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!!