Yesterday …

…  I visited Daniela and the poodle pack. Clooney, a 6-months old puppy from Emily’s last litter, was also there, getting a new haircut. I had come in order to learn how to properly shave a poodle’s muzzle.

Daniela let me practice on Emily’s head. Emily didn’t look happy, but kept completely calm as I worked on her. The result was okay, and after a few minutes, Emily came to cuddle. Apparently, she didn’t hold a grudge. 

Well, that was all I had planned to do: learn how to use the grooming machine, which way to shave etc. Daniela and Connie, Clooney’s mum, told me to just lift Phoebe on the table and try working on her right then and there. 

I have been working on slowly and gently introducing Phoebe to all things grooming: bathing, scissors, the grooming machine touching her body so she gets used to its sound and vibrations. Always without force, of course, but with lots of praise and high-value treats. So far, always in my living room or bathroom, without distractions present: a safe environment for Phoebe. And I had kept the training intervals short, always stopping when she was still ready to work for more treats.

I wasn’t completely happy with Phoebe’s first “real” grooming session being in a place she didn’t know, with dogs and people around, but Daniela is the professional groomer, and I trust her bigger experience. Also, it’s nice to have someone to give me immediate feedback on my first poodle grooming attempts, I thought. On the other hand, I had a bad feeling. As a CU devotee, I don’t want to deliberately stress my puppy beyond her threshold. I mentioned that Phoebe would be scared, that I had only practiced holding the machine to her body, not her head, and that I wasn’t sure if this was the right moment for her to get her muzzle shaved.

Daniela and Connie, on the other hand, are not CU or clicker people. They love their dogs as much as I love my dogs, but their approach to training and puppy kindergarten differs very much from my own approach.

They ensured me that Phoebe had to learn this anyway, the sooner the better, and let’s just do it. So up on the garden table she went. Dani and I held her, and I started shaving her muzzle. Of course, Phoebe was scared. Of course, she growled at Daniela, who immediately reacted with a sharp, “No!” and asked me, alarmed, if Phoebe growled at me as well. No, I said: after all, I have never given Phoebe a reason to growl at me. 

Connie and Daniela then nodded knowingly, told me Phoebe had to learn these things NOW; Connie wondered if Phoebe was my first dog because I was reluctant to telling her, “No!” when she growled in what I considered to be a totally growling-appropriate situation: she was having something scary done to her against her will, by someone she didn’t know very well! I would growl, too, if I were in her place!

Phoebe isn’t used to hearing “No!”, Phoebe is used to be clicker-trained: following cues is HER choice, and a choice she happily makes because she’ll earn treats, play and fun, and we always have a party for her little and big successes.

I ALWAYS SET MY DOG UP FOR SUCCESS and NEVER ASK MORE THAN WHAT SHE IS READY FOR. If I accidentally do ask something she isn’t ready for yet, it’s my fault as her trainer, not her fault as my dog. I want her to learn to be groomed in the way the gorillas at Franklin Park Zoo (Boston) get their flu shots: voluntarily, without their handlers using force force, without the gorillas flinching: because they are clicker trained. 

Yesterday, for the first time, I violated this rule (always set my dog up for success) I always try to follow. I still feel bad about putting Phoebe into this uncomfortable grooming situation she wasn’t ready for.

After watching her struggle and suffer for a little bit, I stopped the whole thing, put Phoebe down with her muzzle only half-shaved, and refused to put her through a second session: I told Daniela and Connie who urged me to lift her on the table again that I would finish her up the next day, at home, since Phoebe had had more than enough stress for one day. 

They did not agree, which made me realize something interesting: 

I realized that I have learned so much about canine body language and positive reinforcement that it has become impossible for me to watch a dog struggle against his will: once you start all-positive dog training, there’s no going back to the traditional correction-based approach. My teachers, of course, have been the big names of positive dog training and canine body language; first and foremost Karen Pryor and Turid Rugaas, whose books I devoured. However, my most important teacher has been Phoebe herself: just seeing how fast she learns with the clicker, how much she loves figuring out new stuff and how much fun we’re having in our training sessions convinced me of this new training method.

The dogs I had before Phoebe were trained traditionally, with the correction-based approach Daniela and Connie take as well: lots of positive reinforcement (food lures and rewards), but also negative reinforcement, physical manipulation, the occasional sharp “No!” or physical punishment such as leash-jerks. Did this approach work? Yes, it did; I’ve always had obedient dogs and even a BGH-Dachshund. However, retrospectively, I realize that a lot of the time, my former dogs were obedient because they had to – not because they loved to, not because following cues was fun. They were “good dogs” because they worked to avoid negative consequences.

Yesterday, Daniela (someone who hasn’t been exposed to the clicker magic) and I (a clicker devotee) saw two different dogs. 

When I looked at Phoebe on the garden table and read her, I saw a dog who was scared for her life and appropriately reacted by means of FLIGHT. This didn’t work; she was kept in her place anyways. Her alternative reaction she tried was FIGHT: she growled at Daniela. This also didn’t bring the desired result, since we didn’t back up, but there was a sharp “No!” (which made a scary situation even scarier for her).

If I hadn’t stopped the session, Phoebe would probably have tried the last but one coping strategy available to a dog: FREEZE. Like you and I when we are scared, a dog will sometimes FREEZE and hope this will make the scary thing go away. A dog that freezes will, of course, hold completely still – but not because he has learned that the grooming machine won’t hurt him, but because there is nothing else he can do. (1)

This is not the dog I want: I want a dog who lets me shave her muzzle because there’s nothing scary about it, and, moreover, there are yummy treats waiting for him, and there will be a play party after holding still for a little bit! That dog, the second dog, wasn’t Phoebe during this stressful grooming session, during which I failed her: I should have said “No!” from the beginning – not to Phoebe, but to my human friends. I should have quietly worked my way up to Phoebe enjoying grooming in my own living room, without distractions or an audience.

The next time I find myself in a similar situation when with people who subscribe to a correction-based philosophy of animal training, I will keep that in mind and react appropriately: I’m responsible for keeping my puppy out of scary situations that don’t conform to all-positive training solutions.

Daniela and Connie, on the other hand, saw a dog who had to learn to keep calm when on the grooming table, who had to learn this by means of a negative reinforcer (working to avoid a sharp “No!”) and physical manipulation (keeping her body in place by means of holding her). The grooming machine doesn’t hurt, so this should be no big deal. 

Even though now, I completely disagree, a few years ago – before I knew about clicker training – I would have seen this exactly the same way as my friend did, and I would have treated Phoebe the way they did, and assumed the same things they did. Now, however, I’m aware of stress levels in dogs, of the imortance of the nasty-behavior threashold, of their developmental stages, and I’ve become a much better interpretor of canine body language. Good for Phoebe! 🙂

(1) If a dog feels threatened, there are only 4 coping strategies available to him (the 4 F’s): Fight, Flight, Freeze or Flirt (appeasement behavior). (See Barry Eaton, Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction? Washington: Dogwise, 2008, 2010, p. 8f)

EDIT: I just finished Phoebe’s half-shaved muzzle and her first shampoo shower session. All went well. I turned it into a game: for the shaving, there was salmon cream to be earned: hold still and lick the salmon cream while I shave you. I held neither Phoebe nor her head: she stood perfectly still and didn’t even flinch when I worked around her eyes, enjoying the salmon cream, as I shaved her with the machine in several short sessions distributed over the day and interrupted with a walk in the forest. After each session, we had a party of course!

As for the bath: I put her into the tub (onto the doormats I use as a non-slip surface for her to stand on), the way I always do when she’s dirty after a walk: I step in first, and when she puts her paws on the rail of the tub and asks to join me, I lift her in, start with her legs and slowly move the showerhead upwards while treating. I take lots of breaks to play tug in the bathtub or lure her a little closer to me. It’s fun for her, and every session ends while she still wants more bathtub action. 

After her hair was wet, I stroked the surplus water out, liftet her out, had a party on a huge towel, treated and played, then gently massaged the shampoo into her fur while letting her put her head into the treat glass. This was followed by another short play break with me rolling on the floor and Phoebe playfully attacking me; then I stepped into the bathtub again and waited until she asked to join me. After carefully rinsing the shampoo while treating and praising my girl, who was standing calmly and relaxed most of the time, I decided to do without the conditioner, since it was Phoebe’s first bath and enough bathtub action for a day. I lifted her out, treated, played and celebrated with her, used a towel to dry her legs, tail and back while she got treated some more. I let her shake and run through the apartment, invited her to follow me onto my bed for a game of tug with her towel, and as she lay down there, used the towel to dry her some more, with lots of praise, of course. Then I lay down on the floor and let her jump and climb on me, as she loves to do as a special reward.

Once she looked at the glass with the high-value treats again that had been empty by now, then looked at me, letting me know she was ready to earn some more culinary delicacies, I refilled the glass with a number of tasty treats in the living room, plugged in the hair dryer, and held it in place. In order to get the treats, she had to come closer to the dryer and let it blow on her for a little bit. 

Then, of course, we had another party and there was a big strip of dried chicken for free. Now, my baby is sleeping next to me on the sofa. It was an exciting day filled with new things and new smells. She looks completely relaxed, and finally white again! I’m proud of my puppy and proud of myself: yes, all-positive training methods also work when it comes to grooming, and the foundations I layed with bathtub and razor training worked well, too.

I didn’t use a clicker in today’s grooming session, but of course, a clicker could also have been used to go with the treats.

The glass I used is small and deep enough for Phoebe to have to work a little, put in her tongue to get out the treats. So she couldn’t eat too fast and was also distracted with figuring out how to get to the treats at the bottom. 

As for treats, I used a mixture of kibble and high-value treats: dried chicken, dried fish, dried lamb (all cut into tiny little peaces) and salmon cream (the kind that comes in a tube). I randomly varied the treat I fed her from my hands, and sometimes let her put her head into the glass as a big reward. As I was working alone, I held the salmon paste tube in my mouth when I wanted her to lift her head so I could shave her throat, which she did without problems.

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