience is vital when training or reinforcing any behavior with a dog. If your dog becomes reactive when you brush his coat, for example, try to start by pulling the brush out and showing it to your dog without approaching him. If he stays calm, great! Praise and reward him. If the mere sight of the brush triggers reactive behavior, backtrack. Can you reach for the drawer where you keep the brush without triggering the behavior? If so, practice that and praise and reward your dog for keeping his cool. 

Progress slowly and be ready to backtrack if you move too quickly and find your dog falling into reactive behaviors again. 

2. Be smart about timing: 

If your dog struggles with reactive behavior when you groom them, try planning grooming activities for times when your pup is feeling sleepy (like after a long walk) or hungry (like before a meal time). Why? Sleepy dogs are generally calmer and hungry dogs tend to be more food-motivated, which focuses their attention during training sessions where treats are involved. 

3. Invest in long-handled tools: 

If your dog hates being brushed, they might have a tendency to snap during their grooming time–both at the brush itself and (often accidentally) at the hand that’s holding it. For dogs who are triggered by brushing in particular, long-handled brushes, combs, dematters, and other grooming tools can be a great way to protect your own safety and well-being. 

4. Use cooperative care: 

One relatively new (but incredibly important) training tool you should utilize when training a reactive dog to tolerate grooming is the concept of cooperative care. Like the name implies, cooperative care focuses on training your dog to be a willing participant in grooming (and other forms of handling, like veterinary care or dental treatments). In order for the experience to be truly cooperative, of course, the animal has to be allowed to say “no” to what’s happening. This means that the handler (in this case you, the pet parent) needs to respect non-aggressive, appropriate signals from the dog that the grooming session has become too much to handle. 

Debbie Martin, a vet tech in Texas, has some great videos to check out if you’re looking for more information on cooperative care and how to appropriately use restraints and muzzles, if they’re absolutely needed before cooperative care techniques are mastered. 

5. Consider CBD or other medications to reduce puppy anxiety:

Some pet parents look to dog sedatives for grooming. If you want to explore sedating your reactive dog during grooming (with CBD or other anxiety-reducing medications), do your research and schedule an appointment with your vet before administering the first dose. 

You should always consult your vet before starting your pup on any new medication, even those available over-the-counter, but many of the most effective and recommended anxiety medications (like dog-appeasing pheromone, also known as DAP) will require a prescription from your vet, so it’s smart to get them involved in the discussion right away. 

6. Talk to a professional trainer about muzzle training: 

If none of the above solutions work, you may decide that muzzling is the only option left. A muzzle is a device that goes over the dog’s nose and mouth and makes it impossible for the animal to bite. While a muzzle will stop a reactive dog from biting during a grooming session, it won’t do anything to make the dog calmer–and, in fact, may increase or trigger other reactive behaviors. 

We recommend talking to a professional, positive-only trainer before beginning any kind of muzzle training program. 

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How to find the right groomer for your reactive dog

If you decide that grooming your reactive pup at home isn’t right for you, there are definitely lots of caring, dedicated professionals out there who are ready to take on the task. You’ll want to do your research, though, and make sure you take your dog to a groomer with experience working with reactive dogs. 

Search websites like YelpThumbtack, and to find groomers in your area. Look for profiles that specifically mention work with reactive or aggressive dogs and a commitment to positive-only techniques. Search the reviews for testimonials from pet parents who stayed to watch the groomer at work and pay attention to any descriptions of restraints or rough handling from the groomer. Finally, you can call the groomer and ask for information about their handling philosophy and about the equipment they use. 

Another fantastic resource to take advantage of when you’re looking for a new groomer is Fear Free, an organization that focuses on pets’ emotional wellbeing and on educating pet professionals about reducing fear, anxiety, and stress in pets. The group now certifies groomers, so definitely add it to your checklist.

What not to do when grooming a reactive dog

As many tips as we can offer for making the process of grooming a reactive dog more productive (and safer) for pets and their parents alike, it’s just as important to know what not to do. Here are a few things to put on your never-do list for grooming a reactive dog: 

  • Don’t rush it. Reactive dogs may need to have grooming activities broken up and done on separate days to avoid overwhelming them more than necessary. 
  • Don’t rush them. When you approach a reactive dog who is triggered by grooming with a brush, clippers, or anything else they associate with the task. 
  • Don’t use negative reinforcements. Negative reinforcements are never the answer. You won’t train away a “bad” behavior with punishments. The only way to effectively and permanently adjust how your pup acts is to reward the behavior you want to see more of and to do so consistently and enthusiastically. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s never a bad idea to enlist the help of an expert and this goes double (maybe even triple) for working with a reactive dog. Talk to a professional, positive-only trainer, vet, or experienced groomer (or all three!) if you have questions about grooming your reactive dog. 
  • Finally, and most importantly, don’t put your safety at risk. If your dog bites or does anything else that could put you at risk when triggered by grooming, take any and all precautions necessary to make sure you aren’t hurt in the process. 

Raising a happy, healthy dog takes a lot of work–especially if that dog has emotional triggers and issues of its own. With a little research, the right tools, and a lot of patience, however, you and your reactive pup can become a grooming dream team.

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Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Danette Johnston
Owner - Dog's Day Out, Ballard, WA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Licensed AKC CGC Evaluator
NW Coordinator, Doggone Safe

David Adams photo

David Adams

July 07, 2020

Dog Reactivity

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