Anybody care to guess why I think this is my dog’s favorite day of the week? ūüėČ

Happy Wednesday, everybody! May there be more Wednesdays than Mondays.


Body Language. You have to see this.

Today is a lesson about the importance of understanding dog body language. Watch the video once, then watch it again. Stop the video frequently. Observe.

I’ll add my comments as well as some from trainers from my Facebook groups. More comments are welcome.

  • Initial shake as the person entered the room. Referred to as “Calming Signals.”
  • Tempting even for me, but the first thing she does is lean over the dog.
  • She immediately starts invading his body and it becomes more still. She pets over the top of his head and all the way down his back. His expression changes and the tail drops.
  • Famous last words from bystander, “I’m a good boy. There’s nothing wrong with me.” If she’s doing an evaluation, this is supposed to be a careful test scenario, not one where you say the good words in hopes that it will make it so. Does that make sense?
  • The tech is rubbing the dog fast and furious. This was my comment on Facebook. “One thing beyond body language that I noticed b/c of my own dog. I don’t think my dog enjoys being rubbed fast, furious, and continuously like that. Not with the head, not with the ears. I was cringing. He will lean into a person, even come back for more, and roll on his back even if someone is doing that, but I see the difference in his face. If someone is petting more slowly and carefully, he has a big smiley smile on. The other kind of petting gives him a similar kind of expression on his face. If annoyed, however, my dog is more likely to try to escape at all costs.”
  • Stiffened body.
  • The obvious growl and barking that is dismissed as just “talking.”
  • I would have to watch again, but I thought I was seeing a pretty hard stare when he was barking at her.
  • Fast, hard eye blinking. When my dog is being pet in the way he likes, his eyes will blink very slowly and start to doze.
  • Back starts to hunch into a curve.
  • I caught what looked like a nervous lip lick – it happened subtly and very quickly.

This dog reminded me enough of my own that I decided to recruit my neighbors for a quick little contrast film. Ranger’s body language could be interpreted ambiguously to some extent. I happen to know that he loves these neighbors and seeks them out every day.

The body is quite similar (my dog is a’ leaner’ and he also tends to hold his tail funny even when he’s emotionally all right). At one point, I instructed my younger neighbor to pet Ranger a little more vigorously. Ranger never seems to particularly enjoy this type of petting; especially his ears, top of head, and neck area but he’s not a high risk for people he knows and likes. You’ll probably see a difference between the two dogs in this regard. Ranger is tolerant but does want to leave and shake it off.

Ranger also tends to greet people he doesn’t know with a very mild version of what the dog in the first video did…with caution. He reaches forward and wants to smell and wants someone just to offer their hand–preferably palm up and under his chin. He doesn’t want fast movements. Once this greeting takes place (especially if I am around to mediate it and provide reassurance), he will loosen up very quickly.

Children used to be out of the question. He would get really riled up and bark non-stop. After having worked with him a lot, they are just about invisible to him now. He runs around them, usually doesn’t bark, and has the very few and exceptional children that he actually seeks attention from. I would never, ever let a child approach him on their own to place him in a position where he cannot escape and they aren’t retreating or respecting his body language. That is a setup for a fail.

Here are some other things I noticed–you can add your own:

  • Ranger turns his back to “Sissy” to sit down. Some people see this as a sign that a dog is ignoring them. I usually think that Ranger trusts the person enough to do this. He doesn’t feel a need to keep an eye on the person.
  • He has a happy waddle when he wants to have affection.
  • His mouth drops open when he’s enjoying affection.
  • Ranger has plenty of options and lots of space. We have to take the leash a couple of times because a small dog appeared in the yard next door but otherwise he is free to come/go. In the previous film, I see a dog that has few options. It is indoors in a tight setting and someone is encroaching into his personal space.
  • Because I’m filming, I’m adding a little bit of weirdness by standing so close with an iPad. Also, it probably affects my helpers a little because I think that Sissy normally sits on the porch to pet Ranger and pets him more slowly. Wanted to show a little closer face-to-face proximity and the easiness that is always very clear between them, but I think you can tell (even though he might have liked to go see the dog next door). He seeks her out.
  • Not shown here also is Ranger’s usual preference of flopping himself onto his side for chest and stomach petting. This could probably be interpreted a couple of ways – seeking more affection or insecurity. I’ve seen him do this with a child a couple of times and I don’t necessarily find it to be a clear indicator that he’s comfortable. The difference seems to be that if he likes it and a person stops, he starts pawing at them for more. Not so when it’s a child and I’m pretty sure he’s just trying to be polite. At least I am quite sure that my dog really does want to escape if pushed. He is not seeking to fight to make it stop.

And, here’s a photo of one of his favorite people, Kathy. Notice that he voluntarily hops into a chair to be near her. He leans into her. He pretty much isn’t satisfied until he feels an arm around him and then he displays that enormous smile.

 Photo Jun 22, 12 58 51 PM

Obviously, another major difference is that Ranger is not in some kind of survival mode of being in a shelter where his levels of Cortisol are elevated and he’s being pushed into fight or flight mode. Extra caution is really needed in that type of situation. In fact, I’m not entirely sure how Ranger would act in the exact, same situation. It would make me very sad to imagine him being pushed to reacting like this when he is very much a people loving dog.

Stay safe out there.

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).


When Leaving Your Pet with a “Professional”

I am asked all the time “How Do I Choose a Good Groomer?”

I have found myself answering this question differently almost every, single time. Who makes the dog look the best? Who is the fastest? Who is least expensive? Who treats the owner the nicest? Or who truly handles the dog the best and in the most educated way? Right now the latter wins. Fur grows back. A bum haircut is your last concern. Or at least it should be in my opinion.


Look inside any grooming salon. Go ahead. Take a peek. Ask to put your dog into the kennel it will be staying in. Are there other groomers present? Look at the noose that hangs from the grooming arm on the table.

How is the dog attached to the noose? And what type of noose is being used?

The ONLY answer that is acceptable answers are:

  • A dog is not on a noose at all
  • A noose goes around the dog’s neck and under one arm
  • A head noose plus a comfortable waist band are both being used to support a dog
  • For an XL dog in a bathtub, the noose may not be large enough to fit under one leg and around the neck. As long as the dog cannot reach its feet to the end of the tub, it would be alright to only have the noose around the neck.

Types of nooses:

Good nooses have a lock that prevent the noose from continuing to tighten (as what happens with choke chains). Another feature that I particularly like is a noose that has a comfortable pad to go under the arm. If for some reason a dog were to teeter or leap off my table and I lost control, the dog would potentially at least hang by the support by its body. There is very little chance of injury.

Basic noose w/Safety Lock

Basic noose w/Safety Lock

My favorite. Had thick padding and the lock is shown here near the padding. It slides up and down for a custom fit.

My favorite. Has thick padding and the lock is shown here near the padding. It slides up and down for a custom fit.

Two Noose System

Here are videos from another groomer who demonstrates a two-noose, safety system. Take particular note that she is using a locking noose and that she emphasizes the difference between just right and too tight! I won’t post the second video because I’m not so pleased with her choice of restraints for the back end. The video is from about 5 years ago.

Video 1

Belly Restraints

If I do use a back-end restraint, my preference is a nice, wide comfortable belly band. By using a two-point restraint system with comfortable equipment, I could conceivably put the noose only around the neck because I am also controlling the backside. The dog is unable to go forward or off the table sideways.


Does that look comfortable? Not to me.


This is the type of band that I own. It is made of nylon. I sew, so if I *really* wanted to be nice, I would sew a comfort liner in, right? I think this one is adequate enough, however.

Dangerous Nooses

Dangerous nooses are made of a thin, strong type of rope or cable and have no safety lock. That is, if a dog pulls, the noose continues to tighten. Given enough force and weight of a dog, a leaping hunk of dog could conceivably just about become decapitated as it snaps to a hang. Happily, these nooses are not easy to find on the internet if you search for “Grooming Nooses.” I had to search for this one using “Slip Collars.” Notice that there is no safety lock.

Notice the extra thin roping that can act like a cheese slicer going through cheese given enough force and weight.

Notice the extra thin roping that can act like a cheese slicer going through cheese given enough force and weight.

Grooming Station

The grooming station matters. Which one looks safer?

In fairness, this is just an ad for a table I found online.

Station 1 (In fairness, this is just an ad for a table I found online.)

Station 2: Simple tables against a wall.

Station 2: Simple tables against a wall.

This is a little deceptive. In Station 1, you see a very nice hydraulic table (my favorite!). In Station 2, there are just lightweight tables against a wall. Those lightweight tables can (and have) flip over if a dog jumps. However, because it is against the wall, the dog is more likely to jump toward me or off to the side. This gives me slightly more control and likelihood of catching the dog. In my idea salon setting, I have a grooming “nook” in which the table is bordered by walls on 3 sides. This further ensures that I am likely only dealing with a front jump and not even a side one.
What typically happens in a wild grooming scenario is that a very excitable dog may either teeter and wobble off the back of a table OR they may have a reaction toward a grooming tool (or groomer) approaching them and they may pull backwards and off the table. Knowing what you now know about the types of equipment to use, it is clear to see that the most dangerous scenario is a dog tethered by a non-locking noose to a table that is sitting out in the open.
You can also see that the tables are fairly large in Station 2. Were a dog to fall off backwards, it would be very difficult for a groomer to reach across the table and rescue the dog. It happens VERY quickly. And that’s even if the groomer is standing right there as it happens. At least the dog is perhaps only momentarily dropped by its neck. That sentence I wrote didn’t even sound decent as I wrote it. It sounds tragic if it is your own dog. A dog doesn’t need to hang for seconds at a time to do damage. A dog’s neck can break instantly upon impact.
WHY Then….?
Your next most logical question would have to be WHY? Why would any groomer choose to do things in an unsafe way?
Lest anyone think I haven’t learned the hard way, let me explain that in the small towns where I groomed and at the time I learned (early 1980s), there simply wasn’t the money for decent equipment (or it didn’t yet exist) nor were we as well educated. Some of us were sort of learning as we went. And, YES, it has happened to me. And, believe me when I say that I went home stunned and horrified and thinking of myself as a sickening person.
One terrible example is that I worked for a short time in a pet store/veterinarian clinic. They had a  tub with a REAL and heavy metal choke chain bolted to the inside wall of the tub. One day I put a large Weimereiner in the tub. I needed to grab something from across the room. The dog was secure, right? Wrong. I turned around in just an instant to see the dog leap from the tub (the chain was too long) and hang from its neck. Grooming floors are often slick vinyl or tile and often wet. That’s exactly what my situation was. I scrambled and  slipped and slid to save the dog’s life. I managed to barely get this enormously heavy animal back into the tub. In response, it tried to bite my face and I couldn’t blame it. It was enough to make me change my ways. I was lucky that the dog didn’t die.
However, check out this article….this groomer wasn’t as lucky. They explained to the owner that their dog had “hung itself.” Dumb dog? Dogs don’t know better–they really don’t.
Need another local story? PetSmart in Los Angeles was sued.
A blog from a woman whose dog lived but who couldn’t prove the injuries back to the groomer because of lack of marks. $1500 vet bill and a lot of sorrow. She has a lot of opinions about how groomers should work.
Here is some information about the physical damages from using a choke chain even in walking an animal – double the effects at least if the dog is dropped off a table while on a choke chain/slip collar. To name but a couple: Broken ocular vessels, permanent & irreversible trachea damage.
Is it more inconvenient to slip a lead under a dog’s arm and over the neck? Why not place a table against a wall? It does take me a couple of extra seconds and it is sometimes inconvenient to shave around the shoulder area so that I have to re-adjust the restraints when I groom. Other than that, maybe a groomer will speak up in the comments section and tell us why.  Some odd responses I have heard are:
  • I don’t leave a dog noosed on the table if I know it is a jumper. (Any dog is a jumper or a faller.)
  • This dog doesn’t need that (meaning an over/under restraint). (Why not do it anyway?)


This is the worst, most dangerous of all possible scenarios and it warrants either cutting back and grooming fewer dogs,  finding another career, attending grooming and/or Red Cross Pet 1st Aid classes, or getting fired. An overworked groomer can quickly loose patience and become so annoyed with an uncooperative animal that they may start to think thoughts such as “Why do you insist on hanging yourself, huh?”

Or, they may string the dog up by the neck very high and tight to take their frustration out as punishment for a dog who fights them. They may often view themselves as super tough and can handle anything…like they are wrangling steer out on the range. (Note: I have a cousin who is a working cowboy who told me that he would be fired if he threw cattle to the ground and roped them up like you see in rodeos. It is not a practical job task.)

Who would purposely take their dog to a groomer who has this going on? Hopefully no one. The problem is, these groomers like this don’t wear a sign that indicates to an owner that this is the reality. You might find yourself very charmed and flattered by all of the bows and goo-goo gushing about your pet when, in fact, it had an entirely different experience when you weren’t there. You’ll have to tell me in the comments how to detect this sort of thing and what to do about it. What would you do if we were discussing children instead of pets? Would you do a surprise drop in and spy a little perhaps? I don’t have the answer.

Well, maybe I do, but a lot of groomers may not appreciate it. Ask to stay and watch. If the answer is “we are a volume salon and will not be working with your pet from start to finish,” try asking if you can pay more or come on a slow day when it is possible to stay and watch. You might be told “Your pet will not cooperate if you are here and it can see you.” The pet can learn as I am proving through private, low-stress sessions where I even coach the owners how to behave while their pet is being groomed.

If you don’t like what you see a groomer doing with your dog, ask the groomer to stop. If the groomer continues, walk in, take your dog and leave.

Here is another reality for a full-time, volume groomer that can contribute to this type of burnout. If they are working for a place known for having the lowest prices in town, chances are they are only making 50% of that. Tips do make a difference for these groomers! However, if they are receiving pressure from a business owner to groom more than they are really mentally and/or physically able to handle OR they simply want to groom as many dogs as possible for purely mercenary reasons, AND if a dog owner is pushing to get a dog groomed very quickly (and the dog’s coat is in terrible condition and/or the dog has behavioral problems), the loser is the dog. All of the stress comes down onto the dog.

So, if it REALLY matters to an owner, it would be a good idea to:

  • Learn some coat maintenance (I offer these classes as well as teaching your dog to become “Teacher’s Pet” wherever they go at Whole Dog Training). Some groomers are not allowed to charge extra for dematting or behavioral problems. Don’t give the groomer a reason to become frustrated.
  • Be willing to pay more for a more personal experience (I charge double the standard rate to provide private grooming in a salon where there are no other dogs, the owner can stay and watch I am also an advanced trainer who thoroughly understands the symptoms of stress in an animal can constructively lay out a plan for behavior modification. You are also paying me to know when to stop.)
  • Search out someone who is not just “nice” but are proud to show you that they have excellent knowledge about the subject of safety and NOT just a haircut.
  • Another tip is that weekends are the busiest times of the week. A groomer is pushed to their max with people wanting walk-in appointments. Sometimes these appointments are crucial business for a salon and the groomer sometimes has little right to refuse to take them.

These tips are worth it to some owners…especially those who are involved in positive reinforcement training for their dogs. They do NOT want to send their dog into a situation where it could potentially be traumatized.  I can think of a few people who would be happy to lynch me to a  post if I were to recklessly or intentionally cause harm to their pets.

Sara, do you ever NOT noose a dog?

All the time. My own dog, for example. I know him, he has a solid “stay”, and…he can jump from my table safely because it’s not a big jump for him as a larger, in-shape dog. Other regular dogs that I groom are similarly behaved so that I can step backwards (facing the dog) to, say, reach for a tool I need. If I’m unsure, I take the dog off the table (or put it away in a kennel if that is the norm) or have someone else stand with the dog while I get what I need.

In any case, given the choice between two really bad outcomes, I would prefer to leave a dog on a table unattended without a noose and risk a  potential broken leg vs. leaving a dog unattended on a table on a noose and risk a broken neck.

And now that I’ve spoken out on the subject, I expect to be watched. I expect that I will need to be at the top of my game. This is not a finger-pointing post. It is a post that challenges all groomers to rise to a level of excellence.

If I am asked specifically who is a good/bad groomer, I may perhaps be able to respond that they have been shown and demonstrated to me that they know what I’m talking about. Whether or not they adhere to the safety methods I have outlined is not something I can guarantee. Hopefully they are inspired and proud to show you that they are one of the excellent variety. Regulation of the grooming industry has been on the ballots for some time in California–let us be far above and beyond the basics, yes? That’s where I intend to be.

Are You Willing To Be Wrong About That?

“Are you wiling to be wrong about that?” Leonard C. Hawes, Professor at University of Utah (favorite professor, I might add) This entry is dedicated to Dr. Hawes.

We think we know everything, don’t we? Doesn’t matter the subject, but because it’s in our head we know what we know what we know what we know. And we are usually pretty confident about that, right?

And where did we learn what we know? You’ll have to answer it for yourself. We all do.

I have been quite open about the fact that I was not raised by any stretch to use positive reinforcement with people or animals. I probably did some of it naturally, but the people, the times, and the context for ‘training’ and handling dogs were very influential to my learning the principles of “Do what I said, or else.”

It was common for people to “rub a dog’s nose in it” as a house training¬† method. We used choke chains to teach our dog’s how to walk nicely on a leash. We gave “commands.”And here were other concepts considered to be “common knowledge” that everybody seemed to ‘know.’

  • Using treats to train was considered cheating.
  • Luring a dog to do something also did not count.
  • The most important ‘commands’ you could teach were: Heel, Sit, COME, Down, Stay.
  • If you were serious, you spent an hour a day training your dog.
  • Dog food is for dogs. People food is for people.
  • Only feed your dog kibble to keep his teeth from rotting.
  • Dogs live outside.
  • Spanking, hitting, and yelling are part of training and showing the world that you have control over your dog.
  • Don’t treat your dogs like children.
  • Only tough ‘dog’ people can handle big, tough breeds.

Those are just a few.  Where did I learn these? A list of sources include:

  • Family
  • Neighbors
  • Dog Owners
  • Dog Enthusiasts
  • Dog Training Classes I attended
  • TV
  • Pet Stores and Groomeries where I worked.

Something I wondered about, but wasn’t sure, and then finally concluded that I tend to over think things and, surely, if there was anything to it, someone¬†would have told me by now was…”Do dogs feel pain the way we do?’ During my early years as a groomer, I concluded that they must not. They probably have a much higher tolerance for pain which is why they don’t seem to learn or listen when we hit them, yell at them, or push them around when we are trying to groom them. It helped me to justify a lot of treatment toward the animals left in my care that I wouldn’t even consider doing now.

Three or four major things contributed to my change in perspective.

  • In the early ’90s I worked with an older woman at her grooming salon. (Ha! I’m probably older than now than she was then!) We used to enjoy condescending to the idea that PetSmart was adding grooming to their list of services. It wasn’t uncommon for us to receive a phone call that we created an acronym for – CYFI? “Can you fix it?” For us, it was about the haircut. One day she commented, “You know? When people tell me they have 20 years of experience in grooming, the only thing I can think is…”well, it depends on what you’ve been doing for 20 years.” It was a comment that stuck with me. I was just young enough to wonder what she was talking about. I wasn’t a fabulous stylist at that point, and I didn’t want to become¬†that person that someone would say, “Well, she’s been doing the same stupid thing for 20 years! Her experience is hardly something to be proud of.”
  • During roughly the same time period, I was in college. I was incredibly fortunate to have a Professor at the University of Utah who forever shaped my thinking skills. Dr. Len Hawes was/is a professor of Communication who can never be duplicated. I don’t recall the topic being discussed at the time, but (as he always does), he challenged us with some of the most difficult and profound questions, of which “Are you willing to be wrong about that?” is one that I keep in my back pocket to this day. It is so very relevant to changing outdated and sometimes abusive treatment toward animals.

¬†¬† This most simple question can, if willing, lead a person toward quality answers and solutions. Was I willing to be wrong about how I was treating dogs when I was grooming? Unfortunately, that wasn’t the question I was asking myself at the time. I was asking “How can I stop grooming dogs and never have to see them again?” (If that isn’t career burnout, I don’t know what is.) My answer was, “Quit that hellacious job, try to get a steady (clean) job working at the post office so that you can finish your college degree.” It’s amazing what happens when you are very specific about your goals. I earned the degree and thought I would never look back. I concluded that I was not an animal person. I felt they were poor substitutes for human company, too basic and not capable of much more than eating, playing with toys, and going to the bathroom.¬† Which leads to conversion influence #3, Chi Chi.

  • Fast forward 20 years. My widower father lived with his untrained dog in a large¬† home. The dog was noisy and untrained to the fullest extent of the meaning. She was sweet enough, but at 83 years old and a 4-level home, he could not get this little Chihuahua mix housetrained nor was he able to keep the messes properly cleaned. *sigh¬† When I came to visit, this exuberant little dog would bark and often urinate in front of me, on my pillows, and sometimes defecate in my room. To say I wasn’t charmed is very accurate. I was very vocal to my father about not riding in his car in my good clothes.

¬†¬† And then there was ‘the fall’. In short, I found my father’s health failing so quickly that I needed to move in to care for him…and her (the dog). Fast forward again and I needed to have my father moved to an assisted living facility. Even after moving in, I had no specific investment in (or attachment to) Chi Chi. However, I did have an interest in making life sane for me as I had to provide constant physical care of my father. An unhousetrained dog was simply untenable.

¬†¬† To my credit, somewhere in my knowledge bank, I had learned that to properly house train a dog, you had to get it out every two hours and celebrate the success–ignore the mistakes. Such is my nature to really make a project out of something if I care. I had the dog on a leash…even as I slept. I forced myself and this dog to go to the bathroom at all hours of the night and day. She would not have a chance to sneak off and get it wrong. I would know where she was at ALL times. Little did I know I was heading into the “set them up for success” philosophy.

Success! She was housetrained. At 8 years old, Chi Chi had accomplished what had never happened in all of those years.¬† And then I needed to break the reality news to my father…”We need to find another home for Chi Chi.” My father protested some. I was practical and assertive. “Dad, It’s just a dog! It’s not even healthy to have such an unnatural attachment to an animal. She’s not a human.” Yes, these words came out of my mouth. In what must have been a Sophie’s Choice for my father, he finally relented, “But please make sure she doesn’t wind up as bait in a pitbull ring. There was a news story on TV about that in this area.” It was the first of many tears to come for me. My father had accepted that this could be the fate of his beloved dog.

For the sake of my father, I could not let this happen. I didn’t realize what I was committing to, but I was now accepting the permanent care of his dog. Note that I still did not hold any particular affection for this dog or any other. They were still unnecessary, expensive hassles as far as I was concerned. But, if I¬†must¬†have a dog, one thing was certain. She¬†must be obedience trained. No exceptions. And, if there was one thing I knew, it was how to get a ‘stubborn,’ ‘spoiled,’ ‘lazy,’ dog to “heel.”

And so I went to a small pet supply store. “Do you carry choke chains?” I asked a young man. His response, I thought, was not appropriately respectful. “Yes, we carry them, but there are better ways to teach a dog how to heel now.”

A kid approximately 3/4 my age. What would he know? I was the one with years of experience. In fact, kid, you are insinuating that I don’t know what I’m doing and I really, REALLY do NOT appreciate that. Where is your boss? She is closer to my age and would understand. The ‘boy’ politely sold me the choke chain. I was not in the mood to hear of some mamsy pansy method or new, expensive gadget when I know perfectly well how to teach a dog to heel.

“Are you willing to be wrong about that?”

No, I wasn’t.

Why? I think there were several reasons:

  • I was in the role of being a caretaker for my father and, as such, many decisions had to be made in a no-nonsense, decisive sort of way.
  • I didn’t think dogs felt pain in the way that we do, remember?
  • When it came to animals, I didn’t want to be second guessed.
  • I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time discussing a subject that ranked lower on my scale of importance than other, more competing things.
  • I just didn’t care.
  • There was no effective, convincing, attractive ‘thing’ that reached out and influenced me. Did I need a celebrity on TV to influence me? A romantic influence? What could have reached me at that time? I can only guess.
  • I didn’t feel like learning anything new. I had too much else going on.
  • Who do you trust? There are literally hundreds of dog training books on the market? Go with the classics or go with some airy fairy, ineffective book. My father and brother had purchased some and even attended lessons at PetSmart, but boiled them all down to “You need to be smarter than the dog.” (WHAT did that MEAN???! Are we not calling ourselves stupid at this point since this dog is not trained??)

I took my choke chain and vowed not to return to this know-it-all store who can’t respect a simple request for a choke chain without me having to justify and explain myself. I was annoyed.

Can you now appreciate the barriers, obstacles, and context that worked to prevent me from changing my mind about a long-held belief and why I might defend them? I can.

So what changed my mind? I would normally fight and resist giving credit to a large corporation. Credit is due. PetSmart. That’s right. I’ll admit a sellout right here and now. My father and I went to PetSmart for some supplies. Life was getting heavy and lacking levity when caring for a father alone. I needed something amusing to read. I dodged the boring “Breed” books, but found myself attracted to the brightly colored magazines at the checkout stand. A single issue magazine called “Clicker Training” featuring “Tricks” jumped out at me.

Tricks? I had been playing with tricks throughout my entire childhood. I managed a couple of basic tricks with our 3+ dogs. It was fun but exhausting. Could I learn something new? I was tired of obedience. What did this relatively inexpensive magazine have to say about tricks? I tossed it onto the checkout stand and went home to read.

I read even though, here came another convincing belief that I had somewhat overcome as a child, “Chi Chi is old. And everybody knows that an old dog cannot learn new tricks.” But, I had taught our 10-year-old Beagle at 11 years old how to shake hands, play dead, sit up pretty, and a silly game I invented. Did I still have the knack? And, the Beagle was different…I ‘cheated’ and used treats. As a child, I had always pictured myself being the grand trainer in a circus ring with poodles (and a Beagle) on a stand ready to shoot through a ring of fire upon the tap of my wand and command. There was one motivation toward learning something new anyhow. My family was convinced I had missed my calling in life…they had the confidence in me even when I thought I no longer cared.

And so I read. And I purchased a ‘clicker.’ Experiments designed to amuse both my father and I were now underway. “Load the Clicker.” Simply click the device and then treat. Hmm….really?

One thing that would be the ultimate test for me with regard to training was something that I could never figure out how to train. I could understand (even if I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to get good results) how to teach a dog to come to me, but as I had tried to train my Golden Retriever for competitive obedience, how would I train the dog to go away from me? It was one of the most exciting things to watch in a scenting competition. The handler/owner would point to a field and send the dog out.¬†Send the dog out? How do¬† you convince your dog to go running away from you? What trick did I need to know to teach that? Maybe I could learn(?)

“Touch” was the first experiment I tried with the clicker. This ‘trick’ basically involves presenting your hand near your dog’s face, then coordinating a click just as her nose touched my hand, followed by the delivery of a treat.

Note: I was only willing to give these experiments a try for the purpose of potentially teaching a dog a trick. Obedience was a word that became loaded with dread and, remember, I knew what I was doing in that realm, right?

Hmm…what do you know? She learned how to touch my hand. It worked. Wow. Interesting. I showed my father who was not so impressed. And then I wondered…instead of my hand. Could she touch a tea can? I was hooked. I started sitting in the kitchen experimenting with various ‘treats’ (vegetables, beef jerky…whatever the dog would eat.) I had little time in the day to play with this, but was happy the dog would cooperate. And then to my utter surprise, and I do mean surprise as in…”I JUST SAW JESUS!” that dog reached her tiny little face toward the tea can when I held it out. I clicked as she touched. Are you kidding me? Because now the wheels were turning.

What if I place the can on the floor next to me? Would she still touch it? The article said this was possible. But, weren’t they talking about a ‘smart’ breed like a German Shepherd or a Border Collie? This was a pound puppy. She can’t…unless I’m wrong about that. I didn’t suppose it could hurt to give it a try.

I am writing this story in slow motion so that you will, hopefully, appreciate blow-by-blow how I changed my mind in the most dramatic way and the effects it had on everything in my life.

So, there I sat in the kitchen. Can touch started to happen. How about…if I move this can 1″ away from me? I might have screamed or squealed for my father to get down to the kitchen right then. She MOVED. AWAY. FROM. ME.¬† AREYOUKIDDINGME????! It was the ultimate of tricks that I could imagine at the time. The absolute ultimate! And she was happy.

Morning after morning, I met my father downstairs for breakfast but not before I insisted on…”Let’s try it!” I would see just how far I could place the can away from me and still ask her to touch it. I was beyond amazed. This was the equivalent of a child learning how to sound out letters in a word. “I figured it out!! I did it. I did it!!!”

Within 2 weeks this nuisance of a dog has transformed into some kind of idiot savant. She was precious cargo. I progressed to teaching her a few other small tricks. I was in love with the dog, a method, the idea that I had a new hobby. And then I sold the house. My father ended up in assistive care; I headed back to my condo in San Diego. The condo that absolutely and in no uncertain terms allowed pets. This had never been a problem for me before. The fewer the animals in the world, the better I thought. Not anymore.

My mind worked overtime. Ever tried to hide a dog? Let me inform you that it is not easy. I had heard the terms Service and Therapy dogs. What did this mean? What would it require? I had heard that these dogs had rights. I needed to know. And, as is typical for me, I bear down when I’m determined and dig as deep as I can possibly go. I joined online groups. I started ordering books. I searched for groups national and local.

This dog was magic and I was in love. I felt I had been left in charge of a dog that had come directly from Jesus (or something like it). Skip forward–I trained this dog and helped her to earn her Canine Good Citizen badge. Then I started experiencing adult-onset seizures. Now I am eligible for a service dog, right? What do I need to know?? Whatever it is, I need to know it FAST. The condo association was hot on my heels to force me to get rid of what I considered to be the Einstein of dogs. And I found it. I found a phone that dogs could dial for help.¬† Immediately I ordered this expensive electronic wonder and laid out a training plan. We needed to train this and FAST.

I’ll give you an enormous tip on this–it would take a LOT longer to train this sort of task were I to rely on force, intimidation, or any amount of pain. Luring would not have been as effective either. I had to not only teach a dog to walk away from me, on cue, but I also had to teach her to now touch something very specific with her paw. Additionally? She had to apply pressure to the button. Yes, this was an eyebrow raiser for me as well. How on earth to do this?

I also needed to videotape the results and get it to the attorneys very quickly. I was racing the clock–my specialty. I work best under pressure.

And just for the sake of memories, here is Chi Chi circa 2005 dialing her phone. The result is  sweetly crude looking back. There were no smart phones with video (at least not mine). I used a digital camera that had the ability to store very short films. And, nowadays, I would not rely upon using the cue over and over. I would only say the cue once. In fact, I would probably now also use a body cue (such as a fall) to prompt her to complete the task (in addition to the verbal cue).

In order to accomplish all of this, I had to be willing to be wrong about every single concept I thought I knew about animals.

And, let me repeat, videotape and get the results to the attorneys very quickly. At the time, I knew almost nothing about how to get any type of video online. Eventually, I published this video on YouTube, but in the beginning, I think I first made a webpage through my Cox Communications provider and somehow managed to create and upload video. That is exactly how crude the entire endeavor was.

Success! It worked. The attorneys were sending me threats. I had no attorney. I relied on my writing and negotiation skills to see if I could fend them off as convincingly as possible. The video was convincing. My medical reports were convincing. The law was convincing. And, so the legal team changed strategies. “Ok, you can have a dog if…” At first they sent me a contract limiting my dog’s travels to/from the car only. The more I read about rights, I rejected it. Who was I to reject an official document from a scary legal team? Indeed. I became more determined. I would send the contract back and ask, “Why would I agree to sign away rights I’m already permitted to have by law?” And then another contract would arrive with adjusted limitations. Nope.

However, finally, I decided to draft one of my own after being threatened with fines if I did not appear before our condo’s HOA meeting to justify to the members why I needed to have a service dog. Discuss my private medical information publicly or get fined? This inspired me to create a contract of my own essentially stating, “We (the Board, the attorneys, and the management company) agree never to disclose the confidentiality of Sara’s private medical matters. This topic is now closed and there will be a dog here. Period.”

I won. They signed.

But, by far, the most impactful results of willing to be wrong about something came about as my father lay in the hospital barely able to speak. He reached for my hand one day with tears that I had never seen before and he said, “I wish I had known. I would have done things differently with you. I’m so sorry.”

Well. I could have never predicted that. It made time irrelevant. He was in his 80s, but it rewound time in a way that made everything seem ageless. He managed to learn something profound in his lifetime. And so did I.

Another unexpected outcome was how much I truly came to love and appreciate this dog. She was the inspiration for my business. I never knew that so much love and intelligence was in my midst. Being willing to be wrong about what I thought I knew allowed me to be open to learning the closest thing we have to being able to actually speak to animals. We create a shared language and have actual dialogue. It is fascinating.

And what were the costs of being willing to be wrong about something? We both felt guilt of the type that makes you cry and apologize to people and animals who have crossed your path of whom you have perhaps mistreated terribly. We had to cry. And it is something I take into consideration when I seek to influence people to treat their animals better. I know I am perhaps talking to a person like myself, who, the meaner they are, they harder they will cry. Sometimes it’s easier to hold onto a notion and defend it to avoid this type of kick to the knees of your soul.

But, if you’re willing to be strong enough to be vulnerable, to be strong enough to lose face, to be wrong, to not be so sure of yourself, you’ll pass through to the other side and…wow.¬† The view is incredible. If it helps, you can assure yourself that you can always go back. Ask anyone you know who has been on the other side if they want to go back–not even kicking or screaming. They just won’t go.

The benefits are priceless. It’s a brilliant question…is there anything that you are willing to be wrong about? Something that could potentially restore a relationship, create new ones, or even better the world somehow? All I ask is that you just keep it in mind and consider the potentials.