The Groomer’s Dilemma: The Aggressive Dog

On April 9, 2024, senior groomers Sabrina Schofield and Lisa Robinson met with Cathy Davis, owner of Backyard Pet Grooming for an in-depth conversation on “the grooming-aggressive dog.”. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Good morning!  Today’s interview is all about the aggressive dog.  Groomers will know exactly what we’re talking about here.  It is not the dog who is food aggressive, or dog aggressive, or even one who does a little bit of resource guarding.  We’re talking about the grooming-aggressive dog.  This is a baby who is sweet in the house and not so sweet when they get on the grooming table. 

Before we get started, I’ll ask each of you to introduce yourselves and your unique approach to the world of grooming.

Lisa:  I’m Lisa Robinson!  This is my 20th year of being a professional pet groomer. My niche is working with babies who are misunderstood.  They may have been groomed before and haven’t had the best experience or somebody didn’t take the time to understand their likes & dislikes.  So that’s my job.  I just love it.  The dogs actually train me on how to care for them.  It takes a lot of patience and understanding and compassion but I wouldn’t do anything different for a career even if I could.  

Sabrina: I’m Sabrina Schofield. I’ve been grooming for about 17 years.  I love starting dogs off on the right foot.  When we get the dog in the van especially as a puppy or first-time groom, I really enjoy establishing a bond of trust with the dog from the get go because it is so important for the rest of their grooming career to understand that we’re there to work with them, we’re friends with them, but that we’re in their corner and there for their good.  I like to pay special attention to forming that trust bond and relationship so that everything gets easier for them as they learn the grooming routine.

Great! I’ll start the conversation with a typical dog.  I’ll just use my little dog, Ted as an example.  Ted in the house is super-sweet.   I have groomed Ted myself and I know for a fact he is not a delight on the grooming table.  He jerks his little head away when you’re trying to work with his face and he just doesn’t cooperate at all.  But some dogs actually do more than that on the grooming table.  They might not just jerk their head away but they might snap their teeth right out at your face or your hands.  Can you talk about what kinds of behavior like this you see every day?  And can you see it coming or does the dog surprise you?

Lisa:  Honestly, you find out pretty fast.  Once you’re in the grooming van with the baby, especially if it is their first time, we get a feel for what the behavior is like, what they are going to tolerate.  I’ll do some light brushing, touch his feet, pretty much just give them love.  That’s what I do.  I get in there and give them a bunch of love. And they react to that. They either like it or they’re uncomfortable or maybe they like it but they’re unsure.  That’s up to me to determine what their behavior is going to be like going forward.  We have some babies where it’s a no-go from the get-go.  That’s when you stop and take your time with him. Sometimes you can’t do the groom the first time.  You might brush and clean the ears to let them know what to expect and that’s it.  To get to the next level will require another visit.  

Sabrina:  For the most part, you do find out fast. Image of a dog displaying aggression with open mouth and visible teeth.You asked if we can see it coming or whether it’s a surprise and it is both. Sometimes they do give warning signs:  you’ll see the body language, certain postures, a certain look in the eye, or even a lip twitch can give us a clue that the dog is stressed and we need to slow things down. We need to investigate the sensitivity. Other times, they have been great, completely chill, and suddenly they are coming after me or what I’m holding such as the dryer. It is important to understand the body language. Humans are verbal creatures but dogs are body communicators. So, I look for the side eye, hunching over, the tail is down, the ears are down — there are a bunch of signals that they usually give before they snap.  In reading the body language and responding to it we are having a dialogue. The dog responds to the fact we responded. They will let us know it’s the feet that they don’t want touched. Maybe it’s a wide spectrum of touch they don’t like.  Maybe there’s one certain area where they draw the line. They are literally processing their stress with their actions so we are assessing to understand how they are handling tings. Some dogs lick their lips, some yawn to calm themselves. For others, their muscles will lock, you’ll get the side eye.  

We have to then push a little bit and see how it they respond. We’re here to trim your nails, trim your pads, wash your feet … when we start leaning into the work, we see how they respond.  For some dogs the reactivity is all “show” and once we get going, they’re loud and flail but they comply without doing you any damage.  For others, they are going to take you down. 

What aspects are the trickiest to pull off?    Is it the nails or the dryer or you can’t even predict what is going to set them off?

Sabrina: Those are the top two.  A lot of clients tell me they are so scared to do the nails and I tell them the nails are the hardest thing that I had to learn as a groomer.  It can be tricky for one but two – they don’t like it.  They are sensitive.  The way a dog responds with sensitivity to the feet reminds me of the way a human responds to the various probings of the dentist or the hygienist.  It’s sensitive and touchy and they are not comfortable with another creature they don’t know messing with them.  So, the aggressive colors will show up when we touch the feet, or the scary blow-dryer, or sometimes it’s the tail or the face.  They’re fine until you get to right behind the ears and once you get to the ears the dog says “no more.”  Another thing that could be going on is dental problems and their mouth is hurting.   Footwork and the dryer, though, those are the worst two processes for them.

So, Lisa, once you see you have a dog on the table who is going to be spicy, what are the steps you take to keep yourself safe.  You have to keep going and you don’t want to take every dog back to the owner, so what do you do?

Lisa: It depends.  If the baby is trying to eat me up, I’ll first try to distract them.  I’m a big singer, so I will start singing.  This not only distracts them and helps build a quick relationship because its’s calming.  If that doesn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, I will try a muzzle.  That’s to protect the baby from hurting themselves because we have really sharp things in the van, and it protects the groomer too.  We have other things in the van like a belly band. I also have a soft tummy-under sling that will help the control the baby and keep them comfortable too.  Depending on how I have that hooked up I can get the feet up in the air so that I can work with the feet.  Here’s the thing:  the more safe you can make the baby, the more relaxed they will become.   Because we are mobile, we can flex the timing of the groom somewhat – we can stop, go slow, and usually it gets better.  The first time might be crazy but after that, it gets better.  

Have you ever had the situation where you just had to take the baby back to the owner?

Sabrina:  Yes, I have.  Honestly it is disheartening.  I can say there was only one time where we went through the gambit of possible helping measures and we just failed.  Mom tried using calming medications that ended up being ineffective.  This was tough because this particular pup had face-touching issues.  Even mom and dad couldn’t clean the eyes – she just wouldn’t allow any work on her face so it would get matted…  and truly she needed to be groomed.  It was really stressful and dangerous because she would go after the tools specifically.  We do have sharp tools.  She wasn’t trying to bite me (although she didn’t care if I got in the way).   She wanted to bite those tools and she didn’t understand that the tools would bite her back.  We had to be very, very careful in doing the mat removal.  It was a do-what you can situation.  She was a senor dog so the whole process just got worse with each subsequent groom.  The parents were great, though, and they understood that safety was paramount.  It was disheartening because I really wanted to earn her complete trust and she just never gave it to me.

I’m glad you mentioned the calming medications because I wanted to ask about that.   In your experience do calming medications help? Does it take a long time to get the dosage right?  Sometimes do the medications make the whole situation worse and you’d rather go back to no medications whatsoever?

Lisa:  I have had a couple of instances like that.  There an Airedale I worked with who must have had some bad experiences because she is a challenge.  With medications she was both frustrated and medicated – she just didn’t feel good.  I have been doing her now for three years.   Now I just work with her. She gets frustrated with her feet, so I do something different.  The whole grooming takes longer than you would expect, but she is happier when she is just herself.  Now I have other babies that have light sedation but that’s as far as we would want to go.  You can’t have a relationship with a dog that is heavily sedated.  So, I will just use my singing as a calming influence, my voice, my touch, my eye contact.  We just get through it.

Sabrina what’s your experience?

Sabrina: I have seen a variety of medications on the market, and I don’t always know which medications the pups are on or what the dosage is – I’m just seeing the effect or the lack thereof.   I’m sure that some of these are more effective than others.  Sometimes I have seen some success with this – the dog does not care as much about what I am doing.  Most of the time though it either has no effect or it makes things worse.  If the dosage is too much, the pup can act like it is drunk on the table.  It doesn’t know where the table ends which can be its own safety issue.   I’m having to hold the pup up and keep it balanced and feeling secure while working with the tools – it’s worse.  Other times, the sedative can add to the anxiety when they don’t know where these funny feelings are happening and this is combined with the stress of the groom.  It really depends on the medication and the way the dog takes to it.  My experience is that it has no effect or a worse effect.  To Lisa’s point, I can’t build much in the way of relationship with this pet when they are sedated.  In fact, if I did have a relationship with the dog, it can be harmed when the pet is feeling just off about the whole grooming.

It’s counterintuitive.  This is the way we are:  we see a problem and we try and solve it.  The dog is grooming aggressive so medication must be the answer.  Unless you knew based on your experience you would think that medication is the answer.

To explore a related aspect of the topic, sometimes an aggressive dog is also a noisy dog.  From the outside of the grooming van, you might be hearing all kinds of things.  So, Lisa can you talk about that? The dogs that are quiet vs. the dogs that are noisy and what is the spectrum that you see every day?

Lisa: That’s funny — I do have a couple of babies like this!  I call them singers.  I just make sure I have that relationship with the client so they know this is what the dog does at certain parts of the process.  And a dog might not do it every single time.  I just let the client know “we’re out here singing.”   It’s not howling necessarily.  They might be barking when we dry the face or some other part of the grom.  As long as you communicate with the client, they are usually fine.  Now if you don’t communicate at all and they hear this, the client is going to wonder what the heck is going on?   A lot of stuff is driven by our window.  When someone walks by the dog might go nuts briefly and then back to normal.  I just keep the parent in the loop and the dog does its job keeping everyone safe with all that barking, because that’s what they are trying to do. 

I did have an experience once at the grocery store I think when a pet parent was telling me a story about her last grooming appointment where she could hear her dog’s voice from all the way inside the house, all those noises, and she was worried.    Apparently, the groomer was working with that dog did not do the communication with the client correctly and the parent was just consumed with doubt and worry about what was going on in that van.  Sabrina, what are your thoughts on noisy pups and what is going on inside to cause all the noise?

Lisa: Dogs are expressive like people are.  An aggressive black and tan dog showing its teeth.Some are more vocal, and it’s funny because here you can really see breed patterns coming out.  When we get dogs that have a tendency to be vocal, the client is usually also aware that the dog is vocal. I have seen in the van where you get them in the tub and that first drop of water and they’re off with the vocalizations.  Other times they might see a neighbor walking by their guard instinct comes on and the duty of neighborhood notification goes off.  Of course, the dryer is loud, so the dog will be loud right back at it.  We can respond to bring down the stressor and at least meet them half way.  Responding to the vocalization is just like reading the body language – the dog is communicating in its language and we are in a dialogue.  From the outside it can sound alarming but from the inside of the van it is just communication.  The dog is telling me “I don’t like that!”   Most clients are pretty understanding and they know their dog’s idiosyncrasies.  

So just to take this all the way home, when you are in the van and the dog starts talking, do you stop what you are doing and send a text to the parent? Do you send them a video? Or do you just pause and wait for things to simmer down a bit before you keep going?

Lisa: If it’s my first time in doing the baby, I would just stop.  Usually, I will have the conversation with the client about behavior before I get the dog in there.  So, I might have a heads up on this, but I’ll reach out to the client and let them know we are taking a break if things get super loud and the stress level seems way too high.   I let the parent know about the break, though, because it’s important to me that they know what is happening.  I want them to know how the baby is acting so they are not surprised later if we’re not able to get things completed in the usual amount of time.  Also, they need to know because we (the parent and the groomer) really have to be a team.   If the parent isn’t brushing at home, then my brushing is going to feel strange to them, or uncomfortable, or surprising.  What I want is for my touch to be the same as the parent’s touch.  That’s how you de-sensitize, that’s how you build up the dog’s endurance, and that’s what’s needed to normalize the grooming process.   If the parent does not do their part, the six- or eight-week grooming appointment will always be an ordeal for the dog.  It does get better though.  Maybe the first couple of times I have to call them but the third time I don’t because they have worked with the dog too and the whole process is not so weird to the dog.  

That makes sense – it’s about managing expectations.  Going back to the conversation I had in the grocery store, it was clear to me that the pet owner did not feel like she had a part in the grooming process at all.  Reading between the lines she seemed to think that if the groomer was doing her job right, the dog would be happy and delighted through the entire grooming process.  And if that wasn’t the case – which in this case it wasn’t because the dog was vocalizing – it was somehow an indication that the groomer was doing it wrong.  

Sabrina:  There are pups that come to the door and they’re so thrilled to see me.  It is a brief and joyous reunion and then they hide behind their mom.  Because they know what I’m there for and it’s not their number one favorite thing maybe to have me messing with their feet.  The parent can usually see this and can see the dog has affection for me so they understand what is going on.  They also see the dog prance around when they’re all finished and fluffy, and clearly the parent can see the dog likes that part of it.  The beginning and the end, but not the medium.

I’m going to go all the way to the end of the spectrum.  Do you ever deem a dog to be just flat out un-groomable?

Lisa:  No.  Never.  I haven’t given up on anybody.   You just have to think outside the box.  It boils down to having a baby on the table who is misunderstood. And it takes time to get there.  If the parent is willing to give me that time, then I can do the baby.

But you can’t take an infinite amount of time, right?  If you’re on the second stop of the day you can’t spend five hours on dog #2, and just say “too bad” to the other parents who have grooming appointments scheduled that day.  

Lisa:  That is the hardest part of the job.  I keep having to balance how I want to approach the grooming because of the needs of particular dog with the commercial aspect of making a living.   Most often, a pet parent will not want to pay for five hours of my time if that is called for.  There is no way to make it come out right, so I end up working very long days.  

Sabrina, what’s your take on this?  Are there times when the dog is just not groomable?

Sabrina: Here’s the thing.  It takes a team.  The pet parent and I both have to play a part.  If the pet parent won’t be a part of the team, then I can’t play both roles.   Another situation would be when a veterinary groom is required—it is elderly or has an enlarged heart so the stress of grooming becomes a danger.  In this situation for the pet’s safety, we can’t continue.  The vet can safely sedate and do a comfort groom to maintain a healthy coat.   I can think of one situation where just touching the dog threw it into a fight or flight, snapping, alligator rolling frenzy.  In this case socialization had not happened with the pups and they were not accustomed to being touched.    To overcome that would require a long, long program of progressive socialization and handling, with treats and good boys for face handling, treats and good boys for foot touching – just a long process.

So, there are the techniques you have – the singing and the belly bands and the other things to manage the stress.  We also sometimes send a helper in the van.  Does that make a difference?

Lisa:  Yes! The helper is there to give loving and comfort while the groomer can be on the other side doing the things the dog doesn’t like, foot-touching and whatnot.   When it’s a big dog, that helper protects the groomer’s back when that 80 pound baby starts backing off the table.  

Sometimes a parent doesn’t understand why a helper in the van is necessary because sometimes we require it even with a small dog depending on the mobility or behavior issues.  How do you explain this to the pet parent?

Sabrina:  Oh, sure.  It is exactly what Lisa said.  The distraction is such a huge enabler to get the work done.  When the dog is pretty close to the same size as a human, having two to maneuver it into the tub is just necessary.    When a dog’s hips are hurting, the helper makes the standing more bearable for the dog.  

Well, this has been fantastic and I want to thank you both.  The last talk we had was about the matted dog, how matting happens and how to work through it.  That interview will be posted as a blog on our website here in a couple of days, along with this interview on the grooming aggressive dog.  For our next episode, we’ll go live in a podcast format so folks can hear your voices and all your great thoughts for themselves.    Thanks for being with us today.