As only real life has a way of doing, it tests you. It humbles you. If you have a soul at all, it sends you home in a reflective funk that only your best friends and family can help you sort out and salvage what’s left of you by holding up a mirror and saying, “Look! You know what I see? Someone who is lovely. Someone I want to know. Someone I trust.”
And here’s how fast something can go from a happy day full of laughter to a pensive mood. It only took 2 hours to sink me to my core.
I knew I was taking a risk by writing “When Leaving Your Dog with a Professional” because it set me up to be held more accountable than if I hadn’t.
So, let’s take a look.
Yesterday, a friend asked for help at her dog wash for just 2 hours. Sure, I could come in. I love to go in.
No sooner did I arrive than the groomer in the back called out for my help. “Sara, do you think you could assist with this dog (Golden Retriever). It’s giving me some real trouble.”
“Sure.” (First thought–how difficult could a golden really be? Just nervous and struggling on the table?) I went back to see the dog professionally and safely tethered on the table. Excellent work, Lindsay! I was delighted and proud to see that. It was also in a muzzle. Knowing L, she wouldn’t put one on unless it was truly necessary.
The dog had deep mats, the owner said the dog didn’t bite, but I completely trusted L when she said that the dog *is* biting and “head butting.” She did a great job shaving the body per owner request, and was at the last frontier: The head and neck. She asked if I could hold.
As you know, I’m not into the fighting thing and I could tell the dog was stressed and acting especially strange.
L warned me to watch my face because of the head butting. I have many, many years of grooming experience and have really never experienced anything quite like it. The dog was erratic. It would stand calm as we gently touched and tried to slowly work our way toward the front.
I even stopped a few times and said, “Wait, I can feel some tension rising in myself. How about if we just stop and relax ourselves for a sec before we start again? It is good to know yourself. L was so great to go along with this. And, by tension, I mean…this is inevitable when there is is a high degree of difficulty or risk.
The dog started screaming and barking erratically while throwing its head about. It sounded kind of hoarse. To the untrained eye, I think all of the wild motion with its head looked, perhaps, like the dog hadn’t been out for a run and was excited to go somewhere or that it is a happy hyper dog. To my eye, it looked like full-out stress and panic.
It managed to rip the muzzle off several times and pinch fingers through the muzzle at us.
Our challenge? To remove two golfball-sized mats behind its ears that were attached extra close to the skin. Ouch. Just then the dog headbutted me in the mouth. My lips are bruised. It think L told me that she had gotten it earlier as well.
And here’s an important point for me: I still did not get angry with the animal. Not a bit. I still saw a very, very troubled animal that was behaving entirely strange, even for a stressed animal. And then I noticed what looked like red marks around the neck. As I mentioned, the dog was properly noosed. Then L mentioned that she thought the owner had mentioned a shock collar. Hmmm…clues.
L and I worked well together on a challenging dog well as a professinal team. We had an ongoing conversation….
“Should we stop?”
“What do you think?”
“Hmm…let’s stop for a sec and think about it. Give the dog a chance to relax for a second. Collect ourselves to release any tension and see if we want to approach it again.”
“It’s on the verge of needing to go to the vet. Think the owner would take him in because of the extra costs?”
“Maybe. They’ll have to go through the same thing there unless he will also pay for sedation. Depends on the vet.”
“Look at these red marks on the neck.”
“Oh yah, I think he might be using a shock collar.”
“Mmmm! That could explain a LOT about the behavior. It’s exactly the kind of general panic I have seen in shocked dogs.”
“This isn’t likely to be someone then who is interested in going about this from a healthy behaviorally modification approach. Won’t want to spend the money. There would be a lot of work that needs to be done.”
“Ok, let’s try one more time and see what we get. Are you ready?”
“If I lose a grip. Let’s both let go at the same time.”
And so on…
It was a dramatic scenario with a lot of screaming that, I think, had little to do with actual pain for the dog. And if there had been someone filming, it would have looked incredibly bad. As it was, a brand new groomer (her first day) told the owner of the store that I was hurting the dog. Force holding a screaming dog while trying to shave. You know…one of those videos.
We ultimately were able to get one ear handled and then concluded we would recommend that the owner take the dog to the vet for the rest.
“Am I doing the right thing?” I asked myself.
The dog owner who was fully tatted up came back–I know! I just made a judgment that was meant to describe is not descriptive at all because the super nice and knowledgeable instructor at the Apple store earlier was also visibly tatted with large ear piercings to boot. Just think the ‘other’ kind of tatted up type. I could tell I wouldn’t be having THE talk (about what my opinion is of how his dog is acting and why), but I was calm and honest that his dog was very stressed and biting.
“He would have probably been better then if I had left his shock collar on him.”
Boom. And there it was.
I mentioned that we ‘could’ try to see if we could get the remaining mat behind the ears if the dog was any calmer with him being there. So, the groomer bravely came out and tried. The owner told us, yah, no problem. He’ll behave for me. The dog surprised his owner with a bite, even though the dog was indeed noticeably ‘calmer’ than with us. So, we talked about that and I could only find it in myself to suggest that next time, other than a sedated trip to the vet, the way to go might be to have him present. I didn’t add “minus the shock collar” because sometimes you really know that this will come down to a discussion that is bordering on one about religion. That is, nobody’s mind is changed and you both come away frustrated.
And back to my imaginary video, a possible news crew, and “What do you have to say for yourself?!”
I had to leave for a long run on the beach and was almost weirded out to realize that part of the time I was actually talking out loud. It was traumatizing to me. I don’t take these things lightly.
Mostly I work with owners who bring there dogs to me, sometimes, because multiple grooming salons have turned them away. They are willing to pay for positive reinforcement techniques to try to change themselves, their approach, and to make life better (sometimes simply from a simple Classical Conditioning approach initially) for their dog.
To be in the trenches with the general public is akin to watching warfare to some extent. The ignorant behavior is akin to seeing how some people treat their children in public. If you’re as sensitive as I, you practically have to leave a store…and you’re on the verge of shaking. I now pity what a pediatrician in a low-cost clinic might experience on a daily basis. They probably only have enough time to address illness, and maybe a suspicious physical injury, but how much time do they have to address psychological pain? The conversation could skid out of hand with a parent…”Don’t tell me I don’t know how to raise children! Spare the rod, spoil the child!!”
I decided I would explain to all of the microphones shoved into my face, following me to my car that, yes, I will answer all of their questions in a sit-down interview as we watch the tape. There is not anything on the tape that I’m ashamed of.
In the interview, I would point out the things I already have, and I would also ask them to simultaneously roll footage that HAS made the news of “Groomers Gone Bad.” MY body language.
While you see a firm hold on some very loose skin that the breed is known for having, I’m not grabbing the neck itself. I am not shaking the dog and yelling at it. I am not hitting the dog or slamming it into a wall. I am attempting to get a firm hold that will, hopefully, temporarily suspend the dogs thrashing just long enough to get a small amount of work done.
I take breaks to ease the tension that is building. Tension only from an adrenaline producing situation. I am not mad at the dog. I will also show that we are petting the dog and trying to patiently work the clippers up the back of the dog where he is not reacting so that we can kind of sneak one tiny shave into the ‘red zone’ area.
I will show that even after being headbutted in the mouth, you do not see me seeking revenge. Contrast that scenario with the other videos. It is a different type of video. I would then probably ask to show video of how I normally approach training for dogs to cope with vet and grooming handling. I would show the process and the results.
I would conclude that, indeed, this is a worst case scenario–one that I don’t normally like to be involved in, which is why I have a different business. Grooming for the general public in which ground rules and philosophies are not shared is a risky proposition. It’s truly sad when a breed that is normally a fairly compliant, coaxable breed has gone nearly mad. I would have been less surprised by that particular type of behavior from a more traditionally feared-by-groomers breed such as a Chow. With Chows, groomers are usually more surprised when they meet a very sociable cooperative one that is not easily offended.
After thinking this through, I came away with a clear conscience. Not a happy one.
Additionally, I hope what I’m about to say next says it all for those who know how protective I am of my own dog and the extents to which I go for mine and any of those entrusted in my care. This is not exactly comparing apples to apples because my dog is unlikely to behave the same way, but let’s just suspend reality for a moment.
I would trust any of the people in my circle of associations of people who are as close to nearly completely positive reinforcement trainers as is humanly possible to handle my own dog in the exact, same manner in an emergency–screaming, biting, flailing, and all.
I would fully trust that they are only doing what is necessary and probably apologizing to him (Ranger) all the way. It would be upsetting to them. It should be upsetting. They would not gain pleasure from this or seek to teach him a lesson. They are only in survival mode and do not take the behavior personally.
They are not mad at the dog. Next, my dog would be in recovery mode and it would be a high priority for them to discuss and prepare a well-thought-out behavior modification plan that is based on building his confidence, lowering his fears, and wrapped up in a bow of cheers for his successes. These are the type of people and groups that I associate with.
I called on a few of them last night to help me through the night from a heavy heart. As is so true to the nature of this philosophy and the type of people that it tends to attract, they assured me that the context was a very tough one and that the dog was fortunate to have me as the one who must restrain it knowing that I don’t take the behavior personally.
With that, I look forward to more time spent in the helping realm than the survival realm for which I think I have sufficiently paid my dues over the past 30+ years. In my ideal world, we have a very, very low need for survival mode and that those who are involved in it are highly educated in stress awareness and the solid principles of Classical and Operant Conditioning and who are also actively engaged in continuing education as behavioral science evolves. They are people who are able to engage in discussions of the staple books in these realms (as well as having read outdated books that do not follow these principles).