Training vs. Beauty

By now you may have heard about the $1M dog. If I remember correctly, it was a dog that won a championship at a major show. I want to say it was a Chow. And I think it was purchased by someone in China. I should get off my duff and look up the exact details, but it isn’t really the point I want to make. I remember the first thing I thought when the story first hit the news and my non-dog fanatic friends exclaimed, “WOW! Did you hear that?” My response was, “It still needs to be trained. Without that, it’s worth about $1.” At least to me.

And what do I mean by trained? First and foremost, I want a temperamentally sound animal. That is, I want one that has been nicely socialized…even if I were in the market for a ‘protection dog.’ Especially if I were in the market for a protection dog. Having a dog that is ‘in their right mind’ is what I would want…more on that in an upcoming article that I am working on that I think a lot of you will be excited to read. I have a surprise guest interview I’ve been working on for a couple of months. Can’t wait to finish this!

Beyond this, it is truly amazing how much cache a dog can have with training. You can have a beauty of a dog who is so untrained as to be a nuisance (or one that is temperamentally very unsound) next to one with a whamo of a hairdo and no impressive pedigree. I’ll take the latter and turn it into the dog that everybody wants in pretty short order. Having grooming skills just allows me to top off the good manners and tricks, etc. with some pizazz. Truly amazing.

Were I simply to groom a dog into a very lovely coiffed showpiece, I AM likely to to get it adopted more quickly than being a matted mess, however, without the training, I am also likely to see the dog returned. Not good. Not good at all.

Here’s a real life example:

I inherited a sweet, fat, untrained Chi/Min Pin mix from my elderly father (the dog was a gift -another blog post for another day). He had no idea how to raise a puppy. She became, as my mother put it, the Helen Keller of dogs. She would run amok, scream at my father until he fed her from his plate. She defecated and urinated all over the 4-level house and furniture, had horrid separation anxiety, and would methodically chew up pieces of the furniture. Dad kept her on a tan harness and a purple leash and took her to the dog park a couple of times a day.

Meanwhile, my brother (also my father’s neighbor at the time) purchased a very expensive pet store Yorkie (yes, the dreaded pet store, sick variety). They paid an ungodly amount for her, spent gobs in grooming so that she would look just so (I lived in another state at the time) and gave her lots of bling, expensive carrying totes, fancy treats, dog condo…the works. She was a fashion item and substitute baby for his wife. (Don’t worry, they don’t know I have a blog. Yet. ha!)

The dog had never been socialized with outside people or dogs other than mine. She was never house trained (and at 10 years old, she still isn’t). She bit people she didn’t know and has recently started biting and drawing blood even from them. We live too far apart for me to work with her personally.

I trained the ‘boring’ tan dog (who they wouldn’t allow in their house due to “allergies”) to do all sorts of things and her status went through the roof. Decided to bling my new dog up a little as a reward for weight loss and doing a million good manners and cool tricks (to include pooping into a bag when I would open it and earning her CGC. Nice trick!) This dog was also exceptional with people and especially with children–a true behavioral find.

I splurged on a pink, italian leather with Swarovsky crystals harness and leash set, pink leather running shoes, and a set of Doggles glasses for the frying pan hot Palm Springs daytime streets. People literally stopped to take photos and video the day I bought her stuff (~$200+ worth).

Next thing you know, I got her involved with therapy dog and service dog work. This dog had adoption offers. You name it. The name Chi Chi became “Can she come over to visit? I love her!” Even my brother and wife forgot about their boycott of this dog and their allergies and would use full animation to exclaim, “Of course Chi Chi can come in!” (I was also became entrusted to care for their Yorkie. Later, I became the convenient daycare provider so they wouldn’t come home to a soiled home while running errands. Uh huh, you know how it goes.)

Unfortunately, Chi Chi is gone now, but I have had many moments filled with sobs after sweet encounters with people who were enchanted by a dog who would give them the attention that society often does not.

One encounter was especially memorable. We were riding the bus (she as my service dog for seizures). A mentally and physically disabled man was riding in his group. He had a crooked smile and shakiness to his body. He very politely leaned forward and asked, “May I pet your dog?” I was more than happy to say, “I think she would really like that. Please do.” He acted as though the Queen of England had invited him to lunch.

He stretched one single, shaky finger toward her. In response, she moved her head toward his hand and let her ears go very wide with gentleness and her big doe eyes. I have never seen someone take so much care in petting. As he pet, his mouth grew into the most incredibly wide smile. I could tell that her response to him made him feel important and loved. I tried not to let anyone see, but tears were squeezing out the sides of my eyes. Only after we de-boarded the bus at our stop did I allow myself to openly cry. I put myself in his position. His day is likely filled with routine. Society may or may not really “see” him (or want to) because of his disabilities, his abnormal appearance and physical limitations. This dog went far out of her way to see and accept him. How would you feel? I know it would make my day, at least! It would be an almost spiritual experience.

So, yes, after years of grooming, I am able to style a dog to make it stand out and get noticed. But, I am more proud of the knowledge, motivation, and ability to create a dog that is safe, fun, and makes others feel good. I am proud that people want the mixed breed that does amazing things. Sure, his coat looks great because he’s cute without my hand in it. The only question I am asked is “Where did you find such a smart dog?” The Humane Society. He was an accidental litter mix of anybody’s guess.

Sure he’s smart. They all are. I went far, far out of my way to teach him as many good social skills as possible. He’s more behaviorally challenged than Chi Chi, but he has home offers. He makes people laugh. He has short hair, so bathing is about the only thing I can do to maintain his pretty looks. But, yes, that training pushes an average dogs’ status far beyond what looks alone can do.

There are a lot of pretty dogs of every single breed sitting (or dying) in shelters. That’s what is wonderful about training–it is a controllable element. Beauty is a gift that is, to some degree, out of our hands.

Training truly levels the playing field.

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Will You Still Love Me, Tomorrow?

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?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“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).

Sara

What the…..?!? Mink oil dog shampoo.

6/22/12 Update: One one of my grooming forums, someone posted this information about mink oil alternatives. From Wikipedia:

“Mink oil is made from mink fat and originates from China. The fat that is made into this oil is stored just beneath the skin. Removed from pelts destined for the fur industry, the fat is rendered into mink oil.

Mink oil is a source of palmitoleic acid, which possesses physical properties similar to human sebum. Because of this, mink oil is used in several medical and cosmetic products. Mink oil is also used for treating/conditioning and preserving nearly all kinds of leather.

Botanical alternatives to mink oil as a source of palmitoleic acid include macadamia nut oil (Macadamia integrifolia) and sea buckthorn oil (Hippophae rhamnoides), both of which contain a larger percentage of palmitoleic acid (22 and 40% respectively) than does mink oil (17%).

‘Mink oil and its fatty acids are unique among animal-derived fats and oils. The total unsaturated fatty acids in mink oil account for more than 75% of the fatty acid content, but the oil, nevertheless, has a greater oxidative stability (resistance to rancidity)… than other animal or vegetable oils.'”

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I have a bee under my bonnet about something: The use of mink in products.

Saturday is the second tradeshow I have gone to where there is a company called “Touch of Mink” that is fairly pushy about their product (at least to me). They ask to take your hand and do a demo on it.

I tried to ask the obvious, “Mink?” Really?” Truthfully, I thought the fur industry was long gone by now. But they are so confident that I thought maybe they were going to tell me that there is a new ‘dolphin cruelty free tuna’ method of obtaining mink oil that I will be thrilled with.

At the first show (a pet event), a young  girl excitedly told me that the products are primarily used for burn victims, etc., etc. I still felt a little nervous, but didn’t want to be rude by asking for specifics and putting anyone on the spot. So, I went home and Googled. To my surprise, Utah (my 2nd home) is a major mink producer. What?! No!

My second surprise was that mink “by products” are used in dog food. Tell me this is incorrect. Apparently, the mink industry is alive and well. Who is buying and wearing mink coats anymore??? I wouldn’t dare. Sure, our mothers had them, but it just isn’t done anymore.

So, I read further and found that mink ‘ranchers’ are a die hard bunch. “How else are we going to make a living? We’ve been doing it for generations!” they were quoted as saying in news articles in response to an apparent series of raids that animal activists were doing in Utah. The activists were ‘liberating’ the mink from their cages. That’s another post for another day with the exception being that *I* have had to change careers out of necessity. It can be *did,* especially over the time period of ‘generations.’

My second tradeshow was last weekend. It was a craft and sewing show. Guess who? Touch of Mink. Again, I tried to avoid, but they called me over and, again, wanted my hand. I decided to stop and have a conversation with a more mature woman (ahem–someone my age). This was a more interesting talk because she was full of answers, even one that might be complete horse feathers. You let me know.

So, I dared to ask, “So, mink huh?” I think they are ready for people who are less questioning. Strategy 1: Re-direct. Show how amazing your skin will feel. Explain the full line of products. Do a demo.

Strategy 2: For the person who very gently presses the issue. “So, what about the mink? Is this still being done?” Launch into a hazy, Disney-fied vision using words like “by products, “these are *ranched* animals.” Does this make a difference? Because, in a way it almost makes it seem even “wronger.” I’m possibly not educated enough on the subject to have an intelligent conversation, but if there was an overpopulation of, say, rabbit or deer, then it could be argued that is a smart use of an animal that is going to be hunted/extinguished anyhow. But, to purposely breed to kill? Well, that question is one that definitely drives people into their corners on a daily basis, no doubt about that. Stay with me…

For the person who presses even further (that would be me, but I didn’t give a disapproving face, just gentle questions)

“Is it, you know, humane? These are questions my customers and friends will ask and I kind of need to know before I could promote. It does sound like it does amazing things.”

This got me into ‘testy’ territory.

“Are you a vegetarian?”

“No.”

“Well, there you go.” (Said with a cranky, impatient look.)

??? What kind of answer is that? Honestly, I did not ask the questions in a way that was aggressive. She was still holding my hand in her cleansing water. I was just a curious consumer willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. (And, p.s., YOU ARE THE ONE THAT CALLED ME OVER LIKE A CARNIE AND INSISTED ON SHOVING MY HAND INTO YOUR PRODUCT.)

It was a sudden switch from exuberant salesperson to me being a problem. Now we were getting to the nitty gritty. Vegetarian vs. Non-Vegatarian is something we all have to weigh in on personally, but straight answers were what I was going for. Any company who sells mink products would HAVE to expect that a product like this (and perhaps, horse/cat/dog meat as well) is going to raise questions from any semi-intelligent person, or at least the average American? Those are meats that we, as a culture, don’t accept very well.

They especially need to anticipate questions from business people from whom they might want to retail and/or recommend the products. Is this how I’m supposed to respond to questions from my own clients? A company that is proud and confident about their product will have nailed this sensitive topic down.

Question that I wanted to ask but didn’t dare: “So, if the oil is super important for the medical profession, how is there any left over for non-essential products such as body lotions and especially pet shampoos? We have amazing plant-based products already that do a superb job.  Is the mink industry struggling and/or greedy and just trying to create a demand? (Personal note: In all honesty, if I had a child with a severe burn or bite and the sacrifice of a mink would heal this better than any product known to man, I would justify its use. I would thank the animal profusely and apologize and be very grateful. I know, I did just stray into my own personal “Sophie”s Choice” terrain. Let me try to steer us back on track.)

Next question asked quietly and respectfully, “So, um, how *is* the oil obtained from the animal?”

“Let me tell you something. These animals are treated VERY well. Because if you have unhappy mink, they do not grow beautiful coats.”

(Gulp.) Uh oh. Looks like we were getting away from the main purpose of the animal being a medical wonder. Now she’s admitting to fur mining? Don’t think I like where this is going. I kind of next anticipated some kind of reverse argument that goes like this: “Well, if we’re ranching mink for medically necessary purposes anyhow, then why let the pelt go to waste? Use every part of the animal and make sure it is salable.” Even that could be a fairly strong persuasive argument if I wanted to be on “Team Mink.”

“So, the animal is *not* alive then.”

“No, the animal is alive! They remove the fat between the pelt and the body.”

“Oh, so the animal is alive while they extract the oil?”

“Yes.”

“They don’t need to kill the mink to harvest their oil?” (In the farthest reaches of my brain, I was imagining something akin to squeezing of a dog’s anal glands. Gross, but…well, doable.)

“No. Again, they remove the fat from between the meat and the pelt.”

“Ok, I see. ‘Pelt’ just sounds like something that is not alive.” (I don’t refer to the stuff on my dog as a pelt, but as fur.)

“Yes, it’s alive.”

“Wonder how they get the oil from that? A needle into the coat?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what they do.” (My mind is now picturing something akin to liposuction on a mink.)

“Wow! That’s great and really interesting!!”

“Yes, don’t you love how your skin feels? Can you tell a difference between this hand and that hand? Mink oil is so much like our own skin oil that you can literally put a drop in your eye and it will not hurt.” (And back to all of the benefits of their products and which ones would I like to purchase today.)

“Do you have anything I can rea..?”

Before I can finish my sentence, she slaps a handout into my hand. “Yes, you can read all about it on our website. It’s all there.” And, she’s off. I presumed that I was time wasted. This is short sighted. Slap a free sample in my hand, get my contact information because if what you’re telling me is correct and harmless then I *will* order a superior product. This is how I came upon the products I rely on to this day. I will even make sure you get the commission. But, if I am treated like this *before* the sale, I am reasonably confident I will be treated with less regard after.

So, I just took the brochure and just now visited the website. Guess what is not there that you would think would be THE first question posed and answered in the FAQs?

Oh, it’s answered, and here is the official answer. The saleswoman tried to fill my head with sweet eclair cream. Mink oil is NOT obtained from live animals. According to their own website what she told me with a straight face was a blatant lie. It’s one thing to offer a product and just be honest and confident, but it is entirely another thing to fabricate something so outrageous to make a sale…a sale to a potential retailer who would then be lying (and embarrassing themselves and potentially angering customers who think I am lying to them) to their customers who rely on professionals to do their homework. “Disappointed” is the nicest word I can use to describe how I feel about this person and the company.

Another thing is that the company only mentions that this oil is used incidentally in the medical community; it doesn’t present it as being so necessary that we need to ranch mink over the whole thing. The main use for a mink, apparently, is still for vanity: Fur. And, what the heck? Sell the meat to dog food manufacturers.

Here’s the link and here’s their official information: Notice that it does not even mention the medical industry.

Touch of Mink Blog

“Mink oil is a by product of the fur and pet food industry. Minks are farmed here in the United States just as any other ranched animals: chickens for meat and feathers, geese for down for pillows and blankets, cows for meat and leather products. The mink meat is used for dog and pet food, the fur industry uses the pelts and we buy the fat and oil which would otherwise be destroyed in our landfills.  It is then sent to a Texas A & M University lab and filtered through a process to remove impurities and deodorize the oil.”

And here’s another relevant quote from their “About Us” page.

“All of us at Touch of Mink are encouraged and expected to promote integrity, honesty, respect and a professional relationship with everyone we come in contact with, especially our customers. We hope your use of our Touch of Mink products brings you healthy and younger looking skin for many years!”

I did ask her which dog food manufacturers use mink. She responded, “Almost all of them. They won’t list it as such, however, it will just be identified as “bone meal” because the public won’t tolerate seeing “mink” listed as an ingredient.”

Hmm…Whole Dog Journal, are you reading?

So, she IS aware of the controversy.

Unless someone can really convince me to see this another way or that she didn’t lie through the roof, I can’t support this. I’m pretty tolerant, but a major lie is unacceptable to me, unethical, disrespectful, unprofessional, and just really makes me mad. Your thoughts?

Update: I did email a link to this blog entry directly to the company and invited them to come here and leave a response. If they respond via email, I will post that as well. I also sent an invitation to Whole Dog Journal to read and review.

Daring to Be Unpopular (Part II)

Part II is coming after a long walk with my own dog. I want to take a turn in the discussion for a moment while the material is still fresh in my mind.

How is is that in my late 40s that this topic is still a familiar problem for me…especially as it relates to dog grooming? I think I have some answers, and I hope to wind this post up with solutions as well as tell you “the rest of the story” (ala the late, great Paul Harvey).

Some of the ways that I get into these difficult grooming situations again and again probably arise from several factors that other animal workers can relate to; some may only be particular to me:

Flattery

“I heard that you are a good (groomer, trainer, dogsitter…).”

“You were referred to me by (someone I like or admire and don’t want to let down)…”

Compassion and Marketing

“I just rescued this dog from (somewhere) and they recommended that I bring him/her to you.” (Word of mouth advertising…isn’t that what everyone seeks?)

Pressure

  • Financial — dependent on income from grooming, walking, sitting, training, etc.
  • Employer–expected to get the job done
  • Precedence–This is a biggie that can really make me sweat with anxiety. I have done the job before.
  • Time–it takes time to explain policy and philosophies. Easier to just take a dog in and get the job done.
  • Shock–“How much do you charge for training?!”
  • Unrealistic Expectations–“My dog is really good.” (The dog isn’t–the person is in denial or ignorant.) I have to be the one to tell them the truth…I am the bad guy. I long for the days when I was rewarded for lying (“Here you go! She’s such a sweetie, petey pie! See you next month!” “How was she? Well, she’s not super crazy about getting her toenails done, you know, but she’s such a cutie petutey. Who loves you?” after a crazy battle where you wish you never had to see the dog again. The cute bow makes it look as though the whole thing never happened.)

Familiarity/Relationships

Neighbor, co-worker, acquaintance, etc., “I just got a dog! I want you to work with him.”

I am sure there are many more, but those are just off the top of my head.

Here are very typical scenarios:

A groomer works for an employer (small or large). The employer wants revenue; the employee needs a job. The customer is someone they do not want to offend. This is a setup for not-very-good things to happen.

What happens when you get a dog in that does not want to hold still? They are not biting, but they are making your job as a groomer beyond physically exhausting? Tell the boss you can’t do the dog? Tell the owner you can’t do the dog? Or simply grin and bear it? The latter is usually the route groomers are very often forced to take. They don’t want to become “the problem.”

Often, as in my case, I was young and didn’t have other skills to fall back on. I needed the money. It is desirable for employment purposes to be the one who can be relied upon to “get the job done.”

By the end of a day, it is too tiring to even have a conversation with an owner because a groomer may be in the middle of trying to get five other dogs finished. A lengthy conversation about behavior is just not practical. Calling an owner mid grooming to inform them that their dog cannot be groomed is just as painful of a conversation. Owners get mad, wouldn’t you?

Grooming salon owners aren’t always groomers. They often have no idea just how difficult and demanding the job is until they get their hands into the project themselves. I’ve seen more than one would-be owner/groomer decide to learn how to groom and find that they will charge double the rate they were expecting the employee to normally be paid because it was “extra hard and time consuming” if not “dangerous.”

The employer would like all of the business in the area; they have rent to pay and profit (and sometimes shareholders) to make. The concept is inherently flawed for one reason: Dogs are on their own time schedules. They do not appreciate the bigger picture as to why they should cooperate.

So, where does that leave the profession?

Currently, there is legislation to require that groomers become licensed.

In my opinion (of which I haven’t had until today), this addresses part of the problem. It possibly addresses the most basic issue of how to handle a dog safely. That is, it addresses how to handle a “good” dog safely.

If a person sends their poodle to a groomer to have a haircut and the dog really is a good dog who will just stand there for handling, it is reasonable to expect that the dog will not get cut, burned, or a really bum haircut.

However, what is not taught in grooming school (or much in apprenticing) is what to do when a dog frustrates a groomer. This is where most ‘intentional’ injuries probably occur.

The dog is fidgety and dancey on the table.

It may be cute and seemingly harmless until you are spending 1/2 – an hour of unpaid time to have the patience to trim the face of a dog who is whirling its head around every time you approach it with scissors. The face is important. It is the first thing a customer will notice when they see their dog. If the face isn’t right, the customer will likely accuse you of being a terrible stylist.

If you show them in person what the problem is and the owner steps inside your salon to help hold their dog still, usually they will hold the dog absolutely still and be covering the dog with their arms so that you cannot even access the part you need to scissor. You are now forced to try to scissor the dog with shears right next to the owner’s face.

Predictably, the dog will jerk wildly and surprise the owner who will nearly move right into your scissors. It is very dangerous. Again, they will conclude that you are a terrible groomer. They will not conclude that they need to pay you more.

At this point, a discussion about training just seems impractical to an owner. After all…they are just here for a haircut. Their dog is an otherwise “good dog,” right? And there begins the slippery slope for a groomer of just sucking it up, smiling, taking payment, and starting to mutter at dogs “Hold still. Stop. Stop. STOP IT!!!” and jerking on the dog.

Okay, so you probably get the picture. And, outsiders might be likely to say, “Well, you’re the one who chose your profession!”

My answer: Unfortunately (and, sometimes fortunately)…yes. You are right.

My other answer is: And you chose to have a dog. It’s time for your education and involvement as well. I cannot/will not lie to you anymore. I will assume the financial losses (or gains) from this decision. I might lose you as a client. I won’t, however, let the dog down.

Solutions:

I seek a win/win for all.

What I want: Every dog to behave well on the table. I want each dog to be “teachers pet;” to set them up for a lifetime of good handling by anyone who handles them. Isn’t that really the kindest thing we can do as pet owners? I want my dog to be the first one to be adopted if something were to happen to me.

    What I am willing to do:

  • Notify current and/or potential clients about the way that I work. I will groom good dogs…only.
  • If there dog is not a good dog and they are open to suggestions, I will direct them to the best resources. I hope to be considered to be one of those good sources.
  • I will find other means of income and let grooming become a hobby; no more struggling with dogs because I need to meet my financial needs.
  • I welcome any tests or certifications. I will be proud to pass them.
  • I will overcome my shyness and dare to teach.

Daring to Be Unpopular (Part I)

I have a confession. Well, I have many, but I’ll just focus on one for this entry. Here it is in all of its nakedness. (Deep breath)

I would rather do something unethical than to not be liked.

Wait, no…I don’t think that’s it. Let me try again and really nail it down.

I hate conflict. And sometimes I would rather let myself get walked on than tell someone something that I know they are not going to like to hear.

That’s pretty close, I think. Here is another truism about me:

I am HORRIBLE at delivering bad news.

And so this morning’s topic is about a very, very difficult conversation I just had at 8 a.m. I said what had to be said and it turned out to be one of the best experiences ever. And, no, I did not cave to the person, and no, they probably won’t come back. No, we did not get into an argument. I just stood firm.

So, I had a grooming appointment today with a dog that is a violent biter. I have worked with the client in the past and have been willing to try to help his dog that has a long coat that must be groomed.

The dog is a rescue with an unknown history. His biting is unpredictable and even getting a muzzle on the dog has proven to be dangerous and unreliable. Out of compassion, I had originally agreed to try to help the dog. But, the pattern was soon set. The owner has not invested the time nor the effort to seek out training for the dog.

And before I berate the owner, let me say that I understand. Our pets are a very personal topic to most of us. We are attached and we have our reasons why we do or do not do something.

I chose training and I see that it works. It has taken a lot of time, effort, reading, workshops, etc. to understand more complicated topics associated with training. This dog happens to fall into the “advanced” category, just as handling a wild animal would.

The word “dog” by itself connotes “easy” because we are familiar with the domesticated animal. However, when a dog has serious behavioral issues, it is difficult for most of us to accept that our named and loved pet now needs to be re-categorized as “liability” and “not for the novice.” After all, this dog is still good ‘ole “Spot” to us.

It has taken me several years to be clear about this.

I transitioned from grooming to training a number of years back. I then began to specialize in both grooming and training. So many behavioral issues arise when a dog is being groomed. You see the best and worst because the dog is being subjected to some often, stressful things that will put the dog to the test.

With as much experience and knowledge as I have in both realms, I STILL have a tendency to get into the zone as a groomer. I become task oriented and obsessed with achieving a great-looking haircut. This goal is often at odds with a dog that is behaviorally challenged. By ignoring the behavioral needs of the dog, I am not doing the dog a favor by insisting that I get its haircut just so.

I’ve had to make a decision. Which is more important? The haircut or the experience for the dog.

When I’m away from the grooming table, I would answer “the dog’s experience” of course. When I’m in the middle of a haircut, it’s very difficult to “let it go” and send the dog home half shaved if need be. I hope and think there will be groomers who follow me in the future who will not struggle with this as much as I do; that they will be able to put the scissors down and have the difficult conversations with dog owners with more confidence and finesse than I am able. That is what I hope to teach and inspire in any of my students. For whatever reasons, I am a wimp inside and very much a people pleaser. I admire people who don’t struggle the way I do. Personally, I get a stomachache when interpersonal conflicts are concerned. It’s probably why I do gravitate toward working with animals. It is cliche.

Where was I? Yes, today’s appointment that I cancelled.

Thanks to a late-night call from someone I work with (I’ll not name him/her in case they don’t care to be identified), I was told that the dog/owner and my working with them the way I have in the past presents a legal liability and that they would prefer that I cancel the appointment. We talked about alternative options for the owner–all of which are expensive and time consuming.

In my mind, I was hearing “BUT HE GAVE ME A $45 CHRISTMAS CHECK THAT HE HAND DELIVERED!!”

Sure I always cringe and dread our upcoming appointments. Sure, I wonder if this will be the day that one of us finally gets bitten (hard). But, how do I fire a ‘nice’ client? How do I? How do I?! I’m supposed to offer attractive alternatives. I DO NOT WANT TO HAVE THIS CONVERSATION! Especially on the morning of his appointment. I AM GOING TO LET SOMEONE DOWN. I AM GOING TO RUIN THEIR DAY. THEY WILL NOT LIKE ME.

Foxtails

It’s about that time. Foxtails are blooming. They are currently green in color, but they are starting to dry out to a wheat color. And when they do become dry they become a real danger to your pets.

Ever stuck your finger into the little holes of a Swiffer then you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s a one-way kind of deal. Those little teeth allow you to push them inward, but resist letting you get your finger unstuck. Ouch.

That’s exactly what foxtails do. They travel in one direction and they just keep on going.

As a groomer, some of the worst (and most common) cases I have ever seen are when foxtails go into the fur between the pads of a dog’s foot, then travel all the way through the foot to emerge from the other side. As you can imagine, this is very painful. Yet, pets have been brought to me in a matted state and the owners’ were not even aware that there was a problem.

In addition to pain and the possibility of infection, foxtails can also just as easily get lodged into your dog’s ear and or inside of his nose. I’m not sure what could specifically happen if a foxtail is capable of traveling up through soft tissue into your dog’s head, but I’m certain in cannot be good.

When I was young, our dog got one in his ear and we had to have it surgically removed. As I recall, the symptoms were constant head shaking. With a foxtail in the nose, I would imagine that some of the indications would be sneezing and/or rubbing of the nose, and possibly in a worst-case scenario blood coming from the nose.

If you suspect that you dog has a foxtail lodged in his/her nose, do go to your vet to have them ‘scoped.’ Your dog will likely need to be put under anesthesia to have this done.

With my current dog, I had worked on having him hold his head steady in my chin for examinations. Financially, this turned out to be a good use of my time. My dog, Ranger, was acting like he might have gotten a foxtail into his ear. Instead of requiring anesthesia, I was able to have him hold so steady that they were able to scope him very quickly. The cost? A whopping $30.

Stay safe out there!

Apology to Abby

What better way to begin blogging than to start with an apology…to a Basset Hound named Abby?

I woke up this morning with a heavy heart and I’m doing what I usually do when something either bothers or excites me (and don’t dare call anyone at 5:30 a.m.): I write.

Yesterday, I violated every principle that I founded West Coast Pets upon: I caused pain to a dog and forced her to endure a procedure (toenail clipping) even though she was clearly (CLEARLY) terrified about it. I took advantage of her good nature not to bite me. Instead, she kicked and screamed. I caused trauma and violated any trust she had in me.

Veterinarians and groomers may read this, laugh, and shake their heads.  My good friends and colleagues may read this and “unfriend” me.  I only have myself to answer to–that self is far more critical. Then there’s my own dog–I answer to him more than to any God. Dramatic writing? I hope so.

I have gained the trust in my closest circle of positive reinforcement training friends to handle my own and their pets with the most advanced, humane techniques known I have set the bar for myself much higher than most pet owners do, on purpose. I want to be different. I want to be extreme. It’s not about me; it’s about them. I hope that taking this stance is infectious and spreads to other caretakers of animals.

What is positive reinforcement training? Rather than provide a full explanation here that has been written about extensively in many books by some of the best I will keep the focus on Abby.

However, check my website in the future as I try to condense the subject for beginners to break it down into enticing bites. If you’re more ambitious, try reading “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor or visit her website http://www.clickertraining.com. Do you have a background in psychology? Pull out your textbooks and refer to Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.

In short, I spend an unimaginable amount of time training animals to accept unpleasant procedures using gifts and rewards for good behavior rather than forcing them to tolerate things that frighten and more deeply entrench their reactions. I’m trying to set them up for a lifetime of good treatment by anyone who must handle them.

So, what were the factors that would lead me to owing Abby an apology?

  • Pressure.
  • Lack of a written policy.
  • Assumptions about typical owners.

I’ll integrate all of these into an ideal scenario.

Someone hears about “The Great Saratini” in San Diego. The Ms. Doolittle of her small world.   If you know me, you would know this is pure sarcasm…my dorky idea of humor.  Sometimes I think I receive a little too much credit from people. The credit goes to the real stars, the teachers and researchers who developed these techniques as well as the heroes who are the animals themselves. I remind myself daily that it is a gift and a privilege to get to work with and/or care for them–not the other way around.

So, based on a recommend (or maybe a pet owner has simply heard that I “groom dogs”) someone decides to call me and set an appointment to have their dog groomed.  If this dog and their person know about positive reinforcement methods and my commitment to them, no problem. We take the time to set the environment and proceed in a way that provides maximum benefits for their pet.

If not, I am currently in a dilemma. The average person who takes their pet to a groomer expects low cost and fast service. They may not even realize what happens to their dog or cat after they leave a salon, vet, kennel, etc. Explaining what I do, in detail requires a lot of wind. I want to be nice. I don’t want to disappoint. And that’s how I ended up letting Abby down.

So, back to my ideal scenario.

Phone: Ring, Ring.

“West Coast Pets may I help you?”

“Is this the real owner of Ranger? I’ve heard so much about him!”

“Why, yes it is. I’ll let him know he has another fan. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Well, I’ve heard that he shacks up with a gal named Sara who incidentally knows how to cut and shape fur, trim toenails and the like and that she uses fully positive methods to achieve this. I read her website thoroughly and understand that this approach takes some time and is more costly initially than just going to a regular groomer who is often under intense pressure to groom as many dogs in a day as they can. In order to do so they may crate dogs for, sometimes, an entire day and force them to cooperate…or else.

“Yes, that’s true. Anything else today, Sir?”

“Yes, I have read her website and am prepared to do what it takes to help my dog. I would like to stay and watch and, perhaps, work alongside her to train my dog as she works. Is this allowed?”

“Oh! Well, this is Sara and I am very pleased that you called and are prepared to go the distance. Yes, I know how to groom dogs and cats…it’s a nifty talent and obsession skill . I apply science-based training techniques to help dogs  handle things that normally might make it uncomfortable for them and/or dangerous for a handler.”

“Great. I would like to schedule 4 appointments and see how it goes.”

“My pleasure. The first appointment is 2 hours long–I use the time to become acquainted with your pet and to assess what approach to take and answer questions. I will try to teach your dog a new handling-related behavior (such as offering their paw for sanding toenails). The second appointment is where I normally expect to see the pet voluntarily offering the behavior I have taught. Appointments 3 and 4 are where we practice and make bring it all home to, hopefully, solidify the new conditioned responses and behaviors so that your dog is confident and comfortable.”

“And I can watch?”

“In person and in real time.”

“Goody. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Neither would I.  $425 is the total cost.”

“A bargain. Book me.”

A more real-life scenario.

“Hi, can I book a grooming appt? My neighbor says you groom dogs. I heard you’re cheap.”

“Uh…”

If I’m lucky, it’s somewhere in the middle or better.

So, what about Abby?

Abby’s sweet human came to me after adopting her new little malti-poo, Brady.  A long-time client and friend told her about my very first grooming clinic. At the clinic, she scheduled an appointment for her other dog, Abby, to come in for a nail trim.

How much does it cost? $10/nails. $12 if I use the Dremel. That’s the short answer, which is what I normally only have time for. The caveat is that these are the prices for dogs who can cooperate.

What do I need to do for the real scenario to become my ideal scenario?

1. Prepared materials. I need to take the time to finish my website and create a handout about the philosophy, methods, and policies of West Coast Pets. I think it is now writing itself as I type.

2. Resist assumptions. Abby came in. She was nervous. My first mistake–I made the assumption that her owner wanted the job done quickly and cheaply and that if I told her about my business that she would think it was all a bunch of hyped-up, overpriced tosh.

3. Resist pressure. I have prepared myself that West Coast Pets may only have one customer–my own dog. If the company survives, then a)  it’s a selfish win for me.

What?!

I’ve concluded that I’m nearly unemployable in traditional office environments because I’m usually crying inside from boredom or frustration or having a panic reaction to interpersonal politics.

I have always envied, yet never understood how a person could arrive at work looking fresh, bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to work. How come they aren’t as gripey and resentful as I?

They arrive early, aren’t trying to avoid their job, and stay late. How come they stay until the job is done and actually care? I’m usually pretty good at whatever job I’m given, it’s just that, for some reason, I am not invested and am clearly more motivated by “the stick” than “the carrot.”

Doing what I do best is very selfish. I love it. I feel guilty (and so grateful) admitting that I’m having fun. I’ve assumed that everyone would want my job. Surprisingly not. Often clients remark, “Oh, I just do NOT have the patience for that.” Really? Yay! I guess I’m that ideal employee when put in an environment that is like running in a field of bon bons for me.

How is it that I have endless patience to wait for desired animal behavior or can fixate on trying to get one piece of fur trimmed ‘just so’ and, yet, enduring a corporate meeting to celebrate the details of a quarterly success can prompt me to call a doctor to find out just what in the heck is wrong with me?

b) Luckily, for the animals, this fascination benefits them.

So, what about Abby?

I pulled out a pair of clippers and Abby certainly reacted…by screaming. I hadn’t even taken a hold of her foot yet! The argument goes, if she’s screaming anyhow and I haven’t even hurt her, how about if we just ‘go for it’? She screams in protest and I’ll quickly and carefully clip.

Well, the result of that was that Abby became a wild 70+ lb. animal who was screaming, kicking, and pulling. Unfortunately, I’ve had previous experience with wrestling animals in my youth. It came naturally to me to engage in a struggle with the resolve to ‘win.’ It’s seductive and addicting.

I got on the floor and had her in a tight hold. If you were standing outside you would have heard a heck of a racket. Her toenails? Still extra long. No, we didn’t accomplish a thing. Just holding, screaming, and when I’d try to get the clipper onto her toenail, she had an amazing ability to kick it out backwards and make it impossible to get the clip.

If I HAD been able to clip, most likely I would have cut straight into her quick causing her pain and bleeding…which would lead to, guess what? Less cooperation, more fear, and a future of more struggling (hopefully).

Why hopefully? Because I would almost rather see the animal keep up the fight than to become crushed and defeated. I may live to regret those words. I’ll think about them some more, but some of the most difficult animals to help are those who are so shut down from defeat that they are barely trainable with rewards.

Her struggling, in some ways, shows that she is still very alive and persistent. This is smart! It may be that this very dog escapes in the event of a fire. She doesn’t accept defeat.

If I’m lucky, I can direct this persistence in a way that benefits her.

To my small credit. I know when to stop. And stop I did. Almost any grooming shop will charge a small amount to get the job done. And they will…even if it takes 3 people to muzzle, scold, and hold down even a dog as small as a Pomeranian during a full-out battle of the wills. They may also give up and recommend that an owner take the dog to a vet to be anesthetized for such a simple procedure.  This is hard on an animal and very costly. Imagine doing this monthly!

Usually what happens though is that the owner gives up and the nails grow long again. If professionals give up and/or get scared, the owners are normally even less confident to do the job themselves when they experience the struggle and/or cause their dog to bleed.

Who suffers? The dog. Long toenails are literally crippling to an animal. It forces their toes to bend sideways when they walk. Still other toenails will curl around and grow right back into the skin.  I have had countless experiences of digging a toenail out of a dog’s own skin.  Unhappy face.  😦

As an update to the story, Abby just came in for her first lesson this morning. We filmed her and I am so pleased with the results! She will be coming in tomorrow morning again for her follow-up training appt. I can’t wait to review the film footage and post the results to my website.

That darned website!!! Yes, I could have had a website up and running by now, but I’m such a perfectionist in some ways that I it isn’t ready because I’m insisting on building it myself using purely a CSS model, created by me from scratch (tech nerds know what I’m talking aboud).

So, the website gets updated as I plow my way through a complicated “How To” CSS book.

Thank you, Abby for giving me another chance. I’m publishing this article, your film footage, and then challenging myself to write a “West Coast Pets” grooming policy that clearly outlines the process and the costs. Thank you for helping me to get it right.

Where does all that ‘extra’ money go? Right back into the business. It also goes toward free things that I offer to the community to include: A free class to educate people about the differences between positive and punishment based techniques…how to tell the difference.

I’m writing how-to instructions for teaching dogs to detect low-blood-sugar to, hopefully, prevent the “dead in bed” syndrome known to diabetics. I think this needs to be widely available and free (or nearly free).

Sometimes I simply have to give free services where I see a need.  Having lived in a trailer park, I have seen that nearly every RV owner has a pet. So often these are people who cannot afford training at all, let alone advanced trainers who go above and beyond. I simply hate to watch these animals get traumatized on a daily basis for “being bad.”

Also, to provide the best of the best (hopefully), I constantly challenge myself to read, attend lectures, achieve titles, etc., etc., which is far more costly than just using the old force and punishment methods, which are completely intuitive.

So, thank you, thank you, thank you for reading. Thank you , Abby for coming back in and giving it another go. You are one smart cookie and a good example of showing us humans a thing or two about forgiveness.

Thanks for helping me to do better. It’s a process to find an effective way to resist pressure and, even better, to find a way to turn it around

Sara

West Coast Pets

San Diego, CA

http://www.westcoastpets.net

p.s. Stay tuned for Abby’s video!!