Desensitization for grooming and handling

This article deals with the methods and tools for desensitizing a dog to being touched for grooming and handling, thus to teach the dog to allow all parts of his body to be touched, handled, and groomed without objection. The goal is to teach the dog first that such touch does not hurt and must be accepted, then later that such touch is actually pleasant.
This advice is NOT a substitute for working with an experienced behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist. For any dog behavior problem in which even slight aggression or threats towards a human being have been shown, you are strongly advised to consult and work with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a credentialed appplied animal behaviorist who is very expereinced in problems of similar nature. Working with such dogs always requires a lot of judgement and can be hazardous.



Desensitization for grooming & handling

by Pam Green, © 2004


It is not uncommon for dogs to be unwilling to have some parts of their body touched or handled or groomed. Sometimes this unwillingness is primarily due to fear, thus lack of trust of the person doing the handling, and sometimes this unwillingness is primarily due to "resentment" or dominance issues, thus lack of respect for the person doing the handling. Often both the trust and respect issues are involved.

The usual problem as it would be described by the owner or care-taker of the dog is that the dog threatens the person by a growl or a show of teeth, or worse, when handling is attempted. It would also be a problem if the dog simply kept out of reach to avoid being touched. Such dogs may switch over to threatening if escape is prevented. Occasionally one encounters a dog who shrieks as if being tortured the moment it sees a grooming tool in a person's hand, usually causing the person to give up the attempt to groom the dog. (One of the Min Pins of my childhood used to pull this one on my mother ; the dog never tried this on the vet's technician of course , as the tech knew what she was doing and would not have yielded to blackmail.)

The common denominator is that the dog is unwilling to be groomed or otherwise handled in one or more parts of its body. Ideally this would have been prevented by daily gentle and pleasant handling during puppyhood and at regular times thereafter. Prevention is always better than cure, but cure is usually possible with some work on the person's part.

The purpose of this article is to explain some of the methods and tools used to "desensitize" the dog so that he allows his body to be touched and handled without fear or resentment and without threatening the handler. Ideally he will come to actually enjoy such handling.

Before beginning such a program, it is essential to make certain that the unwillingness to be touched in that area is NOT due to PAIN or INJURY. The only way to be sure of this is to have the dog examined by a veterinarian with special attention to all areas that might be involved. This is especially true when the "touchy" area is the neck or the feet, two areas commonly involved in "touchyness" and both areas vulnerable to injury. Touchyness about the neck and or feet can also be a dominance issue, and treatment would involve some version of "non-confrontational dominance" program , also called "there is no free lunch" or "working for a living" program, as well as perhaps some version of the program outlined below.


Below are the tools I have used.

tools for use in desensitizing dog to grooming and handling.

tools for desensitizaton to grooming & handling


From left to right, the tools are :


The essence of any desensitization program is to have the dog expeience a very very mild version of the stimulus, in this case touch, that has been triggering the undesirable emotion and undesirable behavior , ideally so mild a version that it does not trigger an undesirable reaction. Then after many experiences of this very very mild version, a very slightly stronger version of the stimulus is applied, again without triggering the undesirable reaction. In this fashion , one very gradually increases the stimulus until a normal or greater than normal level can be applied without triggering the undesirable reaction.

Often desensitization is combined with counter-conditioning, in which at the same time or instantly after the offending stimulus is applied, one also presents some other stimulus that will provoke or produce an emotion and/or a behavior that is incompatible with the undesirable reaction that would normally be triggered by a full strenght offending stimulus. Usually this second stimulus is something that the dog would consider to be pleasant and that will produce an emotion of calmness or of happyness and that will produce a behavior that is either neutral or actually desirable and that cannot be performed at the same time as the original undesirable reaction.

Have I confused you totally ? I hope not. In any case, what follows should make things clear.

In the case of a dog who resists grooming by threatening the groomer, especially by attempting to bite the groomer, it is also necessary in the earlier stages of desensitization and counter-conditioning to make the original undesirable reaction or threatening or attempting to bite to appear to the dog to be either impossible or futile or both. Likewise for the dog who runs away from the approach of a person intending to groom or with a grooming tool in her hand. When that original reaction is not available or does not work to terminate the offending stimulus, then the dog has to experience the consequences of doing something else. It is up to the person doing the rehabilitation to ensure that the consequences of doing something else are going to feel pleasant and calming and desirable to the dog !

That is why, for a dog who is threatening to bite, I always begin with the dog muzzled. By taking away that very undesirable reaction, I am forcing the dog to experience what would happen if he did something other than biting. I am forcing the alternative behavior of enduring the stimulus without escaping it by biting me. For the runaway dog, or the keep out of reach dog, I begin with the dog on a leash or a long line, so that running away was not working as an escape from enduring being touched. Often I may use both muzzle and leash , usually with the leash attached to a halter for greater head control.

Now with the dog unable to evade being touched and unable to bite me, I can safely proceed with that first step : a touch so light that the dog cannot possibly find it objectionable. For this the long handled feather, such as a peacock feather, is ideal. The dog may not even be able to feel the touch, though he can see it happening. Depending on the dog, I might or might not add the pleasant stimulus of tossing a bit of food to him while touching him. In most cases I would just as soon not used the added stimulus as I don't want to distract his attention. I want him to find out that this touch is not hurting him, and I want him to be as calm as possible. Food would distract and excite most dogs. So mostly I just touch and touch and touch, both stroking and tapping gently in all the areas that the dog has objected to plus any regions he finds unobjectionable or enjoyable -- in other words , all over his body. Once he realizes that it does not hurt, he can begin to realize that it is actually pleasant.

Sometimes it is more effective to use two touch tools at once, ie touching in two different areas, probably on opposite sides of the body. As Linda Tellington has pointed out in her writings on T-Touch, being touched on opposite sides tends to defuse the dog from paying to much attention to either touch.

The next step would be a more noticable touch with the duster. This can be stroked with varying degrees of pressure, beginning with the lightest, and can be tapped or bounced against the dog, with varying degrees beginning with the lightest. Try it on yourself to see that it creates a very pleasant sensation. Again, I want the dog to find out that it does not hurt. Once he realizes that it does not hurt, he can begin to realize that it is actually pleasant. It is this enjoyment of touch as being pleasant that I consider to be the crucial counter-conditioning. So again, I probably will not use food, but I might if I thought this particular dog would benefit.

The next step would be with one or two back-scratchers. I begin gently scratching in areas where the dog finds it enjoyable (if I know of such areas) and then move to the more objectionable areas. Again the goal is for the dog to lose any fear and start finding enjoyment. Often a dog will learn to enjoy a fairly vigourous scratching in some areas.

If the dog has objected to being combed, I would at some point progress to using the long handled comb. A revolving tooth comb has the least pulling effect on the hair, so it is a good one to start with. Otherwise a relatively widely spaced toothed comb should do. I may begin with my hand as far away as the dowel allows and then gradually move my hand closer. If a brush is the problem, I'd find a brush that I could attach to a long handle. Scissors unfortunately are hard to opperate (ie hard to cut hair with) in a long handled manner, though they can be touched to the dog with a long handle. A person dextereus enough may be able to use the duster or back-scratcher on a second part of the body while using a long handled grooming tool on the objectionable area. Again, I want him to relax and enjoy it.

Finally at some point, I will be touching the dog with my hand. First light stroking and then gradually progressing to finger-tip massage and later to all the various kinds of petting and massage that a dog could find enjoyable, including a fairly firm massage. For dogs that are unwilling to have their feet handled or groomed, I especially want the dog to learn to enjoy a foot massage.

For a bad case, I would have done all of this with the dog still muzzled. Whenever I feel able to safely remove the muzzle, I would go back to a much earlier step of the program, even back to step one. I would probably still have a halter and leash on the dog, and the leash would pass around a table leg or some other pully point that would let me move the dog's head (and teeth) away from wherever I am touching him if I need to do so. Alternatively I might have my other hand on his neck with him lying flat on his side (if we have already worked with him in that position) so that I can instantly feel any tension in his neck and , again, take enough control of his neck (and head and teeth) that I can prevent any atempt to bite. I really truely do not want to get bitten : it would be bad for me and for the dog.


Eventually I will be doing the grooming or handling with the dog unmuzzled and with my hands directly on his body or on the ordinary comb or brush or scissors that I am using on his body. And he will be relaxed and enjoying it. At this point , the program has been a sucess. But if the dog is a foster dog, then the adopter will need to repeat the whole program. It should go much easier and quicker for the adopter.

However for some dogs, there is only so far you can get in a rehabilitation program and you have to recognize that limit and switch to finding a way to manage the problem safely. A muzzle can be the golden key to safe management of an intractable grooming problem. There are some dogs who will always have to be muzzled to have their toenails trimmed or perhaps for some other handling task. It is also possible that the same dog who will not allow you to do something will allow a gromer or a veterinary techinian to do the same proceedure without protest. If so, then be smart and pay the professional to do it.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 9/27/04 revised 9/27/04
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