Training vs. Beauty

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

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

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

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

Here’s a real life example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training truly levels the playing field.


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.