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.

Ranger explains “Intermittent Reinforcement”

I usually struggle with to how to explain the concept of “Intermittent Reinforcement” in a way that is simple to understand. Ranger said he could do it. What the…? <shrug> I have no idea, but I’m too tired to question it. With that, I give you Ranger…the dog.

Hi, Ranger here. In yo face! Hee Hee

<“Ranger, you’d better be writing.”>

Intermittent Reinforcement should be called “Playing Wolf.” RrRrraR! I like it for obvious reasons, but also I don’t know what those other big words mean. This is how I use it with Mommmeeee.

<“Use my real name, please.”>

I love Mommy  Sara, but at night she does something that I don’t really like, so I decided to train her to do what I like her to do instead.

I like to sleep right next to her under the covers and in the middle of the bed. But when she sleeps she moves around a lot: Sometimes she moves so much that she kicks me and I fall out of bed. And then she doesn’t wake up or move over so that I can get back in. So, this is how I trained her.

If Sara knows that I need to go outside to use the potty, she will get out of bed to open the door. This has always been a big deal to her.  She might even still be asleep when she gets up, but she always gets up. It’s perfect for me because when I come back inside, I can zoom in and get back my spot in the bed.

I let her know I need to go outside by scratching on our front door. And, even though I’m not a puppy who doesn’t know better than to potty inside the house anymore, she still always says “Good Boy, Ranger” and then lets me get right back into bed where I like to be.

But, when I get pushed out of bed, Mommy doesn’t wake up or move out of the way so that I can get back in. So, I tried pretending that I have to go potty. I walked to the door and scratched. She got out of bed and opened it. It worked!!! Instead of going outside, I zoomed back to the bed and got back into my spot. tricked her and it worked! She laughed too ( “Very clever, Ranger”). I like making her laugh.

So, I started tricking her a lot. One time I tricked her 4 times in a night. HeeHee! Then Mommy seemed kind of mad. Instead of laughing, she said “Hey, what are you doing? I’m asleep. Stop playing games.” I didn’t want to play games either.  I was super tired too, but I wanted her to move over so that I don’t end up on the cold floor!

I thought she would understand, but then Mommy started doing something new that I didn’t like. I would scratch at the door like I always do and then…she stopped getting out of bed at all! She said, “Go to bed.” and “Stop it!” I couldn’t believe it. It made me sad.

Then one time I really DID have to go to the bathroom. But, when I scratched, she didn’t get up. That’s our signal, and it didn’t work. But, I REALLY HAD TO GO! I didn’t know what else to do, so I scratched nicely again. But, she just kept sleeping–she didn’t even yell anymore. I almost went potty in my pants, so I decided to show her how badly I needed to go. I scratched really loud and hard on the door and I didn’t stop. And you know what? Mommy got up to see what was going on.

“What’s going on?!”, she hollered.

She walked over to the door and opened it. I ran outside as fast as I could and Mommy(oops, Sara) said, “Oh, you really did have to go out! I thought you were just crying wolf again.” When I came in, she said, “Goodness. I’m sorry. I love you so much. Thank you for letting me know that you needed to go out. Ok, get into bed. Nighty Night.” She hugged me.

So, crying wolf by pretending that I needed to go outside backfired on me. She ignored me. But, when I sometimes go out, she is happy. So, I decided that sometimes I’d better go outside and at least try to go potty so that she continues to make an effort to go to the door and then even hug me. Sometimes when I fake and run back to the bed she sounds sort of mad, but I need to get back in too! So, the secret is that I keep her guessing.  And it works every, single time!

She calls it “)*#!!! Intermittant Reinforcement.” I call it “Teaching.”

Post Script by Sara: Thank you, Ranger. It really does make the concept of Intermittent Reinforcement crystal clear for me now. And you are now giving me new ideas about how to motivate you to do a few things I’ve been meaning to work on with you as well. But first, I’m ordering a new, bigger bed.