Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stress-less grooming

There really is no such thing as stress-free grooming, but with some understanding, practice, patience, and cooperation, it is certainly possible to minimize your pet's stress level throughout the grooming process. Some animals naturally resonate at a more anxious frequency, but the goal should always be not perfection, but continuous improvement. So here are some tips to help your pet find his zen grooming place.

1. Communication
While there are no magic formulas, most groomers are happy to recommend some techniques for making grooming easier for your particular pet. Ask and then try them out and ask if they helped.

2. Scheduling
Different shops have different drop off and pick up policies, so ask what those are. Whenever possible, schedule your pet for grooming during a "non-activity" time when your pet would normally be home, relaxing. Pets have excellent internal clocks and they can get pretty antsy around their dinner time, or when they usually take their walk, or when they're expecting the school bus.

3. Tuckering
Tired pets are calm pets! If your pet is anxious or overly exuberant at the grooming shop, tucker him out with a good work-out before dropping him off. An hour-long walk or game of fetch goes a long way toward promoting a peaceful grooming experience.

4. Project Peace
There cannot be enough said about the power of a pet owner's energy. Your state of mind strongly influences your pet, especially when they are a little stressed out, so make sure you are projecting calm and confidence rather than letting your emotions get out of control, too! Be the leader; set the example.

5. Practice!
If your pet knows what to expect, he's going to be a lot calmer about the whole grooming thing. Practice riding in the car -- short jaunts that are fun. Practice visiting the grooming shop, just for a social call. Practice grooming stuff at home -- get Fluffy used to brushes and combs and noisy things. If your pet is not kennel trained, consider practicing that, too. Introducing grooming-related elements to your pet's life slowly and in a non-threatening way can change your pet's attitude from "Whoah! What is that scary thing?!" to "Hey! I know how to do this!"

6. Reinforce the Right, Only!
That means if your pet is shaking, cowering, slinking into the grooming shop (it's not uncommon), resist the urge to cuddle and soothe. If you say, "Good girl," to a dog who's shaking like a leaf, you're actually encouraging that fear to continue. Instead try to distract, bribe, or trick your pet into getting happy (squeaky voice, squeaky toy, treats, jumping up and down, whatever gets her excited). Then make a fuss over your brave good girl and encourage that attitude to come forward more often.

7. Peace and Patience
All pets, all pet owners, and all grooming shops are different. Stay observant, curious, and upbeat in your journey toward stress-less grooming. Working with animals is an open-ended process. Looking for and finding ways to alter patterns of behavior is a great way to bond with your pet and further develop your insight into what really makes him tick. Enjoy the journey, recognize even the smallest bit of progress, and remember that there's always room for improvement!

8. Condition Matters
Keeping your pet on a regular, appropriate maintenance grooming schedule is key to minimizing stress. A well-kept, tangle-free pet will always have a more positive grooming experience than an overgrown, overdue pet. When your pet is on a recommended schedule, everything about grooming is faster, easier, and more comfortable -- the bath, the comb-out, the haircut, ear plucking, nail trimming, etc.

9. Wait for It
A lot of pet owners try to minimize their pet's anxiety by rushing the groomer. While very young, very old, or medically compromised pets usually benefit from a shorter grooming shop stay, most animals do better in the long run when they spend a long time at the shop. When they are allowed to settle in for a while, absorb the atmosphere, relax, and figure out that this might take a while, it really changes their perspective. They are physically unable to stay in high alert forever, so by waiting them out, they get the opportunity to practice being calm at the grooming shop. Because it's more energy efficient to relax, all they need to realize is that they're not going anywhere for a while and they will calm down, re-engage their brains, and start to enjoy (instead of fear) the experience. After they've been at the shop a few times, they get in the habit of relaxing more and more quickly. Most of my "long day" grooming clients are fast asleep 5 minutes after check-in and will nap in between grooming stations. Sleeping at the grooming shop? Now that is zen.

10. No Stress Zone!
This goes without saying, but always be kind to your groomer. It can be very challenging to stay centered when the shop is hoppin'. Remember that what you say and do impacts your groomer's stress level. And a groomer's stress level can impact a whole roomful of animals. If you're not in the mood to share joy and peace and love, try to keep your cranky to yourself. Limit unreasonable or impossible demands to a bare minimum. Appreciate our expertise and respect our professional judgement. Maintain a sense of humor but don't laugh at other client's pet's haircuts. Be honest, be fair, be on time. Groomers are pretty forgiving as a rule -- we have a lot of practice keeping our cool even as we get peed on -- but we sort of expect human beings to know better. So leave your stress at the door and share your zen.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


I spent a few moments outside this morning plucking loose coat from my shepherd/ lab mix, Hoffa. She has a lovely, soft blonde coat and sheds minimally throughout the year. Twice a year, however, she sheds with a vengeance. Of course this is spring shed and her downy white undercoat is releasing in preparation for the warm weather ahead. Her peak shedding lasts a week or two and everything she walks past turns white with hair. She's like my personal shedding barometer. When Hoffa's shedding, everyone is shedding. The phones light up and life gets very busy at the grooming shop.

But I digress! There's nothing particularly inspirational about shedding dog hair. Unless, that is, you're a sparrow. I left a good pile of plucked fuzz on the driveway this morning before I left for work and indulged for a few minutes in the car, before pulling out and getting on my way, in watching the sparrows come to collect. It didn't take long before there were three or four of them picking through the fluff, testing it like ladies squeezing melons at the grocery store. And the best part, it was all good! They were grabbing up beak-fulls and then greedily hopping around, pecking and picking, and trying to grab just a little bit more before they wandered off to whatever project the fluff was for. Their joy was palpable and they seemed to dance as they contemplated and collected their perfect, fuzzy, warm, cozy dog-hair nest lining. I can't remember the last time I had such a successful shopping day.

That's the glory of spring, really. It's trash to treasure time. Spring is for garage sales and flowers breaking through, joggers and bikers making spandex useful (if not always aesthetically pleasing), the kind of warm rain that renews, baby animals everywhere, food popping up out of the ground and growing on trees, blue sky and sunlight that genuinely warms. I sometimes wonder why we don't move our New Year's resolution-making tradition to this magical yearly time of slough and renewal. Truly it is a new year.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Power to Teach

One of my biggest stumbling blocks in working with animals and pet owners is that I often feel useless as a teacher. I've always struggled with sharing knowledge, not because I want to keep it to myself -- on the contrary! -- but because the greatest powers I have are all locked up in my intuitive side and defy my attempts to translate them rationally to other people. That last sentence probably did a good job of underscoring my point. I know how to do stuff, but I don't always know how to instruct others. Ever try to teach someone to whistle? I feel that other people already know the answer and just need to hear the right combination of words coming from me in order to unlock their own power to simply accomplish whatever it is they're trying to accomplish. I talk to them, I demonstrate, but when they try to do it, it just doesn't work out. But I can't exactly give them bullet points on why that is. How to speak to be understood?

I ran into this phenomenon from the opposite side, as a student, at a riding lesson last weekend. I haven't been riding in years but I enjoyed the lessons I took in college and decided I would like to get back up on a horse. The instructor put me on a bouncy, eager horse named Lana and by the end of the lesson I had walked, trotted, cantered, and jumped. But I was struggling -- and these were struggles I remembered from my lessons in college -- with balance and body position throughout. "Keep her slow by leaning back," the instructor kept saying. I would pull myself back and start bouncing hard on the saddle. And the horse didn't slow down. "Move your hands forward," she would say, "Keep your fingers together." All the while I'm listening to my back scream at me, "THIS IS NOT A GOOD POSITION!" I know if the instructor were in my body, she would feel what I felt and be able to adjust automatically, intuitively. And I know that once I happen upon the perfect posture, my intuition will remember it and it will be a part of me. I won't do it wrong anymore and my back will thank me. But I haven't found that position.

Until then, I know I just have to keep riding and adjusting and trying to convince my body parts to cooperate with a moving horse. But even though I know that's how most learning works and that's how it has to be with my clients who are frustrated with dog training issues in particular, I still can't help but feel that there has to be a better way. I love the Wii balance board for its scientific simplicity -- move your body around until the dot is in the center and that's what it feels like when your balance is perfect. How fantastic! But most physical learning does not happen that way.

Instead the teacher interprets what the student says or does and makes suggestions to improve. Then the student first interprets those suggestions and then tries to follow them. And then the student decides if it feels like it's getting better or not. And the teacher agrees or disagrees. It's convoluted, confusing, necessary. I can show a client a training technique and say, "Do this" and I can tell them, "Feel this"... But it's such a complicated matter. It's about the relationship we build with the dog. It's about their history and their patterns. It's about our emotional states and reactions. It's about distractions and levels of distractions and biological needs and methods of communication and levels of understanding. There are many variables! And so much of working with animals has to do with timing. But once we get a handle on it, it seems so effortless, so easy. I've been working with animals all of my life and learned as a young child, through trial and error. I do it without thought, it's so easy for me. So why is it so difficult to communicate? Why does it take so long, with so much effort, with so many words, to teach someone how to train a dog to heel, for example? Why can't I just condense and express the information and have it speak directly to someone else's intuition?

I guess in this case the major complicating factor is the different personalities involved -- there's a teacher, a student, and an animal, who is essentially the student's non-English-speaking student. Next week, my riding instructor is going to put me on a horse with a "less pingy" canter. The relationship between my body and the horse will be less complicated and I'll have more concentration available to think about the finer points of balance because it won't be quite so painful to make a mistake. I'll be able to compare the experience of riding a quieter horse and find the place where my posture could work on either horse. The same can be said of dog training -- while there are rules and structures and techniques, it all boils down to flexibility and consistency. Dogs are different and the same approach exactly won't give the same exact results in every dog. Even if you have a very concrete system, there is a huge degree of variability in the time frame and the level of intensity required to teach an animal a new behavior or eliminate an old one. I guess, as a teacher, the role can only be to make suggestions that help keep the ultimate goal in sight. A teacher cannot get inside you and move around like a puppet so that you can experience and absorb the knowledge directly. A teacher can only communicate with a student, try to pinpoint errors, suggest adjustments, and then let you try and see how that works out. And all the while -- hopefully! -- learning to become a better, faster, more efficient teacher in the process.

It's worth mentioning, worth mulling over, that the words themselves are only one tool in the teaching process. Perhaps by pursuing the perfect words I limit myself. Perhaps part of our design as interactive beings is that we are incapable of directly absorbing words and translating them into physical knowledge (unless we are savants!). Maybe it's part of our checks and balances system that guarantees that human beings will continue to move, to interact, to communicate, and to practice collectively. Otherwise we might all be stuck in books and learning without ever striving or struggling or asking for help. But my intuition still believes there are perfect words for every situation. I'll keep trying!